British media reported July 9 that Kafeel Ahmed, one of the two men in the sport utility vehicle that rammed into a passenger terminal at Glasgow International Airport on June 30, had ties to a "senior al Qaeda" leader. Ahmed, who was severely burned in the attempted attack and remains hospitalized, is believed to have once associated with Abbas Boutrab, an Algeria-born man arrested in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2003 and sentenced to six years in prison for plotting to blow up an airliner. The men reportedly met in Belfast while Ahmed was studying engineering. British media also reported that at least one individual connected to the London and Glasgow plots traveled to Pakistan and met with al Qaeda leaders. U.S. officials have repeated the claims reported in British media that SO15, Scotland Yard's counterterrorism command, uncovered evidence that at least one of the suspects communicated with militant leaders in Iraq. Though Ahmed could have crossed paths with another amateur jihadist, it is very unlikely that he — or any other participants in the botched attacks in Glasgow and London in June — would have been able to meet with anyone who is actually part of al Qaeda's core leadership. However, linking the sloppy attempts at militant attacks in the United Kingdom to al Qaeda helps authorities remind the public of the threat of similar attacks and show that al Qaeda's operational capacity actually has declined. Several things indicate that the London and Glasgow plotters were not tied to any significant element of al Qaeda's leadership. First, for its own security, al Qaeda's core leadership remains extremely isolated, taking refuge in the remote areas of the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Al Qaeda's leaders limit their contact with the outside world to the extreme minimum. If any of the plotters did meet with al Qaeda members, these members likely were lower-level field operatives who are not in direct contact with the apex leadership. Western intelligence officials believe that after the Taliban regime's ouster in Afghanistan in 2001, al Qaeda's leadership regrouped in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Though jihadists certainly operate in the area, some intelligence officials and the media use the term "al Qaeda leader" very liberally, since locals and visitors alike in the border region tend to think every armed Pashtun is with the Taliban and every armed non-Pashtun is with al Qaeda. Another indication is the amateurish nature of the attempted attacks. Any operation sanctioned by the core — or even the second or tertiary tiers — of al Qaeda's leadership would probably display more thoughtfulness and skill than the London and Glasgow incidents showed. The attacks' complete failures, combined with the speed with which British authorities detained individuals connected to the attacks, indicate poor planning. Even the July 7, 2005, London Underground bombers — some of whom trained in jihadist camps and pulled off a very successful attack — did not meet with anyone close to al Qaeda's core leadership. Some of the plotters could have gained access to militant facilities and individuals in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Some British citizens of Pakistani origin — former members of the now-defunct London-based al-Muhajiroun organization — relocated to Pakistan around the time of the 9/11 attacks and set up a conduit to funnel British Muslim youth to training camps operated by Taliban and al Qaeda elements. These former al-Muhajiroun members went offline after the arrests of several operatives who used this conduit and the London Underground bombings spawned a worldwide counterterrorism dragnet. However, the conduit could still be operational (though limited). Even if the London and Glasgow plotters used this channel to gain access to militants and their facilities, those militants would not necessarily be al Qaeda or Taliban members, as there are plenty of local Pakistani militants in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. The al Qaeda link story will be allowed to proliferate among the media. Governments have an interest in linking even amateurish militant operations to al Qaeda because the name itself is instantly recognizable and associated with major jihadist attacks. This keeps anti-terrorism issues high on the public agenda, which can increase overall vigilance and helps various government intelligence and law enforcement agencies when budgets are being drawn up. Additionally, by allowing the botched attacks in the United Kingdom to be associated with al Qaeda, Western governments can emphasize to the Islamic world just how far al Qaeda has declined from the days when it was able to plan and execute spectacular attacks.
U.K.: Plotters' Al Qaeda Links Not Likely, but Useful