Friday, July 08, 2005

Just Waiting To Happen

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Just Waiting To Happen

Peter Taylor
The Guardian
July 8, 2005

I'd just finished recording the last programme in a new al-Qaida series when the Olympic decision was announced. A colleague and I went down to Trafalgar Square, and as we elbowed our way through the crowd I remarked that it was a perfect target for a terrorist attack. I was out by a day.

When I made my last al-Qaida series over a year ago, David Veness, then head of Scotland Yard's specialist operations department, gave a prophetic warning: "London is clearly one of the most vulnerable locations. A danger remains there will be an attack. I fear it is 'when' within the United Kingdom. I think the 'if' is academic." The following week Islamist extremists claiming to be "al-Qaida in Europe" attacked rush-hour trains pulling into Madrid's Atocha station: 191 commuters were killed and hundreds more injured. As all remained quiet over the following months on the UK front, a view developed that the threat was a nightmare dreamed up by politicians - by implication, Bush and Blair - to strengthen their grip on their electorates. The alternative explanation - that the security and
intelligence services had perhaps been doing their job - was barely canvassed.

At the moment we know little or nothing about those responsible. If the bombers were Islamist extremists, Madrid is a good point of reference. The train bombers attacked just before eight in the morning. The London bombers attacked an hour later. In both cases the targets were public transport at the height of the rush hour. Both attacks were clearly carefully planned and coordinated. As yet we do not know how the London bombs were detonated. The Madrid explosives were triggered by setting the alarms on mobile phones to synchronise the attacks. Technical instructions are already out there, posted on Islamist websites on the internet. Members of the Madrid cell planned to carry out further attacks. We cannot therefore assume that the work of the London cell responsible, whatever and wherever it is, is done.

Despite a string of glaring clues, the Spanish authorities failed to detect the Madrid bombers. They were looking at the old al-Qaida and not the new. As Peter Clarke, the head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch, told me, al-Qaida has "definitely changed from the semi-centralised organisation that we learned about in and around 9/11. What we've got now is a much looser grouping of associated networks, more fluid, more flexible, more mobile; and with that obviously comes all the associated difficulties of finding, investigating, detecting and ultimately prosecuting." These groupings are not directly connected to al-Qaida but subscribe to its philosophy of global jihad, fighting a holy war against America, Israel and their allies in the west. London has long been a prime target.

Al-Qaida's new modus operandi is a combination of strategy and necessity.  After the US coalition destroyed its training bases in Afghanistan, word went out, allegedly from Bin Laden himself, that jihadi veterans should return home to their countries of origin, recruit locally and prepare to attack domestic targets. The attacks in Casablanca and Madrid were illustrations of this. What made the Madrid bombers so difficult to detect was that some members of the cell were takfiris, Islamist militants committed to jihad while continuing to live a western lifestyle, drinking, smoking and taking drugs. The leaders of the cell deliberately set out to radicalise and recruit street criminals so they could bring their expertise to the cause. Jamal Ahmidan, the Madrid takfiri who got hold of the explosives, was a drug dealer. One of the critical questions to be answered is: where did the London bombers come from? Were they British jihadis, some of whom, Peter Clarke admits, have gone to fight in Iraq?

The common denominator in London and Madrid is undoubtedly Iraq. The Madrid bombers planned to force the Spanish government to withdraw its troops from Iraq - and succeeded. London has long been in jihadi sights because of Tony Blair's unswerving support for George Bush. The former head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit, Mike Scheuer, tellingly told me that al-Qaida's policy was to launch warning attacks against countries helping America in Iraq and Afghanistan: "At one point Bin Laden and Zawahiri [his number two] named 23 countries that deserved to be punished. All 23 have been hit. It's a pretty good record of consistency."

And now London. It seemed only a matter of time. Yesterday was the day the nightmare came true.

Peter Taylor presents a Panorama special this Sunday evening. His new series, The New Al Qaeda, will be shown shortly on BBC2.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004


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