Before 2005, suicide terrorist attacks in Europe were only a dreaded scenario feared by police and the security community. Then, on July 7, 2005, four suicide bombers blew themselves up in three underground trains and one bus in London, causing 52 fatalities and injuring nearly 700 people. Two weeks later on July 21, 2005, four attempted suicide bomb attacks, again in London, failed apparently as a result of faulty explosives. Recently, on August 10, British police arrested almost 30 people suspected of plotting suicide bombings aboard 10 transatlantic flights departing from London. The nightmare became real since the most unsettling part was that many of the suicide bombers were born and raised in Britain.
In terms of risk analysis, the incidents in London show that the threat has shifted from jihadi veterans—who played a large role in the 2004 attacks in Madrid—to a poisonous ideology of martyrdom. Vulnerabilities have changed from permeable borders and uncontrolled logistic and financial flows to adolescents susceptible to indoctrination and radicalization. This situation is not unique to Britain, but is relevant in many European countries. In a recent assessment, the Dutch Security and Intelligence Service (AIVD) concluded that elements from transnational veteran jihadi networks are still active in Europe. The fragmentation of these networks, however, has led to a temporary reduction of the threat of internationally coordinated attacks. The AIVD states that “the most serious threat to the Netherlands appears to emanate from local jihadist networks rooted in their own breeding ground” . This and further details from the incidents in London contain lessons for a broader counter-terrorism strategy in Europe.
From the incidents in London, it is now known that the bombers in each case had a crystal-clear intent to cause fatalities on a large scale. In light of this intent, various sides, including the security community, now question the effectiveness of tough anti-terrorism legislation that has been adopted throughout Europe. In its recent assessment, the AIVD not only warns of radicalization, but also of social polarization. From a strategic perspective, al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism in Europe has become as much of a social problem as a law enforcement problem.
Governments have started to realize that an effective counter-terrorism strategy needs to include combating the jihadi ideology of martyrdom by lowering its appeal and unmasking its spurious claims. In December 2005, the European Union adopted a strategy to counter radicalization and recruitment to terrorism. Three key elements are addressed in this strategy: 1) Facilitating factors providing for recruitment; 2) Motivational factors leading individuals to become radicalized; 3) Structural factors creating a socio-economic environment in which the radical message becomes appealing . Consistently, the EU response to the recently foiled airline plot did not contain the previously recurring void calls for strengthening police cooperation and tougher legislation. On the contrary, it placed further emphasis on efforts to counter radicalization and to enhance protective security cooperation .
Addressing the root causes that can lead to radicalization is important, especially for the long term security situation. For the short term, however, as the official account of the bombings in London on July 7, 2005 clearly shows, the real difficulty for law enforcement agencies and local communities is identifying potential terrorists. Three of the four bombers on July 7 were well integrated in society, and one of them was even considered a role model in his community . Despite the much needed effort in the social field, a sizeable law enforcement effort remains necessary to protect society against those already radicalized.
The territoriality of the threat is not an assuring thought, yet it gives law enforcement some direction for an effective counter-terrorism strategy. For example, confronted with the preparedness of radicalized young Muslims to become martyrs, the limitations of repressive legislation are clearly shown. When countering jihadis from abroad that are using a local community as cover, penalizing “association with terrorists” can be a very effective approach as experience in France has shown (Terrorism Monitor, September 8, 2005). In contrast, prosecuting members of the Muslim community for not giving up their own youth to authorities is likely to result in the opposite and lead to more radicalization instead. Winning the hearts and minds of local communities is not achieved through prosecution. This, of course, should not be mistaken for allowing local communities to ignore their responsibilities in this shared problem.
In contrast to preparations abroad, preliminary activities of terrorists on domestic soil leave traces within direct reach of the agencies that can be very difficult to uncover. Domestic human intelligence becomes fundamental, and it appears that this indeed has been crucial to the success in the prevention of the recent airline plot. Nevertheless, both infiltration and the use of informers can be incredibly effective in combating terrorism, yet neither is a risk-free strategy. Infiltrating whole communities will send the wrong signal. Priority should be given to distinguish the “talkers” from the “doers,” the latter being legitimate targets for infiltration.
After the attacks of July 7, 2005, it was widely believed that the bombers had links to the al-Qaeda network. Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri praised the attacks and stated that they were launched by al-Qaeda. The apparent careful handling of the bomb making indicates that the plotters received advice from someone with previous experience. Two of the four bombers traveled to Pakistan at the end of 2004 and might have received military training there. Between April and July 2005, the group was in contact with unknown individuals in Pakistan.
Nevertheless, the overall costs of the attacks, which amounted to US$15,000, were self-financed without external sources of income. Furthermore, while the bombings were typical of those inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology, no evidence of any direction from abroad has been uncovered. Altogether, the 7/7 report concludes that “there is as yet no firm evidence to corroborate this claim or the nature of al-Qaeda support, if there was any” . The characteristics of the threat of autonomous self-sustaining local networks predict disappointing results from prioritized efforts in finding global terrorist networks through, for instance, counter-terrorist finance systems and controls.
Other clues for a counter-terrorism strategy can be found in the means used by the 7/7 plotters. Although no official statements have been made about the explosives used in any of the incidents, it is widely assumed that these were home-made and peroxide based. This would be consistent with the bleaching effect of the used mixtures in the uncovered bomb factory as described in the 7/7 report. Most likely, the July 7 bombers manufactured triacetone-triperoxide (TATP), which can be made from commercially available precursors. TATP is widely used by suicide bombers in the Middle East and was utilized as an improvised detonator by the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in his attempt to blow up an airplane in December 2001 (Times Online, July 15, 2005). In September, TATP was found during the arrest of suspected terrorists in the Danish city Odense (Politiken.de, September 11).
The use of home-made explosives indicates an effective control of commercial explosives in Europe. Then again, little comfort is found in the proliferation of the knowledge for successful production of high power explosives. The chemical characteristics of TATP, in particular the absence of any nitrates in its compound and its unsuspicious appearance of white sugar, make it difficult to detect. On the other hand, it has a low chemical stability making it susceptible to impact, open flame, friction and causing it to sublimate easily, limiting its use altogether .
The feasibility of the airline plot by smuggling “liquid TATP” aboard as was claimed by unnamed “U.S. senior officials” can seriously be questioned (Time.com, August 10). Although TATP can be dissolved in ether to detonate it, that solution then needs to be highly concentrated. Such a solution would be extremely sensitive and, like nitro-glycerin, probably detonate spontaneously as a result of any sudden movement. The idea of making TATP from its liquid precursors aboard a commercial flight is mere fiction, even if one assumes that the cabin crew would not interfere. Nonetheless, the plot shows that continuous research and education of the police and security community on (the application of) home-made explosives should be part of a counter-terrorism strategy.
A final point illustrated by the airline plot is that timing and mode of intervention remain a continuing challenge in counter-terrorism strategy. As a result of the present-day intensive political attention on counter-terrorism, a strong tendency exists to take tactical and operational decisions in counter-terrorism cases at a higher level politically. At that level, however, political rationality claims a larger role, and other interests start interfering with decisions that should be made based upon professional and judicial considerations. For instance, the current media strategy that leads to excessive coverage (as was witnessed in the airline plot) can be questioned from a professional or legal perspective. A professional counter-terrorism strategy should cover such scenarios in advance by clearly defining the aims, boundaries, roles and responsibilities of the actors involved in counter-terrorism.
The exact nature of the nightmare of home-grown suicide bombers that are now a real threat for Europe is still unknown. Reflection on the counter-terrorism strategy, however, needs to be a continuous process. Lessons learned could help mitigate current and future threats.
1. AIVD, “Violent Jihad in the Netherlands. Current Trends in the Islamist Terrorist Threat,” April 2006.
2. Press Release, 2696th Council Meeting, Justice and Home Affairs Brussels, December 1-2, 2005.
3. Press statement on the Informal London Meeting on Counter-Terrorism, issued jointly by the ministers of UK, Finland, Germany, Portugal, Slovenia, France and the vice-president of the European Commission, August 16, 2006.
4. House of Commons, “Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005,” May 2006.
5. A full copy of the report can be downloaded at: https://www.official-documents.co.uk/document/hc0506/hc10/1087/1087.asp
6. Dubnikova et. al (2005), “Decomposition of Triacetone Triperoxide is an Entropic Explosion,” Journal of the American Chemical Society, Vol. 127 (4), p. 1146 -1159.