Good analytical view of terror in 2006

There have been very few outward signs of progress in the investigation into the 7 July suicide bomb attacks on London.

It is little wonder that the government does not want a public enquiry, because it will find that the bombers set about their task without any hindrance from the police or security services. They were off the radar because they did not fit the prevailing "threat profile" expected of potential terrorists.

The way that intelligence assessments are made is now being revised, though it does not bode well for the future. It suggests that the official "map" of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups in the UK contains swathes of missing or bogus information. We are in uncharted territory and that may be no accident.

The Mayor of London said during the holidays that ten mass casualty attacks on London have been prevented since 9/11 – two of those coming after the 7 July attacks. "Largely what you're talking about is fairly disorganised and small groups of disaffected people," he said.

That sounds comforting, but it seems less so when trying to put a number on those who are posing a deadly threat to national security. The Prime Minister is on record as saying they number "several hundred" extremists in the UK plotting attacks; while in Germany it's been proposed that 3,000 extremists be electronically tagged to help prevent bombings there.

One of the few signs of movement in the 7/7 July investigation has been the capture of a most-wanted al-Qaeda suspect in Pakistan days after the blasts. Abu Musab al-Suri, also known Mustafa Setmarian Nasar, has been fingered by a Spanish judge as the suspected chief planner of the Madrid train bombings. The similarity between the Madrid and London attacks has also put him in the frame for 7/7.

Unusually, al-Suri's capture was announced on several pro al-Qaeda Internet sites in early December, presumably as a warning to others. The announcement was accompanied by the publication of his will and a video in which he denied any involvement in 7/7, but called on others to mount attacks against targets in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. His wife recently confirmed that he had disappeared.

Al-Suri is a former resident of Neasden in north-west London and known as a strategic thinker. The disparate nature of the threat alluded to by Ken Livingstone sounds very much like the one envisioned by al-Suri. In an lengthy article published on jihad sites a couple of years ago, he wrote that al-Qaeda would be more effective if it changed its structure from a traditional pyramidal chain of command to a "secret gang" structure of small, largely autonomous, operational cells.

That seems to be what we are facing today. Al-Suri is also suspected of links with the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the finger of responsibility for the planning of the July attacks does point vaguely towards Iraq, via Pakistan. One indicator is in a celebration video put out by al-Qaeda supporters on the Net after the 7/7 attacks.

One section lingers on a large image of a young man smiling broadly into the camera lens. Further investigation has revealed the unknown man to be none other then Zarqawi, the murderer of British hostage Ken Bigley.

Recent information on other leaders suggests that bin Laden may be on his own and out of touch with his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. There are signs that there maybe something of a vacuum in terms of leadership – and of some success on the part of the West in disrupting communications. Zawahiri’s assumption of the figurehead role seems to be pre-arranged, but he also has troops chasing him.

It seems likely that Zawahiri is in southern Afghanistan, and bin Laden in Pakistan and being extra-cautious. Pakistan’s president has said that it had a positive location for bin Laden early in 2005, but troops arrived 30 minutes too late. Zarqawi also narrowly evaded capture early this year by jumping from a pick-up truck as it passed under a bridge; to avoid being detained at a US military checkpoint.

Certainly there seems to be a building sense of impatience among al-Qaeda supporters for new spectacular attacks outside the Middle East. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has the scent of victory, while al-Qaeda central in Afghanistan has, for the past few months, been replaying its greatest hits, in terms of propaganda. There is no reason to believe that the pressure of expectation is going to dissipate.

Zarqawi has shown signs of responding and assisting al-Qaeda central by mounting attacks outside Iraq. The suicide bomb attacks against hotels in Jordan back-up this notion. The claims of competition between the two sides looks to be shallow, as a video of the Jordan attacks being planned and executed included a section showing deference to the two main leaders, as have others. The attacks were basically dedicated to bin Laden and Zawahiri, sometimes referred to as "the struggling sheikhs".

The big question is: does Zarqawi’s reach extend to Europe? It does, as 7/7 and the breaking-up of several Iraq jihad recruitment rings on the Continent demonstrate. It is clear that plots to attack the UK are in continual development. The police and security services have certainly stepped-up their game and now it is a question of stamina.
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