George Readings explains why the 7/7 inquest into the July 7th al-Qaeda bombings in London fails to help us understand the modern terrorist threat.
After hearing months of evidence, the 7/7 inquest has finally reached its conclusion. Coroner Lady Justice Hallett’s report finds that none of the 52 innocent lives lost on that day could have been saved by the emergency services responding more quickly. However, she makes serious criticisms of MI5. In particular, she focuses on the fact that photographs of two of the bombers were shown to MI5 informants prior to the attacks.
However, they were so badly cropped that identification was virtually impossible:
“I fully expect the Security Service to review their procedures to ensure that good quality images are shown and that whatever went wrong on this occasion does not happen again.”
Whilst this report may help those affected by the 7 July attacks to understand more fully what happened, it does little to help us understand the terrorism threat Britain currently faces.
The July 7 attacks and 9/11 were traditional al-Qaeda plots. The individuals involved prepared for years, undergoing training which would help them carry out their terrorist spectacular. This gave security services a chance to see them in suspect surroundings, track them and to try and work out what they were up to.
Both Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shahzad Tanweer, for example, are believed to have travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan on numerous occasions. Khan is thought to have undertaken military training in Afghanistan and even attended a bomb-making school in Pakistan in the years before the 7/7 attacks. Far from being inspired to extremism by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Khan first appeared on MI5’s radar as early as January 2001 at what appears to have been a jihadist trip to the Lake District.
The 9/11 hijackers were even more ‘professional’. Khalid al-Midhdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were both experienced and respected jihadists who had fought in Bosnia and Afghanistan. After undergoing training in Afghanistan, they attended an al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur in 2000 at which the USS Cole and 9/11 attacks are thought to have been planned.
Although the rest of the hijackers were not as senior within al-Qaeda as al-Midhdar and al-Hazmi, most, if not all, had attended training camps in Afghanistan and two, Satam al-Suqami and Ahmed al-Ghamdi, have been tied to a failed attempt to bomb tourist sights in 2000.
But terrorism has changed since then.
The Afghanistan war has largely disrupted al-Qaeda training camps and intelligence agencies around the world have improved their cooperation (and extended their ‘no fly’ lists). As such, the ability of senior al-Qaeda assets to move around has been severely restricted.
Moreover, fighting in Afghanistan coupled with the fact that al-Qaeda’s favoured tactic generally requires the terrorist’s death along with his victims, means that such experienced jihadists are in short supply. Whilst al-Qaeda continues to attract new recruits, these individuals lack the tradecraft and skills to carry out co-ordinated and devastating attacks like the 7/7 and 9/11 attacks.
Consider the attempted bombing on Christmas Day 2009 of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit. Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab received some very brief training in Yemen in late 2009. He was then entrusted with a high-tech and relatively new kind of bomb which could pass through airport scanners. Once on board Flight 253, however, it didn’t work properly. Abdulmutallab then proceeded to draw attention to himself by spending 20 minutes in the loo trying to make it work. He then set the bomb off anyway, causing smoke and a “popping sound”, but not the catastrophic loss of life that he had intended.
It is this which demonstrates Abdulmutallab’s lack of experience. A more experienced jihadist would have disembarked at Detroit and disposed of the failed bomb. He could then have reported back to his handlers the useful information that (a) the bomb had successfully penetrated airport security but (b) it hadn’t gone off. Instead, he got himself arrested and revealed al-Qaeda’s most modern weaponry and tactics to the CIA.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates have started to change how they fight, for example by targeting commercial, rather than passenger, flights. Whilst plans discovered in bin Laden’s Pakistan compound suggest that he was planning attacks on New York’s rail and subway infrastructure, it is unlikely that tactics similar to the 9/11 or 7/7 attacks could have been used.
The main threat to citizens of western countries is no longer from organised cells that have spent time in terrorist training camps. Instead, al-Qaeda has focused on encouraging homegrown radicalisation. The group’s Saudi/Yemeni affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), for example, publishes an English language magazine, ‘Inspire’, which not only encourages aspiring jihadists to engage in terrorist violence but gives them advice on how to do so.
Its first edition included articles such as ‘How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mum’ as well as a piece by Anwar al-Awlaki entitled ‘May our souls be sacrificed for you’, and the translated writing of Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. This magazine is distributed online, including through Facebook groups and English-language forums such as ‘Islamic Awakening’.
The goal is to provoke more along the lines of Roshanara Choudhry’s stabbing of Labour MP Stephen Timms, Faisal Shahzad’s attempted car bomb in New York’s Times Square and Colleen LaRose (aka ‘Jihad Jane‘). From having a small number of technically proficient terrorists, al-Qaeda is now trying to deploy a large number of jihadist amateurs. Most will fail, but all it takes is for one to succeed and this strategy will be considered a success.
Even more worrying is that AQAP, and Anwar al-Awlaki in particular, seems to have a strategy of reaching out to people in strategic positions in western countries to encourage them to carry out attacks. It has already paid dividends for al-Qaeda, most notably in the case of Major Major Nidal Malik Hasan. Awlaki appears to have encouraged him to go on the shooting spree at Fort Hood which killed thirteen people. Here in the UK, Awlaki tried to persuade Rajib Karim to use his position at British Airways to plant a bomb on a plane.
Therefore, whilst the 7/7 inquest will have provided those affected by the attacks with some answers, its report tells us little about how to counter the threat we currently face. Likewise, killing bin Laden may bring closure to thousands of families, but it won’t curb radicalisation of western youths via the internet.
Security services are not likely to obtain photographs of future terrorists attending jihadist weekends away or training camps in Afghanistan, nor can they rely on ‘watchlists’ to ensure that terrorists cannot board a plane. The only sign of radicalisation shown by Roshanara Choudhry before she tried to kill Stephen Timms was that she spent hours watching videos of Anwar al-Awlaki on YouTube.
In the light of this updated terrorism threat, the question is not only how the intelligence services can identify terrorists preparing an attack but how radicalisation of young people can be prevented in the first place.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.