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A Change in Tactics?

Commentary, 6 September 2007
On the afternoon of 4 September 2007, police in Germany arrested three people suspected of planning major terrorist attacks on Frankfurt’s airport and the United States military base at Ramstein.

On the afternoon of 4 September 2007, police in Germany arrested three people suspected of planning major terrorist attacks on Frankfurt’s airport and the United States military base at Ramstein.

The suspects — two German citizens and a Turkish resident of Germany —  had been under surveillance for nine months. The authorities decided to act when it became clear that the men were planning to move their stores of hydrogen peroxide.

On state television, Germany’s defence minister Franz Josef Jung said, “there was an imminent security threat” and federal prosecutor Monika Harms said the three had trained at camps in Pakistan and procured some 700kg (1,500lbs) of chemicals for explosives. Ms Harms also went on to say that the men planned to use vehicles loaded with the explosives to kill or injure large numbers of people.

Peroxide-based explosives and the use of vehicles to deliver such devices to their targets are common Al-Qa’ida-affiliated terrorism tactics. They use hydrogen peroxide because it is widely available to the general public and a powerful explosive can be made from it without the need for specialist equipment. They use vehicles because this provides the means to deliver a relatively large amount of explosive to a precise location without arousing suspicion.

Likewise, public spaces such as airports are commonly targeted as they provide the means to cause both mass indiscriminate fatalities whilst simultaneously creating disruption to a nation’s infrastructure.

However, the American airbase at Ramstein may herald a significant departure in tactics. Joerg Ziercke, the head of Germany's federal crime office, said the men had a "profound hatred of US citizens", leading to the widespread supposition that such an attack could be no more than an opportunity to kill US citizens. But those arrested are simply operatives, or footsoldiers, and it is entirely possible that their masters fuelled their hatred and used it as motivation to get the men to plan attacks that have a much deeper political significance.

Ramstein is not only the largest American air base in Germany but also a transportation hub for troops deploying to Iraq.

Political terrorism generally follows a fairly standard pattern. The first stage is to grab attention: at this stage, acts such as mass murder that breach social norms and affect as many people as possible are favoured. The next stage is to disrupt and unsettle the populus. However at some point you need to send clear messages about your political aims. Targets then become much more specific and acts are designed to deliver clear and unambiguous messages.  We know that Al-Qa’ida aspire to rid the Islamic world of occupying forces, therefore transportation hubs that are seen as feeding the occupation were bound to emerge as prime targets. 

Dr Sandra Bell
Director, Homeland Security and Resilience Department
6 September 2007

The views of the author are not meant to represent the views of RUSI.

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