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World: Lessons Of The London Bombing Probe

The investigation of the London Underground and bus bombings on 7 July and the “unexploded bombs” incident on 21 July has been the largest in recent British history. Tens of thousands of police and intelligence agents around the world have cooperated in this titanic effort.

30 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- From the early stages of the investigation into the deadly 7 July bombings, London Metropolitan Police Chief Ian Blair focused his attention on Al-Qaeda. The “New York Times” on 12 July reported Blair as saying he “expected the investigation to uncover a clear Al -Qaeda link," while warning of the "very strong possibility" of further terrorist attacks. (See, "London Bombing Investigators Seek Network Behind Suicide Attackers").

Blair's suspicions might have been based on three facts. First, the blasts were coordinated and therefore fitted the Al-Qaeda modus operandi. Second, an unknown group, calling itself the "Secret Organization-Al-Qaeda in Europe," claimed responsibility for the attacks on a radical Islamic website. The claim, however, was never verified and the group remains an unknown entity. Finally, three of the suicide bombers had been to Pakistan and had made numerous calls there. What they did in Pakistan, however, has not been fully established.

Blair's hypothesis led British and American investigators to search for a "fifth man," an alleged "mastermind" behind the 7 July bombings who was suspected of being the link to Al-Qaeda.

By late July however, the Al-Qaeda theory became problematic, as the British press began reporting on disagreements between British and Americans investigators.

The “Sunday Times” on 31 July noted that “three weeks after the first London bombings, British and American security sources are giving markedly different versions of how much was known about the bombers before the attacks and who masterminded them.”

The British were saying that the attackers had been “invisible men” acting alone, while American investigators were reportedly adamant that there was an Al-Qaeda link. This disagreement indicated that no one really knew where the 7 July bombers learned how to make their devices or plan their actions -- on an Al-Qaeda website, during their trip to Pakistan, from by a professional bomb maker.

In August a suspect, Haroon Rashid Aswat, initially reported to have been picked up by police in Pakistan, was arrested in Zambia. Aswat was suspected of being the "fifth man," however the investigation showed that he was not to be linked to the dead bombers and the London police admitted there was no “mastermind” and no link to Al-Qaeda.

The “Independent” on 14 August reported that a “counterterrorism source” told the paper: "The key point is that the events [the bombings on 7 July and the 21 July incidents] are not connected. It appears they were self-contained, rather than being organized by some kind of mastermind. It is concerning that none were on the intelligence radar. There are quite probably others we do not know about out there."

The image of Al-Qaeda, often portrayed in the media and by counterterrorism officials as the omnipotent puppet master behind every significant act of terror, was shown to be inaccurate by the London investigation. While new facts might yet be uncovered, the apparent emergence of a cell of native-born suicide bombers, using inexpensive homemade explosives, was a development with considerable security implications for the British police.

Money Laundering Not Necessary

The London police never reported any suspicious money transfers into bank accounts controlled by any of the four suicide bombers or any of the suspects arrested in connection with the 21 July incidents. Presumably this would have been one of the first things investigators would have checked.

This shows once again that terrorists do not need elaborate money-laundering schemes to build their bombs and prepare their attacks. The Madrid train bombers were never shown to have received such funds, nor were the bombers of the British consulate in Istanbul or those who carried out other attacks.

The expensive and confusing international anti-money-laundering precautions which began after 11 September 2001 have not been sufficient to prevent any of the hundreds of terrorist attacks that have occurred since they were imposed.

Moreover, closed-circuit television cameras are very useful, if not indispensable, investigative tools for determining the identity of suicide bombers -- after the fact. But they cannot be considered preventive measures against suicide attacks.

After the London attacks, a number of commentators and politicians began speculating about who “inspired” the four young men, three of whom were born in Britain and one in Jamaica, to blow themselves up and take the lives of 56 people.

Some claim that the men had been “inspired” by Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Others placed the blame on radical clerics preaching hatred and violence in British mosques and demand that such preachers be expelled from Britain.

Rights activists, however, are concerned by such thinking, arguing that it is a slippery slope toward suppressing ideas, banning publications, and measures of that sort. They content it is impossible, anyway, to determine what and who inspired the bombers. None of them were reported to have left any letters or videotapes explaining their actions.

The “Independent” on 15 August quoted senior police sources in West Yorkshire who “suggested that gyms and boxing clubs in Leeds -- rather than mosques -- were the key to the development of the young men into bombers.”

It has been equally difficult to determine the motives of the bombers. Some British media reports speculated that the motive of the bombers was to British involvement in the war in Iraq, but no conclusive evidence of this has emerged. The British government denied such assertions vehemently, arguing that the bombers were motivated by Islamic extremism.