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World: Reassessing The Al-Qaeda Threat

In the wake of the 7 July bombings in London, security experts have been brainstorming about where terrorists might strike next and how their activities in Europe are being organized. Has Al-Qaeda developed a new organizational structure that combines local cells with global planning?

The 7 July London bombings, according to some British security experts, were not totally unexpected events. While it is now clear that British law enforcement agencies did not have any specific warning that an attack was imminent, London had been identified as a priority target by extremists years ago, and it was largely just a matter of time when the attack would come.

In January 2003, "Jane's Terrorism and Security Monitor" reported that reports of a possible chemical attack against the London Underground. While that attack did not materialize, it seems clear that the London subway system had long attracted the attention of would-be terrorists.

On 7 April 2004, in the wake of the Madrid train bombing, the "New York Times" reported that British authorities were paying new attention to reported threats against London. "Scotland Yard suspected that a group of young Britons of Pakistani origin had become radicalized by fiery imams in local mosques and might have reached out to international terror networks, perhaps even Al-Qaeda," the "New York Times" reported.

Around that time, British police arrested nine men of Pakistani origin in the London area and charged them with terrorism-related activities. Clearly there were indications that London was being targeted for an attack by a clandestine organization.

Reports in the press indicated that the British authorities, fearful of an apocalyptic attack, were concentrating much of their efforts on interdicting the flow of funds that could be used to finance such an attack.

"I think that Britain has expended a lot of energy in this area," Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told RFE/RL on 30 June. "They are particularly working hard on the issue of terrorism finance. And I think this has been very successful in unearthing a number of different networks that have been engaged in the more logistical area or providing the building blocks for terrorism."

As it turned out, financing was not a major factor in the 7 July bombings, as the attackers managed to carry out their mission for a minimal sum, estimated by British expert Loretta Napoleoni at $10,000-15,000.

The suspects in the 7 July attacks were three British-born young men of Pakistani origin, dubbed "cleanskins" by officials, since they had no previous police records. They are suspected of simultaneously detonating the bombs, killing themselves and 49 other passengers during the morning peak hour.

It was the first instance of a suicide bomb attack in England.

Possible Targets

Presently counterterrorism units in Europe are faced with the enormous task of trying to protect underground transportation systems and other means of public transportation (buses, trams, ferries, etc.) from similar attacks,

On 11 July, the "New York Times" reported that at a meeting in London of high-level intelligence and counterterrorism officials from two dozen European countries and the United States who were asked to help find the perpetrators of the underground blasts, one European participant was quoted as saying: "We're all under the threat of attack, and we all must work together to stop the next one.... The next attack could happen outside my window."

There are 49 European cities where underground subway systems operate, including Milan, Rome, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Prague, Budapest, Moscow, Kyiv, Vienna, and Madrid. All these cities face the same problem -- finding the optimal defense against an attack on their mass-transit systems.


Of the 49, Milan should be considered one of the most likely possible targets. Italy has a force of 3,000 men in Iraq and 900 in Afghanistan. While Prime Minister Berlusconi's government has announced that troops will leave Iraq in 2006, pressure has been mounting to withdraw them sooner.

Immediately after the London bombings, Italian police conducted a two-day round-up operation of suspected terrorists and their sympathizers and arrested 142 suspects. According to The Associated Press, about 2,000 police conducted sweeps throughout the Lombardy region, including searches of train stations, subways, commercial centers, and other possible targets.

Regional police commander General Antonio Girone told AP that Milan had been the focus of major investigations into Islamic terrorist operations and that the city “could be at a major risk of possible attacks.” He said the police measures were designed to make people “feel calmer after the London attacks.”

Most of the arrested suspects were held on charges of drug possession, petty theft, or immigration violations.

Documents obtained by RFE/RL state that in 2003 the Milan Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Tribunale di Milano were investigating alleged members of Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist cells in Milan, Cremona, and Parma. The cells are believed to have engaged in recruiting volunteers for military camps in Iraq organized by the Ansar Al-Islam group. It is believed they raised money through illegal immigration to Italy via Greece and Turkey. The Milan cell is alleged to have had contacts to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn operating in Iraq.


The head of the French internal security agency, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, reported in 2003 that France had successfully foiled "quite a few" terrorist plots: 120 suspected Islamist extremists had been arrested since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, and half of them had been convicted of membership of terrorist organizations.

In early January 2004, an alleged terrorist cell in Lyon was broken up, according to a report in the "Guardian" on 12 January 2004. Evidence confiscated in that raid indicated that an attack using deadly botulism or ricin toxins was being prepared.

A French Interior Ministry official told the "Guardian" that "it now seems a cell...was trying to manufacture chemical and biological weapons for attacks around Europe."

On the day of the London attacks, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told the "New York Times" that such cells present a threat to France and the rest of Europe. "A certain number of cells have been arrested lately that leads us to think that France like the other countries -- no more, but no less -- could be threatened," Sarkozy said.


There is a growing consensus among analysts that newly emerging extremist cells pick their own targets, regardless of the political agenda of Osama bin Laden or other jihadist leaders.

The old Al-Qaeda leadership appears to have been severely crippled since the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and by the subsequent arrests of many of its leaders. It would seem the remaining leaders are not capable of directing the actions of such cells.

Alternatively, there is a school of thought that argues many cells could be linked to the Iraqi insurgency and to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. In both cases it appears that the cells use the name "Al-Qaeda" more as an ideological reference than as an organizational indicator.

Some analysts believe the London bombs were constructed by an experienced bomb maker who came to England, possibly from Iraq, and constructed the devices, which were then detonated by members of an extremist cell. This would imply that a new centralized structure has replaced the old Al-Qaeda and is responsible for coordinating attacks and targets.

If so, it might be extremely difficult to determine where the next act of terror might take place.

A new, European-based Al-Qaeda, if it indeed exists, would create strong pressure on European security forces finally to implement their pledges of cooperation and coordination in the fight against terrorism.

See also:

Country Struggles To Confront Security Threat

Despite Post-London Solidarity, U.S. And Europeans Still Differ On Terror