BRUSSELS – It’s blowback time. There had to be a day when Baghdad, Fallujah, Najafa and Jenin reached London, and the “collateral damage” was on “our side”. If one of the concentric circles in the al-Qaeda nebula really did perpetrate the synchronized London bombings, this spells a failure in the “war on terror”.
But maybe things are not as clear-cut as they seem.
The invisible enemy within
European intelligence services are initially considering the working hypothesis that a previously unheard-of group – The Secret Organization of al-Qaeda in Europe – was behind the bombings in retaliation for British Prime Minister Tony Blair toeing the Bush line in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The claim of responsibility was online last Thursday only for a short time, at an alleged Islamist website. Analysts at a European Union counter-terrorist cell in Brussels warn that the claim, if it is to be taken seriously, would have to be addressed via the usual channels, ie major Arab-language media (al-Hayat, al-Quds al-Arabi, al-Sharq al-Awsat) or via a communique to al-Jazeera. In Dubai, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades – which claimed the Madrid bombings – also claimed the London bombings, once again not using the usual channels and not following al-Qaeda’s trademark ideological and linguistic style.
On paper, the EU deals with terrorism via a special unit in the heart of Europol, based in The Hague and staffed with 500 officials. But this unit is still subordinate to national police systems. The pre-eminent intelligence body is the G5 – grouping France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain – which exchanges qualified intelligence not available to the remaining 20 EU members. The G5 operates a sophisticated analysis center of satellite data in Stockdorf, Germany, and has built an extensive list of European-based jihadis, including dozens who left for Iraq via Syria or Jordan, and has set up an alarm system that pinpoints the disappearance of weapons and explosives susceptible of being employed in terrorist attacks.
EU analysts agree on the attackers’ extremely sophisticated strategy – wrong-footing the British police, whose attention was concentrated on the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Scotland, simultaneously dissolving the impact of the G8 and the atmosphere of euphoria after London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games, and going for an uncomplicated bombing strategy in a city they know very well. The analysts also agree that after New York, Madrid and London, Rome and Copenhagen (as the attackers mentioned) are now under threat, not to mention Paris because of its high global visibility.
EU analysts knew an attack on Britain was inevitable, at least since they learned, in 2004, that 70 British Muslims, most of them originally from Pakistan, had joined the Iraqi resistance. Once their skills have been sharpened in the field, so-called “internationalist jihadis” inevitably come back home, to Europe, where they are much more valuable. Dozens of terrorist sleeper cells are scattered around Europe. Great Britain has long been considered a preferential target for a terrorist strike, along with the US, Israel, Italy and Denmark. The second line of targeting includes assorted “infidel” countries like Spain, France, Belgium and Germany.
Scotland Yard’s terrorist branch, as well as MI-5, MI-6 and EU experts, are concentrating on the picture of a master bomber – probably trained in, or taught by someone trained in, Afghanistan in the 1990s – operating a four to 12-person cell, using timed, synchronized explosives (the three London Underground blasts were separated by 50 seconds). They tend to believe the cell is basically British (up to 3,000 British-born or British-based operatives have passed through Afghan training camps).
But the cell could also be a mix of British and Northern African jihadis – some previously based in France, Germany or Spain. The EU is actively pursuing the so-called “Moroccan trail”. The key suspect in this is Moroccan Mohammed al-Gerbouzi, also a British citizen, wanted in connection with the Casablanca and Madrid bombings. In an unusual development, Gerbouzi showed up on al-Jazeera this past weekend, in a London setting, his face away from the lights, denying any involvement. The most worrying possibility is that the bombers – British-born and Northern African – in the “mixed cell” could have come straight from the current Harvard of jihad: Iraq. In this case, they would be part of the new, lethal international jihadi generation (See Asia Times Online, The US’s gift to al-Qaeda, May 21).
London was still smoldering as the Blair government and British think-tanks instantly blamed al-Qaeda, based on the bombers’ modus operandi. Some sectors of British right-wing media went one step further, blaming British Muslims as a whole.
Blair’s emphatic denials that he compromised London’s safety by following Bush to Afghanistan and Iraq are virtually identical to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s. In the next few days and weeks, the way the British people respond is crucial. It could be just like the US after September 11. Or it could be “Blair brought this on us” – as Blair continues to side with Bush in the “war on terror”. Opposition to the war on Iraq has always been overwhelming in London.
Many elements in the London scenario don’t add up. Questions were raised about the unheard-of group claiming responsibility for the bombings so quickly. The translation of their communique was nothing less than dodgy; and they even misquoted the Koran.
The stations where the bombs went off – Liverpool Street, Edgware Road, Kings Cross – are not exactly part of wealthy London. Al-Qaeda would have caused much more economic havoc by going for the financial center (the City of London), the commercial center (Oxford Street) and the modern Jubilee line – even though the FT 100 index lost more than US$80 billion in only one hour and a half. Bin Laden, in his late 2004 videotape, made it clear that al-Qaeda’s strategy is to bleed dry the economies of “crusader” countries.
But a much stranger development was an Associated Press report, later retracted, according to which Scotland Yard warned the Israeli Embassy in London only minutes before the explosions. Former Israeli prime minister and hardliner Benyamin Netanyahu was in town to address an economic conference in a hotel over one of the attacked underground stations. He did not leave his room. The Israeli government denied it had been forewarned. But it could not explain why Netanyahu didn’t leave his room. Then Netanyahu said Scotland Yard did indeed warn the Israeli Embassy. Scotland Yard denied it. The Israelis then said Netanyahu was warned only after the first blast. According to Russian intelligence reports, there was frantic telephone traffic between the Israeli Embassy and the US immediately before the bombings. Some EU diplomats dismiss the whole story, saying that “Scotland Yard didn’t have a clue an attack was coming”.
The ‘Londonistan’ factor
Sheikh Abu Qutada, preaching in London, used to define al-Qaeda as “the group of winners” which would follow the way envisaged by the Prophet, much like the primordial community of Islamic believers in the 7th century. In this framework, it does not matter what happens to bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri: the new Salafi-jihadi (or Islamist) generation will keep the struggle alive.
Since early 2002, al-Qaeda has not been an organization: it’s a virtual community comprising concentric circles, all of them with their own operational capability. The London bombings bear all the hallmarks of a franchised organization.
Both Scotland Yard and the MI-5 amassed plenty of information on Salafi clerics operating in “Londonistan”. The ideological media icons may have been neutralized. Sheikh Abu Qutada, the master ideologue, first arrested in 2002, remains under house arrest. The invalid, one-eyed Egyptian Abu Hamza, founder of the Supporters of Sharia group, arrested in May 2004, has not been extradited to the US as Washington wanted, and is still being prosecuted in the UK. Syrian Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammad, leader of the al-Muhajiroun, remains on the loose.
Last February, the Finsbury Park mosque in London was finally “captured” by London police. This might have meant, in their view, the end of “Londonistan”. But in fact it was a big bang that set free the Salafi-jihadi ultra-radicals. Now the British are bound to be attacked on two fronts: because of Blair being aligned with Bush, and because of the repression of Salafi jihadis in London. For Islamists in Britain, Marble Arch prison in London is nothing less than the British Guantanamo.
There’s a crucial dissidence currently playing out between well-established Salafi jihadis (like the London clerics) and the “deterritorialized”, ultra-radical, new generation jihadis. For the new generation, it’s not a question of liberating Islamic lands anymore (Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Kashmir and Chechnya). The point now is much more ambitious: armed struggle against “infidel regimes”, be they Western (US, Great Britain, Israel) or Muslim (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Shi’ite-dominated Iraq).
One just has to look at what the EU analysts call “the jihadi road map” – a July 2004, 20-odd page document – where the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades make it clear that both Great Britain and Italy would inevitably meet their own “Madrid” fate. This document repeatedly demands the liberation of Sheikh Abu Qutada. A thorough investigation may conclude that London was indeed like Madrid: the work of a totally independent cell.
A sort of online International Islamic Information Front has also been in place since mid-2004. A new institution, al-Sahab (The Cloud) publishes communiques by jihadi groups in Iraq and produces propaganda videos of al-Qaeda-related operations in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This is how al-Qaeda usually communicates (and where analysts expect to see an authentic communique claiming the London bombings). “Instructions” for operations tend to appear in discreet, fleeting but increasingly proliferating websites. This is how aspiring jihadis, for instance, can get a copy of the massive Encyclopedia of Jihad – the 650-page remix of a volume widely available in the Afghan training camps. The encyclopedia teaches how to make explosives, biological and chemical weapons, and dissects methods of recruitment and infiltration, military techniques in urban settings and manipulation of new technologies.
British writers like Ian McEwan are on the wrong track, lamenting that “we have been savagely woken from a pleasant dream”. In the eyes of the new generation of jihadis, no dream is possible: the Anglo-American coalition – as well as civilians – must live in fear, just like people live in fear in Iraq or Palestine. It’s not a question of “how much freedom will we be asked to trade for our security”. It’s the foreign policy of governments that have led to blowback – and then to these same governments restraining freedom in the name of security. Hardcore repression – which means Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, anti-terrorist legislation that infringes on civil liberties – only serves to encourage the new jihadi generation.
Only two developments might prevent another bombing in another European capital, and the spread of delocalized, apocalyptic Islamist ideology: the US leaving Iraq and a decent, internationally-accepted agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s it – or jihad, and blowback, will go on forever.