The conundrum of the London bombings

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 13

As Terrorism Focus went to press the identity of the perpetrators of the attacks on London commuters on July 7 — indigenous UK suicide bombers of Pakistani ethnic origin — had become established through forensic investigation and extensive analysis of CCTV footage. While there are indications that two of the suspects had recently returned from Pakistan, the presumed link with al-Qaeda has still to be confirmed, since the evidence has not yet been paired with verifiable statements, either from al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, leaving speculation open.

Internet postings, one of the more efficient and accessible means of publishing claims of responsibility, did not provide much in the way of authoritative information. The first was from a previously unknown group calling itself the Jama’at al-Tanzim al-Sirri or ‘Secret Operations Group, the Organization of al-Qaeda in Europe’ (Jama’at al-Tanzim al-Sirri Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Urubba) which posted on the al-Qal’a forum, which in the past has hosted bona fide statements from militant mujahideen groups. However, the lack of subsequent postings backing up the statement, indeed the unusual paucity of supporting material, whether on the internet or the satellite media, given the importance of the attacks, cast immediate doubt on its authenticity. While the statement contained the now familiar language of past warnings made and ignored, and the typical disclaimer ‘He who gives warning is exempt’ [i.e from moral condemnation as to the consequences] and an (incomplete) Qur’anic citation, the text lacked the full paraphernalia of doctrinal justification which would have been expected for such a momentous event. More revealing still was the clumsy anomaly of the language used in the opening salvo:

“I give glad tidings, O Nation of Islam, I give glad tidings, O nation of Arabs [ya ummat al-‘Aruba], that the time for revenge against the Crusader and Zionist British government has come, in response to the massacre carried out by Great Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan”

Appealing to an ethnicity in the word ‘Aruba (which is a term also equivalent to ‘Arabism’) flies full in the face of the ideology and aims of al-Qaeda, the word ‘Aruba conjuring up images of Arab Nationalism, an ideology which par excellence was conceived as a rallying point that specifically sidelined religious identities. Within hours of this posting, the al-Qal’a forum closed, according to the forum administrators, despite their protests of innocence [].

A second posting, a declaration of the ‘Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, the Qaeda (‘Base’) of Jihad, Europe Brigade’, posted on the Tajdeed forum, celebrated the “attacks one after the other in the capital of the Infidels, the English capital … The beginning was at Madrid and Istanbul … today [it is] in London … and tomorrow the Mujahideen will have other words [to say]” []. But this also presented similar problems of style, not least due to the identification of the group itself. This has long been a problem, since it is somewhat ‘trigger-happy’ with internet postings. The group also posted a similar claim after the Madrid train bombings. Yet after a year of investigations no evidence of any such group being involved has emerged. The same story is true of the Istanbul bombings of November 2003 and August 2004, with subsequent investigations turning up no trace of the Brigades (see Terrorism Focus, Volume 1, Issue 2).

Sympathizers with jihadi militants, along with terrorism analysts, were equally divided on the rationale behind the timing and purpose of the attack. Parallels with the March 2004 Madrid bombings only went so far, since the political conditions of the United Kingdom in July 2005 have nothing in common with April 2004 in Spain. At that time the Spanish government was facing a hostile domestic environment at election time, where a carefully timed strike brought political upheaval and resulted in the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. Al-Qaeda, in practice, has used astute utilitarian calculation in organizing its strikes, and has abhorred politically damaging, opportunistic attacks, such as that which occurred in the bombing of the theater in the Qatari capital Doha (see Focus, Volume 2, Issue 7). On this yardstick, the London attacks are a strategic disaster.

Yet the perception that ‘London was next’ stems from a reading of al-Qaeda published materials. In December 2004 a strategy document “Iraq al-Jihad, Aamaal wa-Akhtaar” (Iraq’s Jihad, Hopes and Dangers) appeared on the web confidently predicting the Madrid debacle and estimating that “Britain will only withdraw from Iraq in one of two cases: either if Britain suffers significant human casualties in Iraq, or if Spain and Italy withdraws first.” Subsequent strategy documents have emphasized the need to “exhaust the enemy’s forces by stretching them through dispersal of targets” and “attract the youth through exemplary targeting” as part of the preliminary ‘Disruption and Exhaustion’ phase of a strategy towards ‘Empowerment.’ Outlined in the work The Management of Barbarism (for a detailed analysis of this document see Focus, Volume 2, Issue 6).

For Hani al-Sibai, an Egyptian radical Islamist dissident resident in the United Kingdom, the London subway bombings were more particularly focused, and designed rather to steal the thunder from the G8 Conference in Scotland. Speaking during a combative interview with the Qatari satellite channel Al-Jazeera, al-Sibai declared it “a great victory for al-Qaeda; it rubbed the noses of the world’s eight most powerful countries in the mud.”

Other mujahideen sympathizers were not so sure. Immediately following the first posting by the Secret Operations Group, one signing himself ‘Bu Badr’ on the Tajdeed forum warned against his fellow mujahideen indulging in too much applause, noting that “those who defend al-Qaeda actually live in Britain” which “gathered in our Muslim brothers who had been expelled from their countries due to their opinion and views opposing their regimes … Our brothers in al-Qaeda are too clever to strike the thugs in their own country.” For this commentator, another candidate was more suspect: “This is [simply] a game played by the swine Blair in order to strike at Muslims and Muslim refugees … a plot to put pressure of the expatriate Muslim Arab communities, and enable the passing of legislation to expel our Muslim brothers from Britain and hand them over to their agents, the ruling regimes in the Middle East” [].

In so doing, the jihadist commentator highlighted the unusual position in the United Kingdom. London hosts more militant members than almost any city outside the Middle East, where radical Islamic clerics, some of them refugees themselves, have until recently become increasingly outspoken on matters reflecting no longer on external politics relating to their countries of origin, but on issues focused internally. The self-styled sheikhs Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Muhammad have been the most vociferous of these, the former achieving notoriety for his alleged call to kill the then Prime Minister John Major, and the latter for his comments last April to the Portuguese journal Público, where, styling himself the “Leader of Londonistan”, he underlined how “several freelance Islamic militant groups are preparing attacks on London” and that “one very well organized group” in London calling itself ‘al-Qaeda Europe’ “has a great appeal for young Muslims … I know that they are ready to launch a big operation” []. In each case, however, the sheikhs have sought to protect themselves, at least in terms of the media, by talking of a unilaterally agreed “mu’ahada” (agreement) not to engage in targeting their host country themselves or encouraging others to do so.

Over the recent period the horizon has been darkening for ideologues of this stamp. Abu Hamza is now under arrest and has been indicted in the United States on charges of trying to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon. Omar Bakri Muhammad meanwhile continues to balance on the fine line of legality, boasting of having been arrested, and released, 16 times over his activities, which he ascribes to ‘the contradictions of laws made by man.”

If in further investigations of the British suicide bombers there fails to emerge an identified ‘trigger’ for the operation — which would indicate al-Qaeda methodology — and it turns out to be an entirely UK-organized operation, the issue of the timing and purpose of the attack will have to be sought in developments indigenous to Britain. Jihadi commentators on the forums have already mused on the bombings coming two days after the commencement of the trial of Abu Hamza on charges including inciting racial hatred and encouraging the murder of non-Muslims. If there is a connection, the question to be resolved is whether the extremist, radical wing of Islamists in exile have come to feel that their unilateral ‘compact’ is being eroded and that there is now nothing to lose. Failing that, the possibility always remains that questions of timing are irrelevant, and that the motivation was ongoing jihad against the infidel, pure and simple.