Behind the Bombings

Behind the Bombings

Behind the Bombings

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
July 8 2005 4:45 AM

Behind the Bombings

Everybody leads with—indeed most banner—the bombings in London, which killed 38 and seriously wounded perhaps 50. About another 600 people were treated for minor injuries such as cuts, bruises, and smoke inhalation. (With the Los Angeles Timesand New York Times leading the way,the papers clump all the casualties together, leaving readers open to the wrong impression.)

The explosions of the four bombs were spread out over about 50 minutes, with the last one hitting a double-decker bus at 9:47 a.m. Authorities first attributed reports of trouble on the Underground to a power surge. That changed within minutes as the casualties mounted. One of the bombs was strong enough to blow a hole through a wall, damaging subways on the other side. Camera and video phones caught the first images of the aftermath.

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"The terrorists are intent on destroying human lives," said Prime Minister Tony Blair. "We shall prevail, they shall not." Blair flew to London yesterday but planned to return to Scotland to continue with the G-8 business.

A never-heard-of-before jihadi group claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Web posting also warned Denmark and Italy that they're next unless they get out of Iraq. The claim is obviously uncorroborated, but as Britain's foreign secretary said, the timed strikes have the "hallmarks of an al-Qaida-related attack." As one former Spanish security official told the Washington Post, the similarities to last year's Madrid bombings "are striking." They were both tightly choreographed, hit public transportation, and were timed around a big political event (in the case of Spain, national elections).

The NYT highlights—and other LAT mentions—what might be the first tidbit from the investigation: Police purportedly said the bombs were triggered by timers not suicide attackers and not by cellphones (as the ones in Madrid were). "I do have information that timing devices appear to have been used," one U.S. intel official told the LAT. Neither paper gives a sense of the potential import of the timer angle. The London Underground, which the NYT says is the world's busiest subway system, is also chock-full of surveillance cameras, which investigators are obviously now poring over. 

The Wall Street Journal mentions that police are poking around for info about Mohamed Guerbouzi, a Moroccan militant thought to be connected to the Madrid and Casablanca bombings. The Journal then says this, "He has been living in Britain for about a decade, the police official said." The WSJ doesn't linger on that point, but a report last year by a well-regarded counterterrorism think tank said Britain's asylum laws are notoriously lax and have provided refuge to many jihadi types. A LAT piece about Muslim immigrants in London and a potential backlash also raises the issue.

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British officials had long been concerned about the possibility of a strike, hence emergency workers' well-oiled response. But there had been no warning of the attacks. Indeed, as the NYT emphasizes, early last month Britain's domestic intel service lowered its terror threat index.

Everybody notes Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff went to orange for mass transit networks. He said the U.S. has "no specific, credible information suggesting an imminent attack" but is simply "concerned about the possibility of a copycat attack." Spain, France, and Mexico, among others, also raised their alert levels. Slate's Fred Kaplan said that what the feds really should do is stop being so darn stingy  when it comes to funding security for trains and subways. (Here's a rundown of Slate's coverage of the attacks.)

As a Page One Post piece emphasizes, to wonder whether "al-Qaida" is responsible is, basically, to misunderstand the threat. "I do not really believe there is such a thing as al-Qaida, the organization; there is al-Qaida, the mindset," one analyst told the Post. One likely upshot, as a former CIA officer put it a prescient PowerPoint presentation a few months ago: "No more 9/11, but lots of 3/11, especially in Europe."

The LAT says the debate among analysts isn't whether or not al-Qaida is responsible, it's whether the attackers were home-schooled or graduates of Zarqawi's courses in Iraq.

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A WSJ science column looks at the limitations of bomb detection technology. It's not just that the technology isn't solid yet, it's that even if it were perfect it might not be that effective at lowering casualties. (TP is a bit skeptical of the column's take; but judge it yourself.)

The WP and NYT front the apparent execution of the top Egyptian diplomat in Iraq. Insurgents posted a video showing him in captivity. A voiceover said, "Oh, enemy of God, Ihab al-Sharif, this is your punishment in this life, and you will be condemned to hell in the hereafter." His murder wasn't shown, but Egypt confirmed it. The Post also notices up high that Iraq's defense minister announced that another country besides the U.S. will finally help train Iraq's army: Iran. The Financial Times has the most details on the nascent deal, which will reportedly also include $1 billion in Iranian aid.

In other Iraq news, 13 people were killed by two car bombs outside a car dealership south of Baghdad. The second one was timed to hit as rescue workers arrived. And for the third time in three weeks, insurgents blew up a main water pipeline to Baghdad, cutting off the half the city's supply. Finally, Egypt seems to have gotten the message. It appears to be withdrawing its diplomatic staff.

Londonistan ... Writing an op-ed in the NYT, jihadism expert Peter Bergen notes that a number of recent suicide bombers across the world have been British. His explanation:

Many British Muslims are young and poorly integrated into society and therefore vulnerable to extremism. The unemployment rate among British Muslims runs almost 10 percentage points above the national average of about 5 percent. In the case of 16- to 24-year-old Muslim men, the unemployment rate is 22 percent.

Not surprisingly, polls of British Muslims show a considerable sense of anger. [A] poll conducted last year, under the auspices of the Guardian newspaper, found a surprising 13 percent who said that further attacks by Al Qaeda or a similar organization on the United States would be justified. Last year a British government report estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 British Muslims are supporters of Al Qaeda or related groups. For this reason, and because of Britain's relatively permissive asylum laws, Arab militants living in London sometimes jokingly refer to their hometown as Londonistan.

[...]

Here's the problem for the United States: Under our Visa Waiver Program, residents of Londonistan who hold a valid British passport can board a plane for the United States without an interview by an American consular official. ...

As declining populations in Europe are replaced in part by rising Muslim emigration from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, economic resentment and sectarian strife seem likely to grow. Tinkering with visa regulations might help, but it is unlikely to change the reality that Islamic militant groups in Britain, as in several other major European countries, represent a growing threat to the United States that will continue for many years to come.