Terror Strikes London: An Analysis

The brutality in London marks the continuation of attacks in Western Europe, which began with the Madrid bombings on March 11th, 2004.

The brutality in London marks the continuation of attacks in Western Europe, which began with the Madrid bombings on March 11th, 2004.  The circumstances surrounding the bombings in London clearly point to the work of an extremist Islamic group, likely to be a cell that is operationally independent, but an Al-Qaeda affiliate or like-minded group that shares the same jihadist ideology. 

Some may suspect the IRA.  However, traditionally the IRA would either engage in targeted assassinations, plant bombs in public places to kill civilians in limited numbers or issue warnings of a bomb¹s presence in advance to prevent deaths but to make a statement, that is, to instill fear in society and demonstrate its effectiveness and ability to strike at will. Others may point to a more radical splinter group of the IRA, such as the Real IRA, that was responsible for the massive Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland. However, considering the circumstances of the London attacks, this is highly unlikely.

The London attacks follow a standard jihadist pattern, involving meticulous planning and coordination, and simultaneous execution directed at soft targets and generating the maximum amount of death and damage.  Like the Madrid bombings, the London bombings did not involve any suicide bombers (according to the facts at present) and were coordinated to occur at the time of a major event.  In Spain, it involved national elections, while in the United Kingdom it was the G8 summit.

There is a misleading tendency to lump al-Qaeda and other like-minded jihadist groups under the same command and control structure, as if they operate under a single, centralized hierarchy. Loosely organized and affiliated, operating as self-sufficient independent cells and carrying out their own operations, these cells continue to be active throughout Western Europe and operate in over 60 countries around the world.

Like the bombings in Madrid, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia, the London attacks were directed at soft targets with a high concentration of civilians. Perhaps this indicates a consistent inability since 9/11 to strike critical infrastructure, potentially signifying limited flexibility in the operational capabilities of local affiliates. The pre-9/11 attacks against the USS Cole, the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa and the attacks of 9/11, marked a high level of operational sophistication. The current and consistent focus on soft targets is clearly a deliberate strategy of inflicting mass terror on populations with minimum means and maximum results.

Despite these bombings, British intelligence services have recorded many successes in preventing attacks in recent years, such as cracking an Islamist terrorist cell that was planning a chemical attack with ricin.  In addition, the British authorities and, above all, the British public are accustomed to living with terrorism after more than 30 years of IRA attacks. However, unlike the IRA, a secular movement pursuing a secular objective, contemporary terrorism of the al-Qaeda jihadist brand is an international ideological movement rooted in a radical interpretation of Islam, in which death is a great sacrifice and rewarded in the afterlife. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are at war with the entire Western world and those states of the Arab and Muslim states that cooperate with the West, that is, the United States and Europe.  It's simply physically impossible to protect all public places, and terrorists exploit this impossibility to create maximum fear. The main ways to combat this violence include addressing its sources and increasing coordination and cooperation between international intelligence services, which must remain engaged in the constant exchange of information and relentless penetration and elimination of terrorist cells.

July 7, 2005

Marco Vicenzino is Executive Director of the Global Strategy Project in Washington, DC, and served as the Deputy Executive Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US (IISS-US).  E-mail: [email protected]

Updated 7/7/05