Reassessing the July 21 London Bombings

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 17

The apparent attempted suicide bombings in London on July 21, exactly two weeks after the attacks that left over 50 dead, provided the Metropolitan Police, in commissioner Ian Blair’s words, with its “greatest operational challenge since the Second World War.” The attacks, which the authorities maintain were intended to kill, dealt an unprecedented blow to the psychological state of the capital and again cast doubts upon the security services’ ability to track active terrorist cells.

The Terrorist Cell

Unlike the July 7 cell, which was made up of second-generation immigrants from within the UK’s well-established minority communities, the members of the July 21 cell largely came to the UK as child asylum seekers from the war zones of East Africa. They lived in disparate parts of London and appear to have forged their connections through a gym and the city’s notorious Finsbury Park mosque.

Ethnic Eritrean Mukhtar Said-Ibrahim, 27, was apprehended after being identified by his London-based parents. According to information provided to interrogators by Hussein Osman, Said-Ibrahim was the alleged ringleader of the cell. His family arrived in Britain in 1992 to claim asylum as refugees when he was aged 14. A cannabis smoking bully at school, he abandoned his parental home at age 16 and became involved in youth gangs. Jailed for 5 years in 1996 for violent street robberies, he was moved around a series of young offenders institutions (YOI) in the south of England before gaining early release.

Estranged from his parents, his worldview appears to have radicalized while in prison —an important, and often understudied, phenomenon in Islamist terrorism. He served time in the notorious Feltham YOI where the shoe-bomber Richard Reid converted to Islam. In this isolated environment he became a devout Muslim. [1] Unemployed, Said-Ibrahim applied for British citizenship in 2003 and became a naturalized citizen in September 2004. Although registered to an address in nearby Hackney where he attempted to detonate his explosive device on a bus, he often stayed with Yassin Hassan Omar. [2]

Omar, 24, arrived in Britain from war-torn Somalia in 1992 aged 11 with his elder sister and her husband. Together they settled in north London but the following year he was taken into care and spent seven years in various foster homes. Upon reaching his eighteenth birthday in 2000 he was granted “exceptional leave to remain” in the UK and classified by social services as a “vulnerable young adult.” He was assigned a one-bedroom flat in a run down housing estate in New Southgate, north London. Omar’s rent was paid through housing benefits disbursed by the local council, though the Department for Work and Pensions halted these for unknown reasons in May 2005. Omar was unemployed and spent most of his time with Said-Ibrahim. Keen footballers, both men are believed to have attended Finsbury Park mosque. [3]

Their flat, which was the bomb-making factory, was one of a number of centers of gravity for the cell, the others being a gym in Notting Hill and the Stockwell area from where they set out to bomb. Omar and Said-Ibrahim appear to have kept a low profile in the local area and the only contact with neighbors arose from the fact that they and their associates regularly smoked in the hallway—a possible indication of the presence of explosive materials inside the house.

Neighbors informed local press that there was “always a lot of traffic” in and out of the flat and when one of them queried the forty to fifty boxes being carried into it in the weeks prior to the bombings she was informed it was paint stripper. [4] Omar was apprehended in the city of Birmingham; Said-Ibrahim in Ramzi Mohamed’s flat.

The authorities have yet to release official information on Ramzi Mohamed, 23, from North Kensington, London. Reportedly from Somalia, he and his younger brother, Wahbi, who was charged with assisting him in evading arrest, had become well known at the al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in North Kensington. The mosque’s Imam reported that they were part of a small cohort of four to five men who refused to worship alongside the mainstream community. They intimidated the Imam and attempted to recruit worshippers to a radical interpretation of Islam. The group undertook a proactive campaign of literature distribution in the mosque and from their own stall in the markets of the nearby Notting Hill district. One recent theme of their pamphlets described how voting in the May 2005 UK General Election was unIslamic. [5]

Manfo Kwaku Asiedu was the oldest member of the group at 32 years old. Little is known about the British-Ghanian, who had no permanent address but was living in the Finsbury Park district of North London. Asiedu, who was incorrectly reported as being the son of Ghana’s Deputy Inspector-General of Police, was charged as the would-be-bomber who abandoned the explosive device found in a west London park. [6]

Hussein Osman, 27, of Stoke Newington, London was a naturalized Briton of Ethiopian origin married with children. He had entered the United Kingdom in the 1990s from Italy on a false passport under the name Hamdi Isaac, claiming asylum as a Somali refugee to buttress his case. Osman was among a group of up to 50 extremists that attempted to wrest control of the Stockwell mosque in south London in mid-2003. The group, who hailed from the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, were searching for a spiritual home for the radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri following the raid upon the mosque and its subsequent closure in early January 2003.

For a period, members of the group turned up to the Stockwell mosque on a daily basis, calling unsanctioned meetings and intimidating the faithful. On a number of occasions they attacked the mosque’s worshippers, attempted to break-in and sprayed graffiti on its walls, prompting its leaders to appeal to the local police who assisted in the installation of CCTV cameras. A diary of incidents kept by the mosque’s authorities shows Osman’s direct involvement in intimidation and his signature on a letter demanding the Imam’s suspension. [7]

Following the bombings he managed to flee the country on the Eurostar train to Paris. Apparently, passport checks were only done on the French side, raising serious questions as to how this was possible while the country was on its highest state of alert. Traced through mobile phone calls to Rome where his brother lives, he is being fast-tracked through the extradition process on a European arrest warrant.

In interviews his lawyer has intimated that the cell did not wish to kill, but rather terrorize in the capital. Osman has stated that they repeatedly watched videos of the conflict in Iraq and used the Internet to “read-up” on jihad. They regularly met up in a basement gym in Notting Hill. He denies direct links to al-Qaeda, other than using their platforms on the Internet. [8]

Terror Links and End Goals

Two of the salient issues exercising security analysts’ minds are: whether July 21 was linked with July 7 or whether it was simply a copycat attack; and was it a failed mass casualty suicide attack or designed simply to terrorize.

Factors linking the attacks would include evidence of direct person-to-person communications or contacts between the two cells, none of which have materialized to date. Reports linking the cells to a white-water rafting trip have proved erroneous while Hussein Osman, in information leaked from his interrogation in Italy and confirmed as authentic by the Italian Interior Ministry, has stated that there “was no link with the Pakistanis.”

Other potential connections would include the common denominators of a mastermind or a bomb maker. Yet while the appearance of a video in which Mohamed Sidique Khan explains his reasoning behind the July 7 attacks demonstrates that he entrusted someone to edit and post his message to al-Jazeera, aired on 1 September 2005, it continues to appear that his group largely acted alone and no other arrests in relation to the case have been made.

The targeting policy on July 21 was likely adopted to directly mirror that of the July 7 bombings, particularly given the attempt to blow up the bus – a last minute, rather than pre-planned, decision adopted by Hasib Hussein in a panic on July 7 when the Northern Line was suspended. Moreover, the compass point geography of the attacks similarly mimics those of the first cell, although the July 21 attacks involved 5 bombers rather than 4, with Manfo Kwaku Asiedu ditching his device in west London.

The speed with which the July 21 cell implemented its plans is important to the copycat theory given that planning a conventional attack, not least a suicide operation where the decision to kill oneself receives the utmost consideration, takes considerable preparation, and research on suicide terrorism demonstrates months, as opposed to weeks, of planning. Moreover, when the cell collectively intends to commit suicide (or any other act of terrorism), over time it becomes locked into its own internal logic, proceeding inexorably towards the act. This pattern of long term planning theoretically rules out a copycat attack on two week’s notice.

However, the fact that Asiedu abandoned his intention to self-sacrifice illustrates haste in the planning and indoctrination process. In addition, it is likely that members of the cell had contemplated perpetrating an attack prior to July 7 given their radical views and they may possibly have even done background Internet research on explosives. This would enable them to move quickly into action and they may have been inspired by the magnitude of the July 7 attacks, adopting or accelerating hitherto inchoate ideas or plans in order to expedite maximum effect. Indeed, neighbors report no suspicious activity prior to July, thus giving some credence to the copycat claim.

What then was the cell’s intended effect and overarching aim? The timing of the attacks, occurring just after midday—one of the quietest periods on the London underground—suggests that the projected effect was not mass casualties but rather to create a state of lasting fear. For example, in the attempted bus bombing, there were only 3 passengers on the upper deck. [9] In this respect, the bombers’ actions, appearing coordinated exactly two weeks after the first bombings, were essentially successful and dealt a significant blow to the psychological state of the capital, with high street sales down, as well as a large percentage decrease in passengers using the underground with numbers down by 15% on weekdays and double that at the weekend. [10]

It appears that some of the bombers intended to kill themselves in acts of martyrdom, as they manually detonated their explosive devices, with one eyewitness account of a man lying on top of a rucksack. Moreover, they do not appear to have construed viable escape plans, with the exception of Hussein Osman, and instead, hastily, though inevitably, fell back upon their familial networks for support in evading capture. Osman has claimed that while his device contained a detonator, it was packed with flour rather that explosives and he maintains the aim was to terrorize rather than kill.

The great unknown in the July 21 attacks relates to the explosives and why they failed to detonate. This could be a vital factor in unlocking whether there is a link between both terror cells at an upper echelon. The unexploded devices – a potential goldmine of forensic information – have led to much speculation and debate. While the bombers could easily have constructed a crude device in a short period of time from the wealth of information on the hundreds of homemade explosives on the internet, the authorities are remaining tight-lipped on the detonators and explosive type used. Experts have cited a host of reasons for the failure in detonation on July 21, including the rapid degradation of explosives such as acetone peroxide, which may have been used, if the constituent ingredients contain impurities or are contaminated by their container or stored at the wrong temperature.

Issues and Consequences

On the intelligence front, MI5 has recognized that it will have to expand its surveillance operations by “lowering the threshold” to those hitherto considered too low profile. In part this is an acknowledgement of the nature of the two attacks themselves, perpetrated by what appear to be highly autonomous “self starter” groups. The organization has welcomed the huge increase in applications to its website from ethnic minority groups since July 7.

Intelligence chiefs have now lowered the threat level to the United Kingdom from its highest state, “critical”, down to “severe general,” indicating no specific evidence of an imminent attack. Leaving the merits of such a system aside, the failure to track and prevent two attacks within the space of two weeks indicates a severe underestimation of the will and the ability of terrorist cells to attack the citizens of the UK from within.

Notes:

1. Both men did not attend the institution at the same time. At least two preachers have been banned by the Prison Service for England and Wales for preaching extreme views to the countries’ 4000 plus Muslim prisoners. The Prison Service has appointed imams to each of its facilities up and down the country. See http://www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk/

2. Profile compiled from the Enfield Independent, Hackney Gazette, Muslim News (196) and press releases from the Metropolitan Police, and court services

3. Ibid.

4. Enfield Independent, 4 August 2005

5. Profile compiled from the Muslim News (196), Kensington and Chelsea Times, Westminster Independent and Echo; Islington Gazette

6. Ghanaweb.com, 15 August 2005

7. Channel 4 News, 5 August 2005; AFP, 21 August 2005

8. Italian press as reported by BBC News following his apprehension

9. Hackney Gazette, 27 July 2005

10. Information from Transport for London