By Fred Burton
The least surprising aspect of the July 7 attacks in London was that they happened at all. Assuming that the bombings on the metro were the work of al Qaeda — and it seems disingenuous to suggest otherwise — almost every aspect of the strikes (save the casualty count) not only could have been predicted but actually has been publicly discussed, including the choice of the city
and the passenger rail system
as targets. Certainly, the choice of Britain — without question the United States' closest geopolitical ally and, from al Qaeda's viewpoint, an historical enemy of Islam — raises no eyebrows. And the timing of the strikes, of course, was perfectly pitched on several levels. All of which adds up to a paradox: With so many known variables, and with the attention of the world's foremost security services brought to bear, how could the London strikes have happened at all? This question is of particular concern, given the international security sweeps that would have been conducted well in advance of the G-8 summit. Any time the president of the United States travels abroad, the Secret Service and Department of State send out alerts, beginning at least two weeks before his departure, to their counterparts in the destination country, asking about any known threats, chatter or prominent rascals throughout the country that should be dealt with. In the case of the G-8, the equivalent agencies of France, Germany, Japan and other members would have sent similar inquiries — and yet, despite this heightened awareness, the bombers still slipped below the radar. This raises several questions and possibilities about the actors. Immediate conjecture following the bombings pointed to an al Qaeda sleeper cell, which would have been planted in Britain years ago, with an extremely long activation cycle. However, it seems unlikely that a cell of foreign-born Islamist militants could have escaped the attention of British authorities so completely in the dragnet that followed 9/11. A second possibility, therefore, is intelligence failure — the operatives were known to authorities but were not taken seriously enough to warrant mention in the pre-G-8 security sweeps. Third, the bombers might have been a locally grown, autonomous cell of al Qaeda sympathizers who lacked the typical markers (such as criminal records or travel to and from Afghanistan) that normally would draw attention from police. Finally — though we must note this is pure speculation — there is the possibility that the London bombings occurred as a result of complete intelligence failure: Those responsible actually were known to authorities and spent time under surveillance, but the "eye" lost sight of them until it was too late. In recent days, as clues have accumulated, it appears to us that the strikes actually were the work of a hybrid cell — an external, highly trained al Qaeda operative working with a group of local sympathizers. There are several arguments to support this case. First, for all that al Qaeda has been evolving since 9/11, the London strikes fit a well-established pattern combining timing, tempo and sequencing. These elements form part of the "signature" that investigators look for in the initial stages after an attack, and are important considerations for a group trying to demonstrate its capabilities and relevance to a core audience in the Muslim world. As authorities immediately noted, the bombings — three nearly simultaneous explosions in subway cars and a fourth an hour later aboard a double-decker bus — clearly were timed to coincide with the G-8 meeting occurring a few hundred miles away in Scotland, and came only a day after London itself was declared a host venue for the 2012 Olympics. The media spotlight was already switched on and angled; the bombers merely exploited that to their own advantage. The tempo of the operation, coming about 16 months after the last major strike (in Madrid), also is in keeping with al Qaeda's pattern:
- Aug. 7, 1998: U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, are bombed, killing more than 250 people.
- Oct. 12, 2000: Suicide bombers in Yemen attack the Navy destroyer USS Cole, killing 17 sailors.
- Sept. 11, 2001: Four hijacked planes crash into New York City's World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. Nearly 3,000 people die.
- March 11, 2004: Multiple bombs detonate in Madrid's rail system, killing nearly 200 people and injuring about 1,800.
Though this pattern does not hold in Iraq, where an active insurgency is under way, we long have noted a span of roughly 15 to 24 months between major al Qaeda operations — though the group may sponsor or condone smaller one-off strikes during interim periods. This likely reflects, at least partly, the need for careful planning and for husbanding scarce, globally distributed resources — but it also is quite valuable as a mechanism for maximizing "alert fatigue" and complacency. Even in settings and circumstances with known and measurable threats, it is impossible to fully protect all possible targets, and no one can remain "on point" forever. Yet it is in the sequencing of the attacks — a series of simultaneous or carefully coordinated explosions — that the hand of al Qaeda can be most clearly seen, and its credibility is best demonstrated to its core audience in the Muslim world. In this case, the bombs placed aboard the London metro cars all detonated within less than a minute, at 8:50 a.m. local time, authorities have said. Tactically speaking, the bombs were very simple. The devices probably consisted of a main charge, a detonator, a timer or other switch and a battery. Given the close proximity of the three detonations, it is likely that a single cell member — probably the bomb-maker — set all the timers and then distributed the devices to the street operatives who placed them. There also are indications that 10 pounds of military-grade explosives were used in each device. The fact that a fourth bomb exploded quite some time later — aboard a bus, rather than on a train — raises several questions from a tactical, investigatory standpoint. Did the timer malfunction? Did the operative bungle his mission? Or was the bus bombing as deliberately planned and timed as its precursors on the metro — with the plotters knowing that commuters would abandon trains for some other form of public transport following the initial explosions? While this analysis was being written, British authorities announced that there were some signs the bomber aboard the bus might have died in the explosion, though this has not been confirmed. Beginning with the first World Trade Center strike in 1993, al Qaeda has shown a clear preference for bombs and public transport, and has also demonstrated quite a bit of ingenuity in incorporating both into its operations. One of the most fascinating things to note in the recent history of the group's attacks is the evolution, at the tactical level, that began to emerge in Madrid: the use of satchel bombs, rather than suicide attackers, allowing operatives to escape and perhaps fight another day. It also is noteworthy that al Qaeda has set precedents for mixing its resources within a single operation: While they have used suicide bombers in the past, as in the attack on the USS Cole, it was the local recruits who were in line to be the martyrs, not the al Qaeda journeymen — and the modus operandi in Yemen required a suicide attack. The London bombings could be yet another example of this strategy. The logic for this evolution is probably quite simple: Operational secrecy has always required that al Qaeda should be a small, resource-scarce organization. And with the intelligence agency swoop-downs and suspect roll-ups that have occurred around the world since Sept. 11, the network would be prudent to use its remaining operatives quite carefully — not requiring them to martyr themselves unless the operation itself (such as the 9/11 attacks) or the safety of other cells and future plans is at risk. From the viewpoint of security authorities, this is one of the most significant points of the investigation for the near term. Clearly, al Qaeda is using the lessons learned from Madrid and prior operations to perfect its techniques — and it must be remembered that the Madrid manhunt concluded horrifically when seven suspects blew themselves up as police were preparing to arrest them. While this analysis was being written, British security officials made several announcements about the status of their investigation. These included statements that all four bombing suspects arrived in London on the day of the attacks — three of them coming from West Yorkshire — and that several controlled explosions were conducted during police raids in Yorkshire earlier in the day — indicating that officials found some materials used in bomb-making during their sweeps. Officials also said they had recovered identification documents for all four suspects at the bombing sites, which — given the sophistication assumed on the part of the operatives — could be an indicator that they were on suicide missions. Nevertheless, elements of mystery remain, and authorities are in a race against time. If at least some of the cell members or their handlers survived the July 7 operation, they will be under extreme pressure — which grows with each new lead pursued by authorities — to either leave the country or carry out more violence, while they still retain the materiel and capability to act.