The U.K. attacks: First thoughts

Published 2 July 2007

Intelligence sources warn that the U.K. attacks signal a hot terrorist summer in Europe; terrorists appear to prefer spectacular mass-casualty attacks to economic disruption

The three terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom — two were foiled in London, and in the third, a jeep slammed in a Glasgow airport terminal — may offer an indication of a hot summer to come in Europe. About ten days ago, the United States warned the Czech government of specific intelligence regarding a large-scale al Qaeda attacks in Prague, targeting government buildings, the U.S. embassy, American firms, and Jewish and Israel locations in the Czech capital. All American missions and military facilities in Europe were placed on alert. Al Qaeda’s coded messages on internal Web forums, talking about preparations which are now in place for attacks in the United States and Europe during this summer, are appearing with greater frequency than Web traffic before the 2001 attacks in America and the 2004 Madrid rail bombings.

Jonah Czerwinski of HLSWatch offers this analysis:

* The two abandoned Mercedes cars contained canisters of gas and petrol and a large quantity of nails. The intended method of initiation of the device has not yet been determined. Drivers of an ambulance arriving on the scene early reported that one of the car was full of smoke, which means that it is possible that the device was scheduled to detonate on a timer but that it had gone off early or malfunctioned.

* The nails suggest that inflicting a large number of civilian casualties was a goal. Gas cylinders were used frequently by terrorist groups, particularly the IRA within the United Kingdom in the past and FARC in Colombia more recently, because they are simple to use and easy to obtain. The blast area, however, would be smaller than if a fertilizer bomb were to be used.

* Terrorists appear to be absorbing of past successes — and failures. Dhiron Barot was imprisoned in the United Kingdom in November 2006 for planning to detonate limousines wired with gas canisters outside the London Stock Exchange. Members of the group arrested for a fertiliser bomb plot in 2004 had discussed targeting nightclubs, and nightclubs also feature as a target on extremist Web sites.

* Especially worrisome is the admission by the police that there was no specific intelligence about an upcoming attack and that this was a reactive operation, not intelligence-led, showing that the bomber had at least managed to evade surveillance. Terrorist cells and the “human periphery” around them are typically well-penetrated by informants. In addition, advances in technology make spying on on suspetcs easier and more effective. The trouble here may have been that of prioritization: There may be so much information about suspects and suspicious activity coming in, that it may not be possible to give the same amount of attention to all possible terrorist plots or would-be plots.

* The choice of targets show that economic disruption, while a desirable by product, is less important to al Qaeda-inspired gropups than spectacular, massive-casualty attacks. The United Kingdom — and Europe — should thus prepare for attacks on large-capacity venues, in which the number of casualties would be high and media attention accordingly intense. Clubs, bars, and concerts also represent “decadent” Western institutions and attacks on them, and the patrons who visit them, are thus easier to “justify” from the perspective of the distorted religiousity many of the terrorists espuse.

* For inflicting a large number of casualties, venues such as transportation hubs and airport check-ins are also attractive, especially as they are accessible by car.