29 July 2005, Volume
A WARNING IN LONDON?
By Roman Kupchinsky
Various, and sometimes contradictory, analysis has already emerged in the aftermath of the four London "incidents" on 21 July -- three apparently coordinated minor explosions at the Oval, Warren Street, and Shepherd's Bush underground stations and another on a bus in east London.
On the one hand, Scotland Yard appeared determined to downplay the incident by emphasizing the apparent failure of the explosions. "Clearly the intention must have been to kill.... There were four explosions, or attempts at explosions," Sir Ian Blair, the head of Scotland Yard, told a news conference in central London on 21 July. "I think the important thing is that the intentions of the terrorists have not been successful."
Timing And Probabilities
But some aspects of the events might suggest that the intention of the terrorists was to provoke panic and anger toward the Islamic community, not necessarily to kill.
The first is the timing of the incidents. While the 7 July attacks took place during morning rush hour, yesterday's mini-blasts occurred at approximately 12:30 p.m., not during morning peak hours.
Moreover, early eyewitness accounts generally echoed this one, reported by "The Washington Post" on 21 July: "Witnesses described sharp bangs that created acrid clouds of thick white smoke." That suggests that some type of device did in fact explode, filling the metro with smoke, and the explosion on the bus blew out or cracked the windows. Some find it hard to believe that four bombs malfunctioned at the same exact time or that the detonators were not connected to the bombs.
Simply put, the fact that the terrorists used nonlethal devices during a time of lower passenger usage could have been meant to create panic as opposed to injury. The 21 July attackers would have shown the British public and security forces that they are still able to strike when and where they wish, and that the mass-transit system in London cannot be fully protected, even when it is on the high alert status of 21 July.
The psychological impact these latest attacks might have on Londoners is difficult to predict, but it could have the effect of galvanizing opposition in Great Britain to the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts.
Moreover, it could also precipitate a strong anti-Muslim backlash in England, which could conceivably lead to racial tensions and increase Islamic militancy in the country.
If that is the intent of the organization behind the attacks in London, then the tactic could indeed be a powerful tool that might be used in other countries with large Muslim populations.
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 the threat 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.
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. (Roman Kupchinsky)
The well-established drill of reacting to a large attack by increasing what is suddenly perceived to be inadequate security now appears to be a pattern in Europe and elsewhere.
Despite alarming statistics published recently on the rising number of terrorist acts perpetrated last year, European security officials had mobilized their forces just twice in 16 months to defend the continent from possible attacks on transportation systems: once after the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, and again after the suicide bomb attacks in London on 7 July, which claimed the lives of at least 56 people.
The Terrorist Knowledge Base reported on its website (http://www.tkb.org/Home.jsp) that 271 acts of terror took place in Europe last year, excluding the European part of Russia. A total of 194 people died as a result of those attacks -- the vast majority, 191, were killed during the Madrid train bombing in March 2004. By comparison, a total of 372 terrorist incidents took place in Europe in 2003. Most of those incidents (117) occurred in France, in which one person was killed. Bombs, most of which were primitive devices, were used in the overwhelming majority of these incidents and excluding the Madrid attacks, there were no coordinated blasts or suicide bombings.
The same day of the London blasts, police patrols appeared in force on the platforms and carriages of the 49 European cities with subway systems. How long the administrations of those cities intend to keep such police patrols in a high state of readiness before so-called alert fatigue sets in is difficult to predict.
Throughout the initial stages of reporting on the London blasts, many analysts and officials compared the attack to the train bombing in Madrid 16 months previously.
Europe's Response To Madrid...
The March 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid were seen to mark a turning point for European counterterrorism preparedness. They showed the vulnerability of the European Union to such attacks, and seemed to mobilize European security forces and politicians into adopting a more coordinated and defined approach to security issues.
Earlier, after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, European counterterrorism forces mobilized their efforts, but Madrid suggested that those steps had been uncoordinated and inadequate.
Regrettably, of course, the greatest call for action comes after the fact. This has been demonstrated by 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and the London attacks of early July.
"It is quite obvious that there is pressure in Europe to see law enforcement action and results," a senior European intelligence official was quoted by "The New York Times" as saying on 6 April 2004. "The detentions in France after the Madrid bombings are an illustration of this."
Passengers boarding Eurostar trains under the English Channel between Britain and France were forced to undergo security screenings similar to those employed for air travelers. "The New York Times" reported on 17 March 2004 that officials said that "otherwise, Europeans generally step onto trains unchecked," adding that "there are just too many people to screen. The paper quoted Claudia Triebs, spokeswoman for the national rail system Deutsche Bahn, as saying that "in Germany alone, short-haul trains carry 4.2 million people a day; long-distance trains add another 350,000."
A few days after the attacks in Madrid, EU High Commissioner for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana proposed nominating a special envoy dedicated to counterterrorism issues at the EU level, a sort of terrorism czar. That envoy would coordinate measures the European Council and the European Commission were carrying out to combat terrorism, according to the euractiv.com website.
"There is an enormous amount of information, but much of it gets lost because of the failures of cooperation," Baltasar Garzon, the Spanish investigative judge in charge of the Madrid bombing investigation was quoted by the "International Herald Tribune" as saying on 23 March 2004. "We are doing maybe one-third of what we can do within the law in fighting terrorism in Europe. There is a lack of communication, a lack of coordination and a lack of any broad vision."
"The problem with intelligence in Europe is that we are far too bureaucratic and fragmented across borders," a senior German intelligence official said, according to the "International Herald Tribune." "Our security is much less integrated than our business or transportation infrastructures. We also have many different languages, while the terrorist cells all speak Arabic. The extremists also move relatively freely across borders."
The London attacks showed that even senior intelligence officials are prone to generalities. The London bombers presumably all spoke perfect English, perhaps even didn't know a word of Arabic; nor did they have to cross any borders to get from Leeds to London.
One of the most remarkable post-Madrid events took place in London as early as 8 July 2004, however. "The Guardian" reported that Islamic cleric and professor Yusuf al-Qaradawi -- who is banned from entering the United States because of his views, including his defense of "the right of Palestinians to use such tactics" as suicide bombings -- was invited to participate in a conference of "Muslims in Europe."
"The influential Egyptian-born theologian was speaking at the opening of a conferenc...at the Greater London authority's Thames-side building, where he shared a platform with the London mayor, Ken Livingstone," according to "The Guardian."
The conference was co-sponsored by the London Metropolitan Police.
...And Its Response To London
After the London blasts, European leaders issued warnings similar to those they had made after the Madrid attack.
"The terrorists have a different mentality," French President Jacques Chirac said in an interview with television channels on 14 July, Bastille Day, according to AP on 17 July. "There's not a single country in the world that's safe from terrorism, including France."
France, according to the Terrorism Knowledge Base, experienced 71 terrorist incidents in 2004.
"We have done everything we can to fight against terrorism," Chirac was quoted as saying.
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin placed France on its highest level of alert on 7 July. Italy did the same as it rounded up hundreds of suspected terrorists.
Nicolas Sarkozy, France's interior minister, declared that France would tighten border controls, according to the "Financial Times" on 14 July: "If we do not reinforce border controls when around 50 people die in London, I do not know when I would do it."
Police patrols were increased on the Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich metro lines.
Reuters reported that Dutch Minister Jan Peter Balkenende meanwhile warned of a Europe-wide terrorist threat, and his country stepped up border checks and heightened security for British buildings in the country.
The United Kingdom, which currently holds the EU Presidency, sought to hasten the implementation of measures already agreed upon, including the controversial step of retaining for at least 12 months all e-mail and phone data.
According to the "Independent" of 14 July, this would include details of the time, date, and duration of all phone and Internet messages, the calling and called numbers, and the location of mobile calls at the start and the end of a connection.
Additionally, "by December all 25 EU ministers promised to finalize rules on a European evidence warrant and on the exchange of information between law enforcement authorities," the "Independent" reported.
This issue has been debated since 11 September 2001.
The EU ministers also pledged to examine the causes of radicalization of young Muslims in their countries. The European Commission apparently had identified a "crisis of identity" among young Muslims born to immigrant parents in a report that was leaked to the Belgian newspaper "De Standaard."
The report, according to the "Independent," describes radicalization as "a modern kind of dictatorship" and "likens it to neo-Nazism or nationalism, and says the Internet, university campuses and places of worship are tools of recruitment."
Putting aside the roots of terrorism in Europe -- which arguably needs to be addressed in a serious manner -- the immediate question is that of safety.
Regrettably, of course, the greatest call for action comes after the fact. This has been demonstrated by 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and the London attacks of early July. All of those acts galvanized the counterterrorism units within the EU to shift into high gear, and they generated similar statements of intent and resolve from European political leaders.
But it is legitimate to ask how long a high state of vigilance can be maintained. U.S. law-enforcement officials have noted the danger of "alert fatigue." And long periods of silence can produce a false sense of security, leading to complacency. Too often, the cycle begins again when a new atrocity is committed. (Roman Kupchinsky)