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Londonistan: Do not confuse "crude" with effective, or dismiss "homegrown" over imported "highly trained terrorists"

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Before one dismisses the effects of a "crude" bomb, it is instructive to look at the blast effects inside the controlled space of a subway tube. See the photo in The black widows strike again? describing the Chechen suicide bombing of a Moscow metro train in a tunnel near Paveletskaya station. The three London tube blast effects would, I think, demonstrate similar characteristics as the smaller London charges would be offset by the London tube geometry. In a private note of 6 Feb, 2004, speaking to a spate of bus bombings in Israel I noted:

A subway car is a much softer target than a bus as the blast is contained by the subway tube walls, especially if it is a single track line as are many of the older London tube lines. Pick a very busy station and get the explosives to walk in. Conventional explosives are so elegantly simple, but it is only a matter of time before we see the merger of suicide bombers and WMD. Just add something [simple] and it will be spread through the train and tunnel. First responders will not be expecting it as they attempt to clear the train. [London first responders at the King's Cross bombing had their hands full enough with toxic gases, falling asbestos, and hordes of vermin.]

Much of the early, even current, traffic on the London bombings continues to confuse a "crude" device with an extremely effective device sufficient to achieve its aims, and to denigrate domestic or "homegrown" terrorists in lieu of "highly trained terrorists" imported for the occasion. I maintain the exact opposite in that the attacks achieved their aims with great efficiency and complete surprise - the hallmarks of asymmetrical warfare - and are increasingly seen in the UK as Britain's '9-11' (It is being called "7-7"). Furthermore, I find it a much greater threat to the UK, and by extension to Europe and the US, that the attack team is a isolated sleeper cell of modest unknowns from Leeds.

Consider the following:

  • Lack of warning: While seeing a large-scale attack as inevitable, UK "police and the intelligence services, considered by their peers to be among the best in the world, were taken by surprise by the coordinated bombings… There was no warning or even a hint that an attack was imminent… Britain's Joint Terrorist Analysis Center quietly reduced the threat level of a terror attack from "severe-general," its highest level, to "substantial," the next highest level" and was not raised in the run-up to the G-8 summit in Scotland.
  • Sophistication of the devices: Much has been made of low tech timers instead of more advanced cellphone initiated devices as used in Madrid, but the depth of the London subways makes cellphone triggering highly problematic, especially when the attacker wants to insure near simultaneous detonation. If suicide bombers are shown to be present, then the detonation sequence becomes far simpler still.
  • Successful 'distance learning': If the attackers prove to be a concealed domestic sleeper cell, it indicates that al Qaeda has achieved a level of web-based distance learning and covert communication that allows it to deliver the needed inspiration and technical details at will.
  • Staging sites seamlessly turn bomb sites: Long compliant governments such as the UK, Spain, and the Netherlands are witnessing the pantheon of militants amongst them effortlessly shift from proselytizing, organizing and staging attacks abroad to carrying out attacks within the host state.
  • Attacker nationalities continue to be our friends: The overwhelming majority of suicide bombers "are citizens of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries in which the United States has stationed combat troops since 1990. Of the other suicide terrorists, most came from America's closest allies in the Muslim world - Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia and Morocco - rather than from those the State Department considers "state sponsors of terrorism."
  • Continued pressure on the US and its allies to withdraw from the Muslim world: Attacks on US allies are more efficient than attacks on the US, coercing them to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan thereby increasing the economic and military strains upon the US. To that and other aims, an anti-US and anti-Western center continues to rise among the Muslim diasporia in Europe. Pressure on Italy, Denmark, Germany and the UK will rise.

Even as UK authorities run this event to ground, they - and we - need to be alert to very different attack vectors. Although there was a 2002 precedent, as early as May 2005, airports in the UK and US were cautioned of female bombers carrying explosives in their undergarmets, with training to "make security officials feel uneasy about checking such private areas, hoping that one or more female bombers, especially young girls, will successfully be permitted to pass through the screening process... If that plan fails, however, they will detonate the bomb at the checkpoint."

A female suicide bomber, Wafa al-Biss, was discovered at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip carrying 20 lbs of high explosives sewn into undergarments. Discovery was solely due to security officers becoming "suspicious of al-Biss because her gait was strange." How often would authorities in a major UK or US city be so fortunate.

I find it interesting that so little time is devoted to defining asymmetrical success in terms of execution cost versus defender direct and indirect costs. Not only are these terrorist acts increasingly difficult to interdict, they are alluring as they are so efficient. The architect of the siege of Beslan School No. 1, Shamil Basayev, noted that there will be more Beslans as they are so cheap. The three-day siege in which Chechen separatists took more than 1,000 hostages, most of them children, and saw over 300 dead, cost less than ten thousand dollars.

Beslan: Siege of School No. 1
Wide Angle, PBS
12 July, 2005

British Police Revise Time Span of Subway Blasts
By ALAN COWELL
New York Times
July 10, 2005

In London, Islamic Radicals Found a Haven
By Steve Coll and Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
July 10, 2005

For a Decade, London Thrived as a Busy Crossroads of Terror
By ELAINE SCIOLINO and DON VAN NATTA Jr.
New York Times
July 10, 2005

Al-Qaeda at home in Europe
By Kathleen Ridolfo
Asia Times
9 July, 2005

Al Qaeda's Smart Bombs
By ROBERT A. PAPE
New York Times
July 9, 2005

Al-Qaeda at home in Europe
By Kathleen Ridolfo
Asia Times
9 July, 2005

Analysts Say London Attacks Likely Inspired By Al-Qaeda
By Robert McMahon
RFE/RL
8 July, 2005

UK knew it was coming
By B Raman
Asia Times
Jul 8, 2005

Who's Fighting The Real War Against Islam?
By Joyce Day
RFE/RL
8 July, 2005

London Officials Report Details of Attack and Recovery Snags
By ALAN COWELL
New York Times

British Officials Say They Had No Warning
By DON VAN NATTA Jr.
New York Times
July 7, 2005

Moment a suicide bombing mission failed
By Tim Butcher in Jerusalem
Telegraph (UK)
Filed: 22/06/2005

Video of female suicide bomber's isolation and removal of explosive-laden underwear

Londonistan
By Stephen Ulph
Terrorism Monitor
Volume 2, Issue 4 (February 26, 2004)

Gordon Housworth



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