The London Bombings: For al-Qaeda, Steady as She Goes

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 14

The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades have taken credit for the London bombings, named for the late Abu Hafs al-Masri, above.

The 7 July 2005 detonation of four nearly simultaneous explosions in London’s transportation system — killing 55 and wounding 700 — were the latest attacks in a campaign against U.S. allies announced by al-Qaeda deputy chief Ayman al-Zawahairi in 2002. At that time, al-Zawahiri stated that an al-Qaeda campaign was underway to punish nations assisting the United States in either Afghanistan, or which might assist in the pending invasion of Iraq, “Some messages have already been sent to the deputies [allies] of America, so that they may restrain themselves in getting entangled in this Crusader assault,” al-Zawahiri said in September 2002. “The Mujahid youth had already sent messages to Germany and France. However, if these doses are not enough, we are prepared with the help of Allah to inject further does.” [1]

On July 7, al-Qaeda did indeed ‘inject’ more lethal doses in its campaign against U.S. allies. Since al-Zawahiri’s statement, he or Osama bin Laden have warned twenty-three countries against cooperating with the United States in Afghanistan or Iraq. Among the countries are: Turkey, Australia, South Korea, Kuwait, Egypt, the UK, France, Germany, Jordan, and Canada. [2] To date, the twenty-three named states have suffered attacks of one sort or another. While not all can be linked directly to al-Qaeda, ties to the group are clear in the most destructive attacks — Bali, Istanbul, Madrid and now, London. (One would have to have absolute faith in coincidence to argue al-Qaeda had no hand in the others.) As always for al-Qaeda, a threat made yields an attack executed. These attacks have not just damaged the targeted country, but, in al-Zawahiri’s words, “[l]et those who collaborate with the United States know that America cannot protect itself, let alone others. [3]

Signature and Impact

As noted, the 7 July bombings are best understood as an episode in al-Qaeda’s campaign against U.S. allies, a campaign separate from but running parallel to its campaign against the United Sates. The evidence now available shows al-Qaeda’s “Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades – the al-Qaeda of Jihad – the European Brigade” (AHMB) — a unit named after al-Qaeda’s late military commander, and the man closest to bin Laden personally — conducted the London attacks. Publicly, the AHMB has taken credit for the strikes. Its communiqué expressly said the London attacks were part of the campaign announced by al-Zawahiri. “Our words do not go to waste, nor do strikes stop,” the AHMB statement explained. “Our strikes were and are targeting the crusader enemies of God. … The start was in Madrid [March, 2003] and Istanbul [November 2004]; today, it is London, and tomorrow the mujahideen will have more statements to make.” [4]

On the tactical and strategic levels, the London attacks were quintessentially al-Qaeda operations. At the tactical level, the attacks were preceded by the usual al-Qaeda warning that an operation in Europe was near. On 29 May 2005, the AHMB’s “European General” posted a statement on the Internet that foreshadowed the events of 7 July. In part, the statement said:

“We direct a message to America and all its allies around the world that the desecration of the Holy Qur’an will not go by without a response. In fact, the retaliation will come soon in the near future, God willing.

A message to the mujahideen in Europe:

“The truth of the Crusader apostasy has been exposed. This is a call to all the mujahideen who are waiting in every place to strike out with the long awaited hit — the hit whose time has come after the infidels have intensified their war against Islam and Muslims by desecrating the holiest of books the Holy Qur’an.” [5]

The strikes fit squarely into al-Qaeda’s operational pattern: They were nearly simultaneous; they were conducted by men committing suicide; the attackers were men largely unknown to local security authorities; the attackers had ties with al-Qaeda outside the target country; the attack plan was elegant in its simplicity; and the explosives used were appropriate to the task. As always, the timing of the attacks — the morning rush hour — was set to ensure maximum casualties. Finally, the London attacks again followed al-Qaeda’s practice of striking where it deems an attack is necessary, even in a place — like London — where it and other Islamic groups have long found safe haven. Al-Qaeda previously has staged attacks in such valued safe havens as Pakistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Yemen, and Kenya.

Al-Qaeda’s hand is even more visible at the strategic level. Bin Laden’s attacks generally have three key features: They are meant to cause large casualties; strike a symbolic target; and inflict serious economic damage. The 7 July attacks checked each box. The attacks caused more than 750 casualties; closed the economic center of London for a day, disrupted the city’s transportation system, cut share prices; and occurred when the eight most powerful Western leaders — the symbols of Globalization, or, in al-Qaeda’s term, “Crusading” — were meeting in nearby Scotland.

Beyond immediate results, the 7 July attacks will advance what bin Laden describes as al-Qaeda’s “bleed to bankruptcy” war against the United States and its allies. In Britain, Prime Minister Blair’s government faces unanticipated budgetary demands to cover costs for first responders and the recovery of bodies; providing immediate and long-term care for the wounded; repairing the London subway; and the inevitable increases in the security level and deployed security forces. And although the United States suffered no human casualties on 7 July, the London attacks struck another effective financial blow against America. Washington’s decision to raise the national alert level and increase security for ground transportation systems will demand significant increases in anti-terrorism-related expenditures at all levels of government.

The Attacks and the Future

The London attacks show that U.S. allies will continue to be hit by al-Qaeda for supporting Washington’s policies and actions in the Islamic world. As they have since 2002, bin Laden’s fighters will attack U.S. allies at home and abroad: the UK has been attacked in London and Istanbul; France in Karachi and at sea; Germany in Tunisia and Pakistan; and Spain in Iraq and Madrid. For now, attacks on U.S. allies are unlikely to reach a 9/11 level of destructiveness; bin Laden does not want al-Qaeda in the absurd position of helping to mend the trans-Atlantic rift. As in Spain, al-Qaeda’s London attacks were designed to both punish the government for helping Washington and sow seeds of domestic political dissent. In Spain, al-Qaeda was two for two; it caused substantial casualties and economic damage and contributed to a change in government that cut Madrid’s support for Washington. It is too soon to assess al-Qaeda’s political success in the UK, but bin Laden and his lieutenants will be watching to see if Blair’s government — after the dead are buried and London returns to “business as usual” — is attacked from within the Labor Party and by the opposition for provoking the 7 July attacks via its decision to join the United States in invading Iraq.

The meaning of the London attacks for the United States is clear and ominous. In the counter-terrorism context, London is the best-policed city in the Western world, and the British Security Service (BSS or MI5) is the world’s best, national-level counter-terrorism service. And despite this reality, all evidence to date suggests the police and BSS were surprised by the 7 July attacks. Likewise, the suicide attackers appear to have been second generation Muslim immigrants brought up in Britain. Such men are more difficult to track than recent immigrants because they are fluent in local languages and familiar with societal practices and mores. They are, as the London attacks show, largely invisible to local law enforcement authorities.

The United States has nothing comparable to the quality of the British Security Service or London’s police forces — with the possible exception of New York’s rapidly improving police. In recent months, the directors of U.S. law enforcement agencies have publicly said they are inadequately prepared to fight terrorism in America. FBI Director Robert Mueller, for example, said that efforts over more than a decade to provide the FBI with modern computers systems have failed. He also said FBI leaders do not believe a solid knowledge of Islam or Islamic extremism is necessary for FBI officers to be effective against terrorism. Then, on 15 July 2005, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Michael Chertoff, ordered a “major” reorganization of DHS, implying that four years after 9/11, the agency charged with protecting America domestically is going back to the drawing board. Compounding these problems, U.S. law enforcement officers still face porous borders as they to try to prevent al-Qaeda attacks in America.

The only good news for America in the London attacks — and it is cold comfort — is that bin Laden continues to show little interest in conducting Intifada-style attacks in the United States, nor even the moderate-size strikes conducted in London and Madrid. Given the weaknesses in U.S. domestic security identified by Mr. Mueller and Mr. Chertoff, there seems no doubt that those types of attacks could occur in the United States at a time of al-Qaeda‘s choosing. Bin Laden is bent on “defeating” the United States by derailing its economy, not by inflicting various levels of damage whenever he can. Al-Qaeda’s post-7 July intentions toward the United States remain what they have been for years and, as always, are best described by al-Qaeda itself.

“The dollar is the strongest weapon of the United States. … For the past 31 years, the United States has been considering the dollar as a main commodity in the world and as a cover for other currencies after this cover had been gold. The power of the dollar increased and it has become a crucial and decisive weapon in America’s military and economic battles and wars. … Observers discovered that America’s power lies in the strength of its economy rather than in its military might. This is one of the reasons that led the mujahideen to strike at the World Trade Center. [6]

“Aborting the American economy is not an unattainable dream. The New York and Washington attacks, contrary to all theoretical predictions, showed the extent of the fragility of the American economy, which was greatly affected. Official American figures have showed this (and what has been kept secret was greater). That proves that a strike at the innermost heart of the American economy (the [U.S.] strategic center of gravity) will be fatal. Afterward, the American machine will go to ruin undoubtedly and irreparably.” [7]


1. “Interview with Ayman al-Zawahiri, September 2002,”, 11 October 2002.

2. For one statement listing several of the targeted U.S. allies, see “Statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel Television, 21 May 2003.

3. “Ayman al-Zawahiri Audiotape,” al-Arabiyya Satellite Channel, 3 August 2003.

4. “Statement by Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades – the al-Qaida of Jihad – the European Brigade,” Islamic Renewal Organization (Internet), 9 July 2005.

5. “Statement from the European General of the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades,” Islamic Renewal Organization (Internet), 29 May 2005.

6. “Statement from Qaidat al-Jihad,” al-Neda (Internet). 27 April 2002, and Abu-Ubayd al-Hilali.

7. “Mombasa and the Fulfillment of the Promise,” al-Ansar (Internet), 5 December 2002.