Intelligence is key to averting attacks

Published July 8, 2005

Thursday's bombings in London are a horrific reminder that terrorism is stateless and that obtaining good intelligence on radical Islamic groups remains a huge challenge for Western nations.

London police had long warned it was a matter of when, not if, the city would be hit by terrorists, given Britain's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and its close ties to the United States.

But learning exactly when, where and how terrorists will strike has stumped not only Britain's crack intelligence services, but those in the United States, Spain and other countries as well.

"You want to identify and stop terrorist groups before they commit atrocities, and the only way to do that is good intelligence," says Robert Ayers, a Tampa-born expert on international security at London's Chatham House.

"But it's very, very difficult to penetrate a Muslim fundamentalist cell - a blond, blue-eyed farmhand from Minnesota can't very well pass himself off as an Arab."

That a previously unknown group - the Secret Organization of al-Qaida in Europe - claimed responsibility for the attacks suggests that Islamic militancy is spreading, not constricting.

"From what we've heard so far, more and more of these cells that nobody knows about are joining the international network," says Rime Allaf, a specialist on Islam and the West at Chatham House.

Britain's susceptibility to terrorism is increased by what experts say are porous borders and lax asylum laws. At least 500,000 illegal immigrants live in the country, according to the London School of Economics, and they blend easily into a multicultural society that makes it hard to differentiate between the law-abiding majority and the tiny terrorist minority.

"No one is foolish enough to believe that radical Islamic fundamentalism isn't very dangerous, but you can't start doing profiling and arresting everyone walking down the street," Ayers said. "It's a real difficult balancing act for police."

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have touted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a way to fight terrorists on their own turf. But Thursday's attacks again show that Islamic extremists are capable of striking almost anywhere.

In 2002, it was the Bali bombing that killed about 200; in 2003, the explosions in Casablanca and Istanbul that killed a total of nearly 100; and last year, the Madrid train bombings that left 191 dead.

While nothing has rivaled the toll of the 9/11 hijackings, radical Islamic groups have proved adept at staging attacks for maximum attention.

The London bombings coincided with the G-8 summit in Scotland, where leaders of the world's eight most influential nations are gathered.

And the Madrid bombings came just days before Spain's national election, in which a major issue was the unpopular deployment of Spanish troops to Iraq. Voters ousted the pro-U.S. government, and the new prime minister immediately announced a troop withdrawal.

"I'm not surprised that al-Qaida has struck again, and that when they strike it's in a theatrical way," said Ian Lustick of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response.

"Their effort is not so much to inflict maximum damage on the West by killing millions of people with toxins, but to create a kind of political drama that rouses the Middle Eastern constituencies they are trying to get to support them. They are out to remind Middle Eastern Muslims that they are active players, that they can strike the West in a terrifying way."

While critics say the war in Iraq could foster even more global terrorism, Lustick thinks it has helped to hold down the number of terrorist strikes thus far in the West.

"The reason we haven't witnessed a lot of damaging attacks is not because we've successfully sealed our system or gotten terrorists on the run but because we've given al-Qaida so much of what they need in Iraq already - we gave them the war against the infidels over there."

One of the most surprising aspects of Thursday's bombings is that there have not been many more like them, given the vulnerability of mass transportation systems in New York, Paris, Tokyo and other major cities.

Worldwide, airport security has dramatically increased since 9/11; Britain even sent troops and armored vehicles to Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport, after a 2003 terrorist threat.

But as thousands of passengers were removing belts and shoes Thursday morning at Heathrow, millions more were getting on buses and subways with no protective measures except surveillance cameras.

"I do believe a lot of airport security has gone overboard," says Ayers of Chatham House, who recently had a corkscrew confiscated while a friend was relieved of a pair of cuticle scissors.

"We need to take a pragmatic view: Assuming society has a limited amount of money to invest in any transportation function, if you invest money in hiring people to confiscate corkscrews, it means you're probably not going to have money to train and equip people to deal with emergencies."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com