The London Bombings and the Broader Strategic Context

The London Bombings and the Broader Strategic Context

Theme: Prior to the London bombings British counterterrorist agencies believed that an attack on the UK was in all likelihood inevitable; they also believed the terrorists might well be home grown.

Summary: The UK was uniquely prepared for the challenge of an Islamist terrorist attack in having built an impressively integrated intelligence architecture while pursuing a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that hinges on making London and British society resilient and in minimising the risks of terrorism. Despite this preparedness the bombers went unnoticed and got through the security dragnet. The London bombings show that the asymmetric threat of terrorism is not going to go away in the near term –instead it is likely to be enduring in nature and potentially deeply divisive within our democratic societies–.

Analysis: The investigation into the London bombings is unravelling at a lightning pace. Two weeks before the terror attacks, British counterterrorism officials repeatedly told us that intelligence kept on streaming in to the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) –a self-standing and integrated intelligence coordination centre involving representatives from the 11 different agencies involved in counterterrorism–. The threat assessment was consistently grim: in all likelihood an attack was inevitable. They also underscored that they expected that the terrorists carrying out any attack would be home-grown, involving young 2nd or 3rd generation British Muslims. This home-grown factor was deeply worrying for them as they have hundreds of suspects logged in their database, derived from domestic investigations and from foreign investigations with arrests and links traced back to British nationals. Countering a backlash against British Muslim communities became crucial as expected xenophobia, racism and even retribution would only serve to widen the potential recruitment pool of young and disillusioned British extremists. That three out of four London suicide attackers came from Leeds in West Yorkshire only confirmed what everyone had been expected. It was also no great surprise that there would be a foreign connection to the home-grown bombers as the tentacles stretching from al-Qaeda’s senior leadership at large in Pakistan repeatedly had emerged in past investigations and arrests of terror sleeper cells within the UK.

Last year the British security service had detected the Pakistani jihadist tentacles on at least two occasions. In March 2004, the British authorities launched Operation Crevice and arrested eight British-born ethnic Pakistanis in a raid that revealed over half a tonne of ammonium nitrate that could be used to manufacture explosive devices. The current London bombing investigation is focusing on any links between the four bombers and the suspects arrested in Operation Crevice. In August 2004, following the arrest of Mohammad Noor Khan, a communications specialist for senior al-Qaeda members in Pakistan, the British authorities arrested several other British residents of Pakistani origin who had been monitored through their e-mail communication with Khan. This secret joint British-Pakistani security and surveillance operation emerged after senior US officials disclosed to the media that Khan had been arrested.

It is very clear that British-Pakistani security service cooperation has been successful in the past, principally through arrests in Pakistan of individuals with links to local British suspects. For example, Pakistani officials claim that their security actions prevented a major attack during the British general election in May. The security dragnet in Pakistan has also yielded the arrest of over 800 suspected al-Qaeda associates since 9/11. This success, however, masks the systemic problem of tackling the religious madrassas (Islamic seminaries) under the control of banned extremist Islamic parties within Pakistan. Officially Pakistan has 7,300 madrassas but the real number exceeds 13,000, catering for an estimated 1,7 million pupils. The Pakistani government has made only marginal inroads into regulating them, monitoring their finances and reforming their curricula. Equally, the Pakistani dimension has been underscored by the presence and arrest of senior al-Qaeda leaders, most notably Abu Zubayda, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Ramzi Binalshib and Farraj al-Libbi who all sought a clandestine haven in several of Pakistan’s sprawling mega-cities. It is, however, clear to most initiated analysts that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would never be caught in Pakistan as it would ignite massive social upheaval within Pakistani society.

It has now been established in the British investigation that three out of four London bombers spent over three months in Pakistan between November 2004 and February 2005. Investigators will be establishing their movements within Pakistan and the extent to which these suspects were present at specific madrassas and whether they were recruited and indoctrinated during their stay. It is now known that one of the four bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, was in contact with a banned Pakistani militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, an extremist jihadi group which is actively participating in the Kashmiri conflict. More importantly, Pakistani authorities will seek to establish whether there was an al-Qaeda affiliated command and control structure in place that supported the London bombers in their preparation and execution of the attacks on 7 July in London.

The Pakistani dimension to the London bombers is in many ways a different and more serious problem than the Maghrebi cells and networks activated in Madrid and other European terror cells. The Spanish and French authorities have a relatively good grip on Maghrebi-linked terrorist cells and networks operating in the European theatre. The Madrid cell had only indirect and tangential links to extra-regional al-Qaeda sources. In 2004, the French authorities arrested 101 terrorist suspects, followed by 120 arrests made in Spain. These security crackdowns will yield a new harvest of investigative avenues. However, both the French and Spanish authorities are concerned about a Pakistani terrorist dimension, a potential source of extremism that they are less capable of tracking and disrupting in comparison with the North African networks. The Pakistani connections have surfaced in Spain following the disruption of a 10-man terror cell in Barcelona last year that carried out surveillance on the 40-storey Mapfre Tower.

The foreign hidden hand behind the London bombers may temporarily deflect away from the home-grown aspect, specifically in reference to the problem of radicalisation and recruitment of a new generation of European nationals rallying behind a new revolutionary flag –al-Qaedism as a self-perpetuating salafist-jihadi ideology–. Some research has been done on the patterns and trends of jihadi recruitment within Europe but much more needs to be conducted as this issue has become a strategic priority within the EU and for its counterterrorism coordinator, Gijs de Vries. More research resources need to be invested across Europe, comparing the lessons learnt by the Spanish authorities with those of the UK and other EU partners if we are going to make any strategic inroads against this menace.

Where then does recruitment occur? Beyond a purely foreign dimension, three areas have been identified across Europe as to the conversion processes from radicalisation to active recruitment: (1) the role of radical mosque environments and private study groups; (2) prisons; and (3) the role of cyberspace in spreading the ideology of al-Qaedism and its parallel recruitment role.

The radical mosque environment came to the fore after the 9/11 attacks, especially as the British capital became commonly known as Londonistan –a geographically specific ideological magnet for extremist views to which home-grown and foreign radicals flocked–. In these radical mosque environments, talent-spotters and recruiters identified likely candidates, who they approached and invited to private study groups. In these closed-door meetings, potential recruits were educated by jihadi veterans as to the necessity of defending fellow Muslims under siege in conflict zones, from Chechnya and Kashmir to Algeria and Iraq. Graphic and gruesome videos were shown from these battlefields stirring the emotions of the recruits while the legacy and example of Abdallah Azzam became the ideological sustenance to support the jihadist cause –to become the elite of the elite spearheading the reawakening of Muslims everywhere–. These recruitment processes were sometimes combined with foreign visits to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere and even lead some to participate in jihadist struggles abroad. Most Western intelligence services are cognisant of the potential ‘blowback’ effect of the Iraqi conflict as a select number of European residents travelled there via Syria to actively participate in the conflict alongside other foreign insurgents. French intelligence sources estimate that over 80-100 nationals have disappeared into the conflict. According to British law enforcement an estimated 50 nationals have disappeared abroad in relation with terrorist missions both potentially active and in a logistical support role. A major concern is that the Iraqi returnees might provide advanced skills in explosives training, further recruitment and potentially even in terrorist missions against their own host governments. This concern is accentuated by the parallel webs of networks associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi across Europe.

A second area of recruitment of jihadists across Europe is in prisons, especially among recent converts to Islam. Many of these recruits are joining to atone for their past sins as these groups provide a sense of belonging and a sense of mission. This type of recruitment has occurred in Spain among those arrested in the aftermath of the Madrid atrocity (leading to their physical separation into different prisons) and across France, Italy and the Netherlands. It has even been detected in Sweden where a criminal 50-man Muslim network calling itself Asir is recruiting new prisoners to the cause. The crime-terror skills brought to bear by prisoner recruits are another operational advantage. A crime-terror nexus pattern is emerging across Europe where salfist-jihadi networks are working together with criminal gangs from the Balkans in procuring explosives, weapons and fraudulent identity documents.

The third recruitment mechanism is in cyberspace, in radical jihadist chat rooms and al-Qaeda affiliated websites. On the offensive level, this platform has provided recruiters with infinite avenues to reach radicalised Muslim youths, with whom they have later established personal e-mail contact with disclosure of personal details to ensure they are not a security risk and to enable background checks to be made before physical contact is established.

The expanding role of the cyber sphere also serves as a medium for propaganda and even as a recruitment tool, expanding the social interaction between the local and the global jihadist milieu. In this sphere, al-Qaeda’s forces in the Arabian peninsula have been particularly active, from establishing on-line magazines such as Sawt al-JihadMuaskar al-Battar and al-Neda, which carry directives and interpretations by al-Qaeda’s Centre for Islamic Studies and Research. In August 2004, a new publication appeared, dedicated to female jihadists, al-Khansa, raising the spectre of the potential use of female operatives beyond their already established more passive logistical role. This full-spectrum cyber-dimension allows for infinite avenues for the communication of directives internally within and between operational members and sympathisers. This cyber-sphere can of course serve as a honey pot for Western intelligence services, providing fingerprints of operatives and potential recruits. Yet it has been clear that many of the terrorist cells are well versed in counter-surveillance techniques and the MO of Western intelligence services in monitoring all forms of electronic communication. From encryption of computer files and CD-roms to untraceable SIM cards, single-use Thurayya satellite phones and mobile phones, al-Qaeda affiliates and associates have used coded “flagged” spam e-mails, common chat rooms and simple electronic dead drops to communicate between cell members and between the operational centre and the periphery. Among the creative shell game techniques used is the establishment of yahoo and hotmail accounts with pre-arranged-shared usernames and passwords. The operational cells communicate by lodging a draft message –a dead drop– on the server without having to ever send or receive electronic mail. This technique was used by the Moroccan interlocutor involved in the Madrid bombing by providing auxiliary Algerian explosives expertise as he sought to build a new infrastructure for the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group in France and Belgium from his sanctuary in Lanzarote. It is very clear that al-Qaeda has invested heavily in knowledge architecture and using the infinite constellations afforded by cyberspace or the so-called “dark underside” of globalisation. The culture of terrorism and technical knowledge has spread with the uncontrollable, ‘organically developing structures’ of modern society.

These radical jihadi websites with Sawt al-Jihad and Muaskar al-Battar at the forefront are spreading directives, interpretations and inspiration to a new generation of cadres who can adapt them to their local circumstances. As such, they provide a crystal-clear insight as to where energy will be expended by the polymorphic al-Qaeda-inspired cells and is invaluable for the intelligence analyst on the strategic level. Among the most important documents produced recently by al-Qaeda’s Centre for Islamic Studies and Research is the 113-page document entitled Management of Barbarism. In the phase aimed at establishing Islamic states, the document identifies key vulnerable priority targets: the Arabian Peninsula, Nigeria, Jordan, the Maghrebi states, Pakistan and Yemen. This document points to a division within the al-Qaeda-inspired milieu: whether to prioritise igniting terrorism against near (Arab) or distant (Western) enemies. According to those favouring the near enemy, terror attacks should be guided towards tourist targets and oil installations to stretch the adversary’s resources and as a vehicle to attract new mujahedin support. They also advocate developing a sophisticated media and propaganda strategy, specifically geared towards having military officers joining the jihadi ranks. Management of Barbarism emphasises the priority of kidnapping diplomats, an action that, like Iraq, is milked for its immense propaganda value, and the execution of those captured to create a maximum shock effect.

For those jihadi circles favouring taking the terror war to more distant enemies, cyber space offers an vehicle to issue repeated threats, principally directed against coalition states participating in Iraq and those adopting tough counterterrorism measures in the wake of 9/11. The UK was a priority target given its close association with the US-led Iraqi campaign and the war on terrorism in Afghanistan but the next front-line states are likely to be Italy and/or Denmark. The Madrid-effect, in trying to influence the public and politicians, is likely to channel salafist-jihadi cells and networks towards answering the call to strike against states that are wavering in their troop commitment in the Iraqi conflict. As such, the spectre of a repeat of Madrid and London is already knocking on Italy’s door, as Italy’s Interior Minister has admitted.

The polymorphic threat of al-Qaedaism is a strategic threat to Europe, specifically highlighting the problem of social integration and ghettoification of major European capitals. The recent murder of the controversial Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh by the Islamist fanatic Bouyeri sparked xenophobia, islamophobia and retribution against ethnic and religious minorities in the Netherlands. In many ways terrorism exposed the latent issue of the radicalisation and recruitment of extremist Muslim youths throughout Europe. Al-Qaedism as a revolutionary flag is no longer a marginal issue. According to French intelligence, there are currently 6,000 Muslim extremists classified as a potential national security threat. The figure for the UK is 3,000 suspects in the intelligence and law enforcement data bases. More worryingly perhaps is a recent poll by ICM in the UK that shows that 13.6% of Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims support al-Qaeda. This survey means that the home-grown threat takes on a new dimension in terms of the potential scale and scope of the threat of terrorism for the future. It therefore becomes imperative to invest in intervention strategies against radicalisation and recruitment of a new generation of Muslim extremist youths.

Conclusions: The process of fitting the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in the London investigation will take some time. The UK was uniquely prepared for this challenge in having built an impressively integrated intelligence architecture while pursuing a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that hinges on making London and British society resilient and in minimising the risks of terrorism. Despite this preparedness the bombers went unnoticed and got through the security dragnet. The lesson of the London bombings is that the asymmetric threat of terrorism is not going to go away in the near term –instead it is likely to be enduring in nature and potentially deeply divisive within our democratic societies–. In the front line of this battle, we must provide continued support for the work of Judge Baltasar Garzón and other European anti-terrorism magistrates and intelligence services in closing down the operational space for Islamist extremists and preventing them from operating with impunity. At the same time we must harness all quarters of civil society to minimise the dangers of polarisation and further alienation of the Muslim community in pushing certain segments towards extremism. This will require endurance and commitment in harnessing all the instruments in our counterterrorism toolbox, shaping and constantly calibrating these according to different contexts. Lastly, London should follow the example of the Madrid Summit and perhaps even unite in a joint event to show defiance and prove that Europe’s free and democratic societies will ultimately prevail in the face of adversity.

Magnus Ranstorp
Director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College