The London Plot: A Tactical Victory in an Eroding Strategic Environment

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 32

On August 10, the British police and security services scored an impressive tactical counter-terrorism victory with the arrest of 24 British subjects—most of Pakistani ethnicity or origin—who had planned to destroy 10 airliners in flight over the Atlantic Ocean. The arrests capped what has been reported as a year-long investigation that British security services had conducted in cooperation with Pakistani authorities. The would-be suicide attackers had resurrected the use of an ingenuous liquid explosive device that had been designed in the early 1990s by Ramzi Ahmed Yusuf and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, who were, respectively, the operational planners for the first and second World Trade Center bombings. Then and today, the device would have defeated airport detection equipment. The device’s components were to be carried aboard in carry-on luggage and then assembled and detonated after take-off (AP, August 11; Reuters, August 10).

Further details of the plot and plotters will no doubt emerge over the coming days and weeks, but the new data is likely to be more of the nuts-and-bolts variety that will flesh out the operation’s details, assist the prosecution of those arrested and perhaps lead to more arrests in the United Kingdom, Pakistan and perhaps elsewhere as the information seized in hard-copy and electronic form is exploited. At this point, however, several strategic inferences can be drawn from the disrupted London operation, none of which are encouraging for the ultimate success of the West’s counter-terrorism campaign.

At the most basic level, last week’s arrests in London signal the continued proliferation of what Western authorities have taken to calling “home-grown terrorists”; that is, Muslim individuals who were mostly born in the country where they were arrested and were planning to attack, and who came to know each other through school, work or social-religious activities (London Times Online, August 11). Since July 2005, Western security authorities have broken up home-grown Islamist cells in Sydney, Melbourne, Miami, Toronto, two in London and a cell external to the United States that was planning attacks in New York City. The capabilities of the cells appear to have ranged from negligible in Miami, to clever and street savvy in Toronto, to fairly sophisticated in last week’s London cell. None of these cells appear to have direct links to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, at least not in the strict sense of command-and-control.

That said, however, all of these cells smell of bin Laden and al-Qaeda in one way or another. Members of, or documents from the Australian, Miami and Toronto cells spoke of their inspiration being drawn from bin Laden’s words or al-Qaeda’s actions. The Lebanon-based leader of the plot directed at New York was arrested just before leaving for Pakistan—perhaps to meet with or receive training from al-Qaeda or its allies. Moreover, UK authorities have suggested that the July 2005 London transit system bombers and some of those arrested on August 10 were associated with men directly related to al-Qaeda. Indeed, unnamed British officials have told the media they believe that one man arrested last week is al-Qaeda’s commander in the United Kingdom (The Sunday Times, August 13).

As has been discussed previously in Terrorism Focus, al-Qaeda’s top priority has long been to incite Muslims to join the jihad and attack the interests of the United States and its closest allies without much in the way of guidance, funding or close involvement from al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s goal in this regard is to augment, not replace, al-Qaeda’s terrorist and military capabilities; he also anticipates that tracking and combating these home-grown cells will reduce the amount of manpower and technical resources that Western governments can devote to al-Qaeda’s own operatives. Last week’s events in London, in tandem with the other cells taken down in the last 10 months, suggest that al-Qaeda’s campaign to incite Muslims to jihad is increasingly successful and producing a geographically dispersed set of threats that already-stretched U.S. and Western security and intelligence services will have difficulty protecting against.

Several other pieces of information flowing from the disrupted London cell must also be troubling to Western authorities. A number of newspapers, for example, are reporting that the would-be airplane bombers received instruction in al-Qaeda-related camps for explosives training that are operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas. These reports are complemented by a detailed report in the New York Daily News that describes the re-emergence of large and full-blown insurgent training camps in the same area (Daily Telegraph, August 12; New York Times, August 12; New York Daily News, August 13). If these reports are true, the successful 2001 efforts of the U.S.-led coalition to shutdown al-Qaeda and Taliban training camps in Afghanistan may have yielded an accomplishment of very limited duration.

There are also media reports claiming that Pakistan-based Kashmiri groups may have assisted the London plotters. An August 14 story in the New York Times, for example, suggests that the Kashmiri Islamic charity Jamaat ul-Dawa provided money originally earmarked for the relief of Pakistani earthquake survivors to cover the costs for some of the plotters’ travel to Pakistan. Jamaat ul-Dawa has long been active in raising funds in Britain’s Muslim community—which is heavily Pakistani—for anti-India Kashmiri insurgents, and the charity is thought to be the successor to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Kashmiri insurgent group banned by the Pakistani government in 2002 (New York Times, August 14). LeT, in its various incarnations, has long been allied with al-Qaeda and is the favorite Kashmiri group of wealthy Gulf Arab donors. It also is the most internationally oriented Kashmiri organization, having fielded fighters and conducted operations in India, Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq and Bangladesh.

The August 10 arrests in London also featured another increasingly familiar feature of these proliferating, home-grown cells, particularly those in Europe: Christians who have converted to Islam. At least three of those arrested in London were converts: Don Stewart-Whyte (now known as Abdul Waheed); Oliver Savant (now known as Ibrahim Savant); and Brian Young (now known as Umar Islam). Stewart-Whyte—the son of a British Conservative Party official—and Savant were born in Britain, while Young appears to be of West Indian origin (Time, August 11). Al-Qaeda and its allied groups have focused on recruiting European converts to Islam because they are likely to have clean passports and a personal appearance that does not attract unwanted police attention. The presence of converts in the London cell, as well as in the Australian cell and the 2005 London subway bombers, suggests that converts are being attracted by the Islamists’ cause.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling for the West, there is no sign that any of the 24 Islamists arrested last week in the United Kingdom were motivated by their hatred for Britain’s or the West’s freedoms, liberties and lifestyle—the motivation most frequently attributed to Islamist fighters by the West’s political leaders and media. The arrested men, moreover, were not impoverished and uneducated—two more of the factors that Western leaders hold as major motivations for terrorists. Most of the arrested were middle-class individuals with jobs, wives, children and futures; several were ardent soccer fans; one was a record company executive; and another was a university student in biomedicine (Time, August 11).

While some of those arrested in London clearly believed that Muslims were not treated as equals in British society, these beliefs do not appear to have been the major motivation for their planned attacks. Rather, the central motivation appears to have been their belief that British, U.S. and Western foreign policy generally—especially vis-à-vis Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel—amounted to a war against Islam and Muslims. (We will receive more precise information on the motivation of the men; the media reports that several individuals recorded wills to be played after their martyrdom.) This is, of course, the primary theme of bin Laden’s rhetoric, and it is a theme that has been found resonating among members of all the cells noted above. Indeed, so prominent is the relationship between the main themes of bin Laden’s rhetoric and the self-proclaimed motivation of some members of these home-grown Islamist cells that a distinguished group of British Muslim leaders—including the heads of 38 leading Muslim organizations, three Muslim members of Parliament and three Muslim members of the House of Lords—signed a public letter that urged Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government “not [to] ignore the role of its foreign policy” in motivating young Muslims to become extremists.

“The debacle in Iraq and the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East, not only increases the risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to extremists who threaten us all,” the letter said. “Attacking civilians is never justified. This message is a global one. We urge the prime minister to redouble his efforts to tackle terror and extremism and change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever the live and whatever their religion. Such a move would make us all safer” (The Guardian, August 12).

The British media and government quickly rejected this argument. The Daily Telegraph, for example, said that the letter contained “warped and twisted logic” and was an attempt to “blackmail the [Blair] government into changing tack by threatening violence will result unless it does so.” The British government then responded by denouncing the letter’s contents as “the gravest possible error…[and] dangerous and foolish,” adding that such an analysis “is part of a distorted view of the world, a distorted view of life” (Daily Telegraph, August 12; Reuters, August 12). Neither the media nor the UK government, however, presented evidence to refute the claim that Western foreign policy played a large role in motivating the would-be bombers. Indeed, the lack of such refutation has been common in each case of home-grown terrorists noted above.