Three suspected al-Qaida members were arrested Thursday in a Norwegian bomb plot linked to the same terrorist planners behind thwarted schemes to blow up New York’s subway and a British shopping mall.
The alleged Norwegian plot, underscoring changing al-Qaida tactics in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, was said to involve powerful peroxide bombs similar to ones aimed for detonation in New York and Manchester, England.
All three plans were organized by Saleh al-Somali, al-Qaida’s former chief of external operations, who had been in charge of plotting attacks worldwide, Norwegian and U.S. officials believe. Al-Somali was killed in a CIA drone airstrike last year, but officials say the three plots had already been set in motion by the time of his death.
Thursday’s arrests suggested how decentralized and nimble al-Qaida has become since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. The terror group has recently focused on smaller-level attacks that don’t require the intricate planning that it took to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings in New York and Washington.
Last year, when the FBI and CIA thwarted the suicide attack in the New York subway, officials called it the most dangerous plot since 9/11. And in the past two days, revelations about the related plots in England and now in Norway have illustrated the terror group’s multi-country scope.
Al-Qaida keeps its plots compartmentalized, and officials do not believe the suspects in Norway knew about the other cells involved. The Norwegian and U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.
The officials said it was unclear whether the men in Norway had perfected the bomb-making recipe, but Janne Kristiansen, head of the country’s Police Security Service, said, “According to our evaluation, the public has never been at risk.”
Al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, has called in the past for attacks on Norway. Magnus Norell, a terrorism expert at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, said Norway’s 500 troops in Afghanistan could have been a factor, as could a 2006 controversy that arose after a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that enraged Muslims.
It was unclear whether the trio had selected a specific target in Norway, but the alleged plot already had played a role in Norway’s decision to raise its terror alert level last year.
“The threat of terrorism in Norway was generally low in 2009. However, certain groups are engaged in activities that could quickly change the threat level in 2010,” Norway’s Police Security Service wrote in February. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged Thursday that statement was referring, at least in part, to the al-Qaida plot.