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London Bombings: OPSEC Errors or Intelligence Failure?

10 MINS READJul 20, 2005 | 02:34 GMT
STRATFOR has introduced a weekly article written by Fred Burton, vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security, that takes a tactical approach to analyzing terrorism and terrorist groups, the motivations and methods of various movements and the impact on security and public interests in the United States and abroad. We believe you will find this supplement to our geopolitical analysis timely and relevant to your intelligence needs. Please watch for details in the coming weeks on how you can register to receive this mailing on a regular basis. In the meantime, we look forward to hearing your feedback. By Fred Burton Nearly two weeks after the London bombings, investigators have established a critical mass of forensic and other evidence, and it is now certain that all four bombers died at the scenes of the explosions. The identities of the bombers have been established, timelines of their movements recreated, and revelations that at least one of them previously had been under MI5 surveillance for a time have emerged. It also is strongly suspected that the four-man cell was operating under the guidance — or at least was in contact with — a shadowy fifth operative or a handler of some type in Pakistan. All in all, it seems unquestionable that the July 7 bombings were well-planned, well-coordinated, trademark strikes by al Qaeda. Yet in reviewing the growing mass of evidence, there is still something that doesn't add up. It's the kind of thing that seems innocuous enough, but sticks in a detective's brain — a clue to which he returns again and again, trying to make it fit with the rest of the puzzle. And in this case, it's the image of all four bombing suspects together, captured by closed-circuit television cameras, entering a train station at Luton early on the day of the bombings. For anyone with a background in intelligence and tradecraft, it's hard to downplay the significance of that image. One of the first rules learned in Intelligence Officer Training 101 is that operatives working together on a mission should not travel together or engage in noticeable contact, for fear of providing leads to anyone who might be conducting surveillance. For al Qaeda, the risks of putting live operatives together in the same place and time — at any point, but particularly on the day of a suicide mission — would be enormous. And those risks would be amplified in a place like Britain, which is blanketed with CCTV cameras that, as we know from evidence gathered in the past, would have been systematically noted by al Qaeda operatives conducting their own pre-operational surveillance. This leaves us with two possibilities: Either al Qaeda is not as slick and as smart as the world — and particularly the intelligence agencies that have failed to prevent its strikes — would like to believe, or the 7/7 operatives were unwitting bombers who might have been duped into carrying out a suicide mission.
Let's consider the facts supporting an "unwitting bombers" theory for a moment. First, we know from materials gathered in connection with arrests made since 9/11 that al Qaeda conducts extensive and detailed pre-operational surveillance. This means that before any strike, someone is sent to check out existing security measures and other details at possible targets, and along the routes that cell members would travel on the day of the actual mission. These all must be countered or else somehow factored into the plans in order for an operation to succeed. Certainly, the 7/7 cell members — or at least their handler — would be aware of the presence of security cameras at the train stations and realize that this footage would be carefully scanned in the aftermath of the explosions. If the bombers were aware of the true nature of their mission, it would hardly be difficult to spread their movements out — arriving at the train station at staggered times and thus throwing at least some complications into the post-attack investigation. Moreover, all four men were carrying their actual identification documents at the times of the explosions, which have become part of the forensic evidence gathered. This would be extremely foolish, assuming they actually knew they were on their way to their deaths — again, since it would greatly speed certain aspects of the investigation that easily could be dragged out, helping the trail grow cold before authorities could close in on their handler or other operatives with whom they potentially had contact. Finally, it's not beyond the pale that al Qaeda would use unwitting operatives. The informant who led U.S. authorities to Ramzi Yousef, who planned the first World Trade Center bombings, was initially called into service to test out a plan involving explosives planted inside baby dolls — and realized at some point along the way that he might in fact be a suicide operative who wasn't prepared to die. Rather than carry out his mission, he reported it to authorities instead. Our longstanding assessment of al Qaeda has been that it is an extremely resource-scarce organization — for operational security reasons, if no others. The fewer people who know about or are part of a plot, the safer they and their plans are. We also believe it to be an extremely risk-averse and security-conscious organization; otherwise, it could not have achieved the success it did with 9/11, the Madrid attacks and other operations. This assessment remains firmly intact — and the implications for the future spin forward in terrifying ways if it can be assumed that the 7/7 operatives were unwitting bombers. Speaking from the standpoint of a professional who has trained operatives in the past, it makes perfect sense to me for all four bombers to be seen traveling together if they believed their purpose was to conduct a training run. For a handler, it's just easier to keep the group together in tow. Of course, we must speculate here, but suppose the handler — who might have been Mohammed Saddique Khan, the elder statesman of the four-man cell, or a shadowy fifth operative who may or may not have visited Britain prior to the attacks — had called the group together under the guise of testing them. Perhaps the goal was to plan "another Madrid," or simply — in the cell members' minds — to determine what was possible and where the risks in an operation lay. In this scenario, the training run would be most easily carried out if they departed from a central point, timed their runs and then met again afterward to report their findings. However, they would have been — without their knowledge — carrying explosive devices with pre-set timers, and only their handler would have been aware that the cell members would not live to possibly change their minds or tell tales. In that case, the presence of the cameras or other security measures could be more easily discounted, and al Qaeda's operational security (OPSEC) would remain intact. If we stand by this argument, there are several potential aftereffects that would play in al Qaeda's favor. Not the least of these is the fact that the bombers were British-born citizens who carried out an attack on their home soil. It is extremely difficult for many to accept that native-born citizens could be al Qaeda sympathizers, and this tends to amplify the terror effect of the strikes. That said, we must examine the other possibility — that the bombers knowingly undertook a suicide mission. The tale then follows a standard pattern: a four-man cell of hard-core militants, intent on death and destruction. There is plenty of evidence to support this case as well — particularly as more details emerge about the operatives' movements in the days prior to the attack. For instance, it has been confirmed that three of the bombers visited Pakistan last year — two of them, Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, arriving and departing together from Karachi — and authorities believe they might have been radicalized while attending madrassas there. Furthermore, there are now reports that the suspects themselves purchased many of the materials used in the attacks — including the large rucksacks each of the bombers carried aboard the trains — in Leeds in the days prior to the strike. Perhaps most damning is word that, with forensics well in hand at this stage, there is "no evidence" of any timing devices having been used, authorities have said. Now, that is not the same thing as saying there is direct evidence the devices were command-detonated, and this has been a matter of some conflicting reports since the bombings occurred. However, the latest revelations from British authorities strongly suggest that the bombs would have been manually — and purposely — detonated. Assuming that the London strikes were a standard suicide mission, all the aftereffects mentioned above remain; only the belief in al Qaeda's reverence for operational security is cast into doubt. And it well could be that — as painful as this is for intelligence and security agencies around the world to stomach, looking back over the history of successful attacks — the network's tradecraft really is that lousy. Consider Ahmed Ressam, whose behavior as he crossed the border from Canada was so suspicious that he attracted the attention of authorities and the Millennium Plot was unearthed. Ahmad Ajaj, traveling in the company of Yousef, was stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1992 carrying a suitcase full of manuals on bomb-making techniques. The Madrid bombers all boarded the trains they blew up from the same station. Mohammed Atta left pocket litter and documents detailing the 9/11 plot behind in a rental car. And Zacarias Moussaoui applied to a training school to learn how to fly — but not land — airplanes. The list goes on. As evidence continues to mount, the balance seems to be tilting in favor of the traditional suicide mission. The bitter pill for intelligence agents and analysts is that al Qaeda actually can be that sloppy and yet still be effective. It's almost like a contradiction in terms. There is, of course, a third and final possibility — that all of the bombers' movements were carefully planned and calculated, with all of the clues they left behind for investigators intended as a final, brazen thrust. In some respects, it would be more comforting to believe the London bombers were duped into carrying out their mission. But any way you slice it, something about the 7/7 operation is going to be very hard to swallow.

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