Monday, 20 May 2024
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By Fred Burton and Ben West

The assassination of senior Hamas militant leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh on Jan. 19 is still generating a tremendous amount of discussion and speculation some six weeks after the fact. Dubai's police force has been steadily releasing new information almost on a daily basis, which has been driving the news cycle and keeping the story in the media spotlight. The most astounding release so far has been nearly 30 minutes of surveillance camera footage that depicts portions of a period spanning the arrival of the assassination team in Dubai, surveillance of al-Mabhouh, and the killing and the exfiltration of the team some 22 hours later.

By last count, Dubai police claim to have identified some 30 people suspected of involvement in the assassination; approximately 17 have been convincingly tied to the operation through video footage either as surveillants, managers or assassins, with the rest having only tenuous connections based on information released by the Dubai police. In any case, the operation certainly was elaborate and required the resources and planning of a highly organized agency, one most likely working for a nation-state.

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By Scott Stewart

A week after he was arrested in Chicago on Oct. 3, David Coleman Headley was charged in a federal criminal complaint with conspiring to commit terrorist attacks outside the United States and providing material support to terrorist organizations. The charges alleged that Headley was involved in a plot to attack a newspaper in Denmark that had published a collection of cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed in September 2005.

Since Headley's arrest, there have been almost daily disclosures of new information regarding his activities and those of his co-conspirators. These new details have emerged during court proceedings and from leaks by U.S., Indian and Pakistani government officials. On Dec. 7, new federal charges were filed against Headley alleging that he had conducted extensive surveillance against targets in Mumbai that were attacked during the November 2008 armed assault in that city, which resulted in the deaths of some 170 people. Headley reportedly became an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) after being arrested and charged with smuggling heroin into the United States from Pakistan in 1997. Following the 9/11 attacks, he allegedly worked for the FBI as a terrorism informant. Now, following his arrest on Oct. 3, he is reportedly again cooperating with the U.S. government.

From the information that has emerged so far, it appears that Headley, who was born Daood Gilani in 1960 in Washington, D.C., to a Pakistani father and American mother, worked as a surveillance operative and operational planner for the Pakistan-based militant groups Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Harkat-ul-Jihad e-Islami (HUJI). In 2006, Headley legally changed his name from Daood Gilani to David Coleman Headley, anglicizing his first name and taking his mother's maiden surname. He apparently did this to disguise his Pakistani heritage and Muslim faith while traveling to places such as India and Denmark.

Details of this case will continue to emerge as the court proceedings against Headley and his co-conspirators progress, but the information released to date reveals a great deal about Headley and about LeT and HUJI.

What We've Learned About Headley

First, it is evident that Headley was not merely a low-level cannon fodder-type operative. Most of the men who attend jihadist training camps are taught basic infantry and guerrilla-warfare skills such as hand-to-hand combat and how to fire an AK-47 and throw a hand grenade. A handful of the best and brightest of these students are then selected to attend additional training in advanced combat skills that often include terrorist tradecraft, which is the set of skills required to conduct a terrorist attack. Terrorist tradecraft includes things like surveillance, bombmaking and covert communications and is quite distinct from basic infantry skills.

In his Dec. 7 indictment, we learned that Headley reportedly attended LeT training camps in Pakistan in February and August of 2002 and in April, August and December of 2003. This indicates that Headley progressed far beyond basic militant training, and it is likely that he was taught during his later training sessions the tradecraft required to conduct preoperational surveillance for terrorist attacks and to participate in the operational planning for such attacks.

One element of terrorist tradecraft that was evident in the indictment and the Oct. 11 criminal complaint is Headley's careful use of language and of multiple methods of communications, including the use of cell phones and using long-distance calling cards, e-mail communication (using a variety of accounts) and face-to-face briefings. For the most sensitive communications and planning activities, Headley traveled to Pakistan to meet in person with LeT and HUJI leaders, a very secure way to communicate. He also had numerous phone and e-mail conversations in which he discussed the status of his work or planned reconnaissance trips. During such conversations, Headley would use terms to disguise the true objective of his work. For example, when referring to attack plans, Headley and his alleged co-conspirators reportedly called them "investment plans" or "business plans," and when discussing the plot against Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that published the Mohammed cartoons, Headley and his co-conspirators referred to it as the "Mickey Mouse Project," the "MMP" or "the Northern Project."

Headley also used a common militant communication method of creating messages and then saving them in the drafts folder of a Web-mail service rather than sending the message. The person creating such a message can then provide a colleague with the user name and password for the Web-mail account, which enables the second person to log on and read the communication in the draft folder without an e-mail having been sent. This procedure is referred to as an "electronic dead drop."

In addition to facilitating communication, these dead drops can be used to save notes that a terrorist operative does not want to physically carry on his person for fear of being caught with them. In September, we noted that Najibullah Zazi used this method to send his bombmaking notes from a training camp in Pakistan to himself rather than risk physically carrying the notes into the United States, where they could have been found during a search of his belongings.

According to the Oct. 11 criminal complaint, before leaving Pakistan for the United States in December 2008, Headley used this process to save a list of taskings he had received for his surveillance work in Denmark. The list, which was entitled "Mickey Mouse," included the following entries (presented here as contained in the complaint, verbatim and unedited):

* Route Design (train bus air)

* Cross (cover authenticator)

* Trade? Immigration?

* Ad (Lost Luggage) (Business) (Entry)?

* King's Square (French Embassy)


* Car Trip + Train Option (Nufoozur Rehman) (Weekend?)

* Residence for clients

* Complete Area Coverage (P.S. e.t.c.)

* Countersurveillance (magic eye)

* NDC option; Lunch + coffee spots

* Security (armed?)

* Foreman residence

* Zoom; Entry and exit method in the house

* Feasible plan

* On return, procurement of machinery

* Uniform

* Mixed fruit Dish

* Cell phone and camera

* Border Crossing

* City Guide Map

* Alternate Investment

* Got Papers? (Clients)

* Make Visiting Cards

We've included all the items listed in the complaint to demonstrate the depth of the surveillance work he was tasked with by his contacts in Pakistan. These responsibilities included determining the best way to get the attack team ("clients") into the country, finding them a place to stay, procuring weapons ("machinery") and conducting thorough surveillance of the newspaper and its surroundings. This would have included security in the area, countersurveillance activity and closed-circuit television cameras in place. Headley may also have been tasked with locating the residence of the newspaper's editor.

According to the Oct. 11 federal complaint, Headley traveled from Chicago to Copenhagen in January 2009 to conduct surveillance of the Jyllands-Posten offices in Copenhagen and Aarhus, Denmark, and to photograph and videotape the surrounding areas. He then traveled to Pakistan, where he met with his co-conspirators to brief them on his surveillance operations and to construct a plan for the attack. Following his return to Chicago, Headley traveled back to Copenhagen in August 2009 to conduct additional surveillance (presumably to address issues that arose during the operational planning session in Pakistan). During this second trip, Headley made some 13 additional videos and took many photos of the potential targets and the areas around them.

In the Dec. 7 indictment, the U.S. government alleges that in order to conduct surveillance for the Mumbai attacks, Headley made five extended trips to Mumbai: one in September 2006, two in February and September of 2007 and two in April and July of 2008. During each of these trips Headley reportedly took pictures and made videos of various targets, including those attacked in November 2008. He also reportedly traveled to Pakistan after each of these trips to brief his co-conspirators there and to provide them with his maps, sketches, photos and videos. In March 2008, Headley and his co-conspirators reportedly discussed potential landing sites for a team of attackers who would arrive by sea in Mumbai, and he was instructed to take boat trips in and around the Mumbai harbor and make videotapes of the area, which he allegedly did during his visit to India in April 2008.

During much of his surveillance activity, Headley identified himself as an employee of the immigration services company First World, but there is no evidence that Headley ever worked for that company. There is also no information in the documents released so far that would explain how Headley paid for his extensive international travel, much less earned money to cover his day-to-day expenses.

Finally, there is the issue of Headley's alleged work as a DEA and FBI informant (which could help explain at least some of the financial mysteries discussed above). Given the demonstrated and considerable nexus between heroin trafficking and terrorism funding for the jihadist groups operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, such a crossover of an informant from narcotics to terrorism is no surprise especially following the incredible push by the U.S. government to recruit human intelligence sources with links to the jihadist world following the 9/11 attacks.

If Headley were reporting to the FBI, it could also explain the very specific warnings that the U.S. government gave to the government of India about plans to attack hotels in Mumbai in September 2008. Following the warning, the government of India initially increased security measures at these sites, but the measures were dropped before the attacks were launched in November 2008.

At present, it is very difficult to ascertain if Headley was a double agent who was really reporting to LeT and HUJI the entire time he was ostensibly working for the U.S. government or if he was merely a rogue informant who was playing both ends against the middle for his own personal benefit. Such rogue sources have been seen in jihadist cases before. If Headley was either a double agent or a rogue source, there may be some significant blowback for the U.S. government as further revelations are made about the case.

What We've Learned About LeT and HUJI

First of all, this case demonstrates that LeT and HUJI have each developed a sophisticated central-planning apparatus. This is something they needed to do as they drifted out from under the wings of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, though undoubtedly they learned a lot about planning from their long association with the ISI. Second, the Headley case shows that as of October 2009 (almost a year after the Mumbai attacks), LeT and HUJI still enjoyed a great deal of operational freedom in Pakistan. They were able to travel, raise funds, communicate, train and plan operations with seemingly little interference. This is a stark contrast to al Qaeda, which is hunted, on the run and experiencing a great deal of difficulty moving operatives, communicating, raising funds and conducting operations. The links between Headley and his associates to current and former Pakistani military officers and government officials are likely what is affording LeT and HUJI their operational freedom.

As far as targeting, we have seen LeT and HUJI shift away from strictly Indian targets and toward more of a transnational al Qaeda-like target set. Not only did they attack Western interests and a Jewish target in Mumbai, but they were also planning to conduct an attack against a newspaper in Denmark that had absolutely no relation to the cause of Kashmiri independence from India. That said, despite having a highly trained surveillance operative and operational planner living inside the United States, these groups did not appear to task him to use his terrorist tradecraft to conduct target surveillance or plan and conduct attacks inside the United States.

According to court documents, HUJI leader Ilyas Kashmiri appears to have been the force driving the Denmark attack plans, and Headley seems to have been frustrated when his LeT contacts did not want to proceed with the Denmark attack after Kashmiri was reportedly killed in an American unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strike in Pakistan. LeT wanted Headley to help them plan another attack in India instead. The report of Kashmiri's death was ultimately proved false, but the UAV attack apparently caused Kashmiri to go to ground and for Headley and his LeT contacts to lose communication with Kashmiri for a period of time. It is known that Kashmiri is closely affiliated with al Qaeda, and the plans for the Denmark attack are an indication that HUJI has become more closely aligned with the transnational jihadist targeting philosophy as a result of Kashmiri's contacts with bin Laden and company. It appears that LeT, on the other hand, has retained more of a focus on India. So, while the two organizations continue to cooperate, they do have some differences in targeting philosophy, and it would seem that HUJI is creeping further into the al Qaeda orbit than LeT.

The information released to date in this case also underscores the importance of interpersonal relationships in the jihadist milieu and how these relationships, which are based on family, friendship and trust, often lead to an overlap in which people interact with different groups, and groups such as LeT and HUJI share resources and work together. The jihadist world can be a very murky place and operatives can work with different "companies," to use Headley's term.

Protective Intelligence Implications

This case also has some significant protective intelligence implications, and it underscores much of what we have been saying about surveillance and countersurveillance for several years now.

While Headley is a U.S. citizen and changed his name in order to camouflage his heritage and religious affiliation, he conducted an inordinate amount of surveillance activity by himself. Conducting a surveillance operation with only one person is among the most difficult and risky activities that any surveillance operative can be tasked to perform. Any time a person conducts surveillance he or she is vulnerable to detection. That vulnerability is mitigated somewhat if the surveillance is conducted by a team of individuals and the team members can take turns exposing themselves to potential countersurveillance. Doing a solo surveillance operation means that the surveillance operative is forced to show his face time and again to anyone watching.

Furthermore, activities such as taking photographs and making video recordings are far riskier than simply observing a target. Having one single surveillance operative visit two offices of the same newspaper and then take dozens of photos and make 13 video recordings of the offices in a one-week span, no less is terrible surveillance tradecraft. Had someone been conducting countersurveillance on one of the targets Headley was studying or, better yet, countersurveillance of more than one of these potential targets the countersurveillance assets almost certainly would have noticed his abnormal behavior. American tourists may frequently take photos and shoot videos while visiting foreign capitals, but they do not take the time to capture extensive still and video images of newspaper offices.

Even people who have conducted thousands upon thousands of hours of surveillance would have a hard time creating cover for action and status that would justify that much surveillance activity especially when the surveillant is a foreigner and working alone. The only rational explanation for why Headley was not noticed while conducting his surveillance is that nobody was looking.

The use of an American citizen to conduct surveillance once again illustrates the importance of focusing on the "how" of terrorist attacks and not just the "who." And when considering the actor, the focus must be placed on his or her behavior, not just nationality or religious creed.

(c) Stratfor Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved


By George Friedman

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has decided that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be tried in federal court in New York. Holder's decision was driven by the need for the U.S. government to decide how to dispose of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. Naval base outside the boundaries of the United States selected as the camp in which to hold suspected al Qaeda members.

We very carefully use the word "camp" rather than prison or prisoner of war camp. This is because of an ongoing and profound ambiguity not only in U.S. government perceptions of how to define those held there, but also due to uncertainties in international law, particularly with regard to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Were the U.S. facility at Guantanamo a prison, then its residents would be criminals. If it were a POW camp, then they would be enemy soldiers being held under the rules of war. It has never really been decided which these men are, and therefore their legal standing has remained unclear.

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By Ben West and Fred Burton

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Nov. 13 that the U.S. Justice Department had decided to try five suspected terrorists currently being held at Guantanamo Bay in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, located in lower Manhattan. The five suspects Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarek bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ali Abdul-Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi are all accused of being involved in the 9/11 plot, with Mohammed describing himself as the mastermind in a 2003 confession.

The announcement follows from U.S. President Barack Obama's first executive order, which he signed on Jan. 22, to close the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and another executive order to suspend the military tribunals set up under the Bush administration to try suspected terrorists. Holder's decision has generated much debate and highlighted the legal murkiness concerning the status of Guantanamo detainees and how best to bring them to justice.

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By Scott Stewart and Fred Burton

When a lone gunman, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, opened fire on a group of soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, the victims were in the Soldier Readiness Processing Center, a facility on the base where troops are prepared for deployment and where they take care of certain processing tasks such as completing insurance paperwork and receiving medical examinations and vaccinations.

Even though the targets of Hasan's attack were soldiers, they represented a very soft target in this environment. Most soldiers on bases inside the United States are normally not armed and are only provided weapons for training. The only personnel who regularly carry weapons are the military police and the base civilian police officers. In addition to being unarmed, the soldiers at the center were closely packed together in the facility as they waited to proceed from station to station. The unarmed, densely packed mass of people allowed Hasan to kill 13 (12 soldiers and one civilian employee of the center) and wound 42 others when he opened fire.

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By Scott Stewart and Fred Burton

In the 11th edition of the online magazine Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battle), which was released to jihadist Web sites last week, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Nasir al-Wahayshi wrote an article that called for jihadists to conduct simple attacks against a variety of targets. The targets included "any tyrant, intelligence den, prince" or "minister" (referring to the governments in the Muslim world like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen), and "any crusaders whenever you find one of them, like at the airports of the crusader Western countries that participate in the wars against Islam, or their living compounds, trains etc.," (an obvious reference to the United States and Europe and Westerners living in Muslim countries).

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By Scott Stewart

On Sept. 13, As-Sahab media released an audio statement purportedly made by Osama bin Laden that was intended to address the American people on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In the message, the voice alleged to be that of bin Laden said the reason for the 9/11 attacks was U.S. support for Israel. He also said that if the American people wanted to free themselves from "fear and intellectual terrorism," the United States must cut its support for Israel. If the United States continues to support Israel, the voice warned, al Qaeda would continue its war against the United States "on all possible fronts" a not so subtle threat of additional terrorist attacks.

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By Scott Stewart

On the evening of Aug. 28, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister and the man in charge of the kingdom's counterterrorism efforts was receiving members of the public in connection with the celebration of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. As part of the Ramadan celebration, it is customary for members of the Saudi royal family to hold public gatherings where citizens can seek to settle disputes or offer Ramadan greetings.

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By Scott Stewart and Fred Burton

Seven men accused by U.S. authorities of belonging to a militant cell appeared in U.S. District Court in Raleigh, N.C., for a detention hearing Aug. 4. The hearing turned out to be very lengthy and had to be continued Aug. 5, when the judge ordered the men to remain in government custody until their trial. The seven men, along with an eighth who is not currently in U.S. custody, have been charged with, among other things, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and conspiracy to murder, kidnap, maim and injure persons in a foreign country.

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By Scott Stewart and Fred Burton

On the morning of July 17, a guest at the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta came down to the lobby and began walking toward the lounge with his roll-aboard suitcase in tow and a backpack slung across his chest. Sensing something odd about the fellow, alert security officers approached him and asked him if he required assistance. The guest responded that he needed to deliver the backpack to his boss and proceeded to the lounge, accompanied by one of the security guards. Shortly after entering the lounge, the guest activated the improvised explosive device (IED) contained in the backpack, killing himself and five others. Minutes later, an accomplice detonated a second IED in a restaurant at the adjacent Ritz-Carlton hotel, killing himself and two other victims, bringing the death toll from the operation to nine including six foreigners.

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By Fred Burton and Ben West

Greek anti-terrorism police officer Nektarios Savas was shot and killed June 17 while guarding a state witness in an Athens neighborhood. Savas was parked in an unmarked vehicle outside the residence of Sofia Kyriakidou, the wife and key witness in the trial of Angeletos Kanas, a convicted member of a defunct Greek militant group. At 6:20 a.m., shortly after sunrise in Athens, Savas had just gotten coffee and was settling in for his shift when two gunmen approached his vehicle and fired 24 rounds into it, hitting him 18 times and wounding him fatally. The assassins then sped away on motorcycles driven by two other accomplices. Savas was never able to draw his weapon.

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By Scott Stewart and Fred Burton

Late in the evening of June 17, 2009, militants affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) detonated two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against a convoy near Bordj Bou Arreridj, Algeria, which is located in a mountainous area east of Algiers that has traditionally been an Islamist militant stronghold. The convoy consisted of Algerian paramilitary police vehicles escorting a group of Chinese workers to a site where they were building a new highway to connect Bordj Bou Arreridj with Algiers. After disabling the convoy using IEDs, the militants then raked the trapped vehicles with small-arms fire. When the ambush was over, 18 policemen and one Chinese worker had been killed. Another six gendarmes and two Chinese workers were wounded in the attack.

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By Kamran Bokhari

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia historically has played a major role in the development of jihadism. Key pillars of the Saudi state - oil, Wahhabism (a conservative form of Sunni Islam) and the strength of tribal norms - were instrumental in facilitating the rise of Islamist extremism and terrorism around the world prior to 9/11. These same pillars allowed Riyadh to contain al Qaeda within Saudi Arabia in the wake of the insurgency that kicked off in the kingdom in 2003-2004. After this success on the home front, Riyadh is still using these pillars to play an international role in counterjihadist efforts - a role welcomed by the United States.

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By Scott Stewart and Fred Burton

In recent months, several high-profile incidents in the USA have raised awareness of the threat posed by individuals and small groups operating under the principles of leaderless resistance. These incidents have included lone wolf attacks against a doctor who performed abortions in Kansas, an armed forces recruitment centre in Arkansas and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Additionally, a grassroots jihadist cell was arrested for attempting to bomb Jewish targets in the Bronx and planning to shoot down a military aircraft at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, N.Y.

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By Leila Ouardani

In 2001 a journalist covering the Afghanistan war discovered a copy of an Everyman edition of Carl Von Clausewitz's On War inside an al-Qaeda safe-house. In more ways than one this incident stands as a stark reminder of the complexity underlying the question of Clausewitz's contemporary relevance and provides a convenient conduit for further analysis. Following the end of the Cold War in 1990 and since the 11 September, 2001 attacks on the United States, Clausewitz's relevancy has been challenged by several prominent scholars, most notably John Keegan, Martin Van Creveld and Mary Kaldor. Unlike the condemnation inflicted earlier in the twentieth century, for instance by Basil Liddell Hart most famously through his description of Clausewitz as the 'Mahdi of the mass' at the core of these more recent criticisms is the belief that the essential character of war, as described by Clausewitz, is no longer valid.

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by Leila Ouardani

At a time when many scholars, government analysts and politicians proclaim the emergence of a 'new terrorism', an examination into those aspects of terrorism that have endured is necessary. Academic contributors have, in recent years, focused their work upon identifying the 'novel' and the 'contemporary' elements of terrorism and, in most cases, dedicated no more than a few lines to analysis of its enduring features. To some extent this is understandable given the absence of any universally agreed definition as to what constitutes terrorism. It goes almost without saying that every terrorist group is

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake told parliament May 5 that he believes Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is among the large group of Tiger militants trapped in a 4-square kilometer coastline area near Mullaitivu. The area around Mullaitivu has been the final focal point of a recent larger government military offensive aimed at restoring government control of northeast Sri Lanka and  crushing the South Asian country's separatist rebels, who have controlled large parts of the region for the past several years.

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Increasingly from the mid-twentieth century disturbing images of terror have the ability to trigger a visceral response irrespective of physical proximity to the event. Advances in technology, the popularity of the Internet, and proliferation of twenty-four hour news coverage have only exacerbated the scale of the psychological impact. The harrowing images of people jumping from the burning towers in New York on September 11, 2001 circulated the world and have even been reported to have caused in some cases psychological trauma brought upon indirect viewing. Today Al Qaeda is considered to exploit Westerners desire to live in an unattainable state of 'absolute security'. Indeed it is from recognition of this apparent modern psychological phenomenon that the large majority of citizens across the world appear to be ambivalent in sacrificing

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At a time when many scholars, government analysts and politicians proclaim the emergence of a 'new terrorism', an examination into those aspects of terrorism that have endured is necessary. Indeed academic contributors have, in recent years, focused their work upon identifying the 'novel' and the 'contemporary' elements of terrorism and, in most cases, dedicated no more than a few lines to analysis of its enduring features. To some extent this is understandable given the absence of any universally agreed definition as to what constitutes terrorism. Definitional uncertainty can render any attempt to analyse terrorism historically somewhat challenging: to identify enduring features, is to say what terrorism is, and it is not incidental that many of the aspects identified within this essay duplicate those found in definitional attempts. Since definitional

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

On April 8, British authorities mounted a series of raids in Merseyside, Manchester and Lancashire that resulted in the arrest of 12 men suspected of being involved in a plot to conduct attacks over the Easter holiday weekend. In a press conference the following day, Prime Minister Gordon Brown noted that the men arrested were allegedly involved in "a very big terrorist plot." British authorities have alleged that those arrested sought to conduct suicide bombing attacks against a list of soft targets that included shopping centers, a train station and a nightclub.

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