Assessing London and Sharm al-Sheikh: The Role of Internet Intelligence and Urban Warfare Training

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 15

Western experts are continuing to debate whether the 7 and 21 July 2005 attacks in London and the 23 July 2005 attack in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, were directed and controlled by al-Qaeda’s leaders, undertaken by so-called al-Qaeda “franchise” groups, or staged by al-Qaeda-inspired free-lancers. While this debate proceeds, it seems useful to step back and consider the possibility that, whoever exercised command-and-control over the attacks, al-Qaeda’s assiduous effort to cultivate and train professional insurgents and urban warfare specialists via the Internet is bearing fruit.

Bin Laden has always considered al-Qaeda’s main role in the war against America and its allies to be incitement and paramilitary training. Toward those ends, he established religious and insurgent training camps in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, and Yemen. Always aware of and eager to exploit the latest in modern communications technology, however, bin Laden did not put all his marbles in training camps. By the late 1990’s, al-Qaeda’s use of the Internet was well underway in regard to theological and paramilitary training. This trend accelerated rapidly after 9/11 when U.S. airpower made the use of physical training camps problematic.

Al-Qaeda’s Internet programs cover a wide array of topics and this article will focus only on the training that has been made available for urban insurgents over the past few years; training, that is, which is pertinent to the recent operations in the cities of London and Sharm al-Sheikh. In particular, the writings of al-Qaeda military chief Sayf al-Adl and Abd-al-Aziz al-Muqrin, al-Qaeda’s commander in Saudi Arabia until his summer 2004 death in a firefight with Saudi police, are pertinent to all three attacks.

Al-Adl is a former Egyptian military officer — probably of its Special Forces — and became al-Qaeda’s military commander after Mohammad Atef’s death in November 2001. Al-Adl played a prominent role in commanding and then dispersing al-Qaeda’s fighters after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. He has since written extensively on the lessons al-Qaeda learned from fighting U.S. ground forces, and has been a prolific producer of paramilitary and intelligence instructional essays for the group’s Internet journals. Less is known about al-Muqrin. He commanded al-Qaeda’s forces in Saudi Arabia, and was killed in the operation in which the American engineer Nicholas Johnson was beheaded. While in command, he produced a stream of Internet articles on the need for jihad to defend the Muslim world, as well as instructional essays on urban warfare.

The most important fact of the three July 2005 attacks is that each was an absolute defeat for the security services involved. Both London attacks completely surprised London’s Metropolitan Police and the British Security Service — both among the best in the Western world — and the Sharm al-Sheikh operation stunned the pervasive and interwoven security services of the Egyptian police state. In all three cases the attackers selected and surveilled the target, planned and prepared the attack, and struck at the time and place of their choosing without detection. The botched 21 July London attack should not obscure the fact that British authorities were blindsided for the second time in two weeks.

The training that made these attacks possible was available electronically. In a series of articles in al-Qaeda’s Internet journal Mu’asker al-Battar, Sayf al-Adl and Abu-Hajar Abd-al-Aziz Muqrin offered instruction on how to plan and conduct an urban attack. “Planning,” al-Adl wrote in September 2004, “is the scientific pre-examination of targets to identify the right target and the best means to achieve success. This is done by means of organizing a group of coherent, comprehensive, and well-aimed measures intended for misleading and taking the enemy by surprise and minimizing losses as much as possible if the act is discovered.” To be effective, al-Adl explained, an attack plan must be “creative, flexible, and confidential” and have the following additional features:

1. A plan should be reasonable. In other words, alternatives should be well-examined and weighed carefully to choose the best of them.

2. There should be a major — specific — target and other secondary targets for the operation.

3. The plan should be realistic.

4. It should be coherent, tight and accurate. There should be no gaps in it. Rather, each part of the plan should complement the other part. It should appear to the enemy as a connected sequence of events.

5. It should be simple. In other words every member [of the attack team] can easily understand it [the plan] to implement it without difficulty. [1]

In the articles, al-Adl also stressed the need for rigor in the planning process by “presuming that the target is in the farthest place possible – the most difficult place,” proceeding as if “the enemy is very smart and free to move,” and preparing the operation “from the end to the beginning and not vice versa.” [2] Al-Adl also emphasized the need for “vigilance” and security within the attack team. All members, he wrote, must be alert, steadily calm — “no excessive zeal”, and schooled to work on a strict need-to-know basis, especially regarding the actual attackers and the timing of the operation. [3] Team members should also carefully vary their activities — “do not be a hostage of habit” — and ensure that the vehicles and motorcycles used in pre-attack surveillance activities are locally owned and insured, “have proper licensing,” and that drivers and passengers “adhere strictly to traffic laws to avoid being stopped [by police].” [4]

Abu-Hajar Abd-al-Aziz al-Muqrin supported al-Adl on the need for urban operations, adding that “[t]he dangers surrounding a mujahid in the city far exceed the dangers surrounding him in mountains or jungles.” [5] Urban attacks are vital, al-Muqruin argued, “because most targets, regime officials, the economy, and wealth are concentrated there. In most cases cities reflect the state’s prestige.” As a practical matter, al-Muqrin explained, “City action needs small and separate groups, with no more than four individuals in each group.” These men must be urbanites because “city residents are familiar with the nature and roads in the city … [and will] be able to move around easily and smoothly to escape the eyes of the spies who are present in the cities.” Al-Muqrin instructed his readers that the operational team for an urban attack should be divided into four units: the command group; the information-gathering group; the preparation group; and the execution group. The participants in these groups must be the best available, “[o]nly the best educated, cultured, and trained personnel in the organization must work in the cities. This will help personnel move and operate better.” [6]

While the experts have yet to assign final responsibility for the attacks in London and Egypt, the foregoing suggests that the attackers and their supporters may well have profited form the urban-warfare training al-Qaeda has made readily available on the Internet. The complete surprise and success of the operations shows the attackers were well-trained in urban operational techniques approximating those taught by al-Adl and al-Muqrin. The London attackers picked out and surveilled ‘reasonable’ targets; chose targets that were within their capabilities to strike; maintained compartmentation and security in the planning and preparation phases; and executed the attacks, as al-Adl instructed, so that they would “appear to the enemy as a connected sequence of events.” Ironically, the rapid post-attack round-up of some members of the London teams by British and Italian authorities suggests that the al-Qaeda leaders’ instructions for post-attack behavior were not followed. Al-Adl, in particular, stressed the importance of urban team members avoiding excessive movement and electronic communications after an attack, [7] and the British and Italian media report that the spate of arrests was triggered by the members’ frequent movement and cell phone use. [8]

The foregoing barely scratches the surface of the in-depth instruction for urban operations, as well as for the organizational, intelligence-collection, logistical, and financial activities needed to support them that al-Qaeda has placed on the Internet. The instruction seems likely to produce a highly professional cadre, and one that is infused with al-Qaeda’s offensive spirit. “A plan should be aggressive and free of hesitation. It should not be defensive,” Sayf al-Adl told his readers. “Almost 75 percent of the plan involves well-examined possibilities. Apparently, it will be cowardly to try to increase this percentage since we will be seeking a higher safety percentage. Almost 25 percent of the plan is left to fate.” [9]


1. Sayf al-Adl, “Planning Special Operations,” Mu’asker al-Battar (Online Journal), 13 September 2004.

2. Ibid.

3. Sayf al-Adl, “Principles of Security,” Mu’asker al-Battar, 2 February 2004.

4. Sayf al-Adl, “Transportation Security,” Mu’asker al-Battar, 1 March 2004.

5. Abu-Hajar Abd-al-Aziz al-Muqrin, “Skills to move inside cities,” Mu’asker al-Battar, 12 June 2004.

6. Abu-Hajar Abd-al-Aziz al-Muqrin, “The Secret Action Group,” Mu’asker al-Battar, 12 June 2004, and “Skills to move inside cities,” 17 March 2004.

7. Say al-Adl, op. cit., 2 February 2004, and Sayf al-Adl, “Defensive Security,” Mu’asker al-Battar, 14 February 2004.

8. Financial Times, 29 July 2005.

9. Sayf al-Adl, “Planning Special Operations,” Mu’asker al-Battar, 13 September 2004.