Does shooting at Frankfurt Airport follow pattern of simpler attacks?

For months now, radical leaders have been urging followers to opt for simple shootings over complex attacks. The shooting Wednesday took place outside a busy terminal at Frankfurt Airport.

Michael Probst/AP
German police and US soldiers talk after a gunman fired shots at US soldiers on a bus outside Frankfurt airport, Germany, on March 2.

Just what might have led a suspected Kosovar gunman to open fire on a US military bus, killing two US airmen and injuring another two at the airport in Frankfurt, is now the subject of intense speculation – and worry that terrorist calls to attack so-called soft targets are increasingly bearing fruit.

For months now, radical leaders have been urging followers to carry out “less fancy” attacks, say intelligence analysts, rather than risk botching assaults that may appeal in complexity to young would-be terrorists but are difficult to carry out.

President Obama responded forcefully after the shooting Wednesday. “We will spare no effort in learning how this outrageous act took place,” he said in a rare impromptu visit to the White House pressroom.

Added Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell, "We will do all we can to help investigators bring to justice those responsible for this cowardly attack."

US and German officials released few details in the hours after the shooting, other than confirming that the suspected gunman is a Kosovar in his early 20s living in Frankfurt, with a German passport. German police identified him as Arif Uka.

The attack occurred outside a busy terminal at Frankfurt Airport, which has recently stepped up security following warnings that Germany was being targeted by violent Islamic radicals.

The fact that the US troops had just arrived from England and were transiting through the airport on their way to a deployment decreases the likelihood that the attack was the result of a dispute over, say, a woman or a drug debt, says Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence at Stratfor Global Intelligence, which is based in Austin, Texas.

What’s more, the shooter reportedly yelled "Allah Akbar" ("God is greatest") before opening fire.

Given these details, authorities are likely to begin exploring possible terrorist motivations. Terrorists, including those who helped plan the 9/11 attacks, have a history of being radicalized in German mosques.

Then there are the recent calls for would-be terrorists to carry out uncomplicated shootings rather than complex attacks. These entreaties were first made by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, “urging Muslims to do simple attacks where you can do them,” Mr. Stewart says.

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan has been widely lauded in such circles for his alleged role in killing 13 people in a 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. “We saw Al Qaeda last spring come out and jump on the bandwagon of the simple-attacks thing, with a spokesman for Al Qaeda in Pakistan saying, ‘We have to emulate Major Hasan,’ ” Stewart says.

This shift in terrorist strategy comes after several botched attacks, including one in Fort Dix, N.J., in 2007, which involved several ethnic Albanians. “These guys were Kramers,” says Stewart, referring to the often-inept Seinfeld character, “and screwed up the planning.” He adds, “They were looking at obtaining fully automatic weapons when they could have done a lot of damage with semiautomatics.” US authorities handily broke up their cell.

That was an unusual case because Albanian Muslims on the whole tend to be rather moderate, says Janusz Bugajski, who specializes in southeastern European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Just about every Albanian party and authority I know” condemned the Fort Dix cell, he points out.

It is not clear whether the gunman in the Frankfurt case is ethnic Albanian.

The attack on the US military bus Wednesday would be in keeping with the urgings of terrorist leaders to keep it simple. And it has some parallels to the attack in the baggage-claim area of a Moscow airport, Russia’s largest, in January. “You see them attacking an airport-type target without having to breach security,” says Stewart.

Such threats are particularly difficult to guard against when they involve a lone gunman, since he or she is not part of a larger organization that might be more likely to attract the attention of authorities.

However, it may be possible to step up surveillance in airports, given that would-be terrorists usually scope out targets. “That’s when they’re vulnerable and when you have to look for them,” Stewart says.

In the weeks ahead, the new Kosovar government is likely to work on the Frankfurt case in close cooperation with American intelligence officials, which will be a positive development, says Dr. Bugajski. “It will be a better opportunity for us to make sure we get better intelligence from the field,” he adds, “and if there’s anybody else behind this, to make sure they’re rooted out.”

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