Europe Meets the New Face of Terrorism
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
Published: August 1, 2005
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LONDON, July 31 - One attack was deadly, the other was not. But taken
together, the two terrorist strikes that hit London in July highlight a new,
more ominous face of terrorism in Europe.
It transcends ethnic lines and national causes, blends ideological fervor
with common criminality and is rooted to a large extent inside the target
country. Shifting assumptions about the nature of the terrorist threat, it
also complicates efforts to devise strategies to combat it.
Although some senior intelligence and law enforcement officials said they
began to recognize the mutating threat at the time of the train bombings in
Madrid in March 2004, the London bombings have reinforced the lesson that,
by all accounts, the centrally controlled Al Qaeda of 9/11 is no more.
"We are seeing a terrorist threat that keeps changing," said Pierre de
Bousquet, the director of France's domestic intelligence service, known as
the D.S.T., in an interview in Paris. "Often the groups are not homogeneous,
but a variety of blends."
"Hard-core Islamists are mixing with petty criminals," he added. "People of
different backgrounds and nationalities are working together. Some are
European-born or have dual nationalities that make it easier for them to
travel. The networks are much less structured than we used to believe. Maybe
it's the mosque that brings them together, maybe it's prison, maybe it's the
neighborhood. And that makes it much more difficult to identify them and
In the case of the London attacks of July 7 that left 56 people dead,
including the four bombers, three of the attackers were ethnic Pakistanis
born in Britain, the fourth a British citizen and convert to Islam born in
The strike that followed two weeks later, in which the four bombs did not
explode, was carried out by an intriguing crew that the police say included
a British resident born in Somalia, an Ethiopian who apparently posed as a
Somali refugee to gain legal residency in Britain and a British citizen born
in Eritrea who acquaintances say was radicalized in prison. The nationality
and legal status of the fourth would-be bomber has not been disclosed.
The police still say they have not found conclusive evidence linking the two
attacks, although the explosives used in both cases, as well as other
elements of the episodes, appear to be similar.
None of those identified so far as being involved in the two attacks are
believed to have been a battle-hardened veteran of Chechnya or Iraq, and
most of them are too young to have been trained in Qaeda camps in
Afghanistan, which were destroyed in 2001. They may have learned their
bomb-making techniques and terrorist strategies at home, investigators and
intelligence officials say, although the officials caution that they do not
yet know the extent of the support network behind the attacks or whether
either involved a foreign mastermind.
Britain's most senior counterterrorism official himself anticipated what was
happening over a year ago. In a little-noticed speech to a conference in
Florence in June 2004, Peter Clarke, the counterterrorism chief of Britain's
police force, pointed out "the complete change, the recalibration" that
Britain was making in investigating the new threat.
The shifting nature of the threat was made apparent early last year with
Operation Crevice, one of Britain's largest counterterrorism operations
ever, Mr. Clarke said. Seven hundred officers thwarted what they believed
was a plot to construct a large bomb intended for a site somewhere in
London. In more than two dozen police raids, more than half a ton of
ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which can be used in making bombs, was seized
and eight ethnic Pakistani British citizens were arrested.
"Before this there was the perception that the international terrorist
threat was something that came from abroad," Mr. Clarke said in the speech.
"It came from the Maghreb. It came from the Middle East. It came from
Chechnya. It came from Afghanistan. These individuals, however, were all
"The parameters," he said, "have changed completely."
"If we take one or two leaders away," he added, "very quickly they are
replaced and the network is reformed."
He called the homegrown trend "deeply worrying." Equally worrying, he added,
was that the "key conspirator" in the plot revealed by Operation Crevice was
only 22 years old, and that others were 18 and 19.
A confidential British government assessment of the emerging threat from
young British Muslim radicals, prepared last year for Prime Minister Tony
Blair, concludes that poverty is not an indication of radicalism, that
students and young professionals from working- and middle-class backgrounds
"have also become involved in extremist politics and even terrorism." Those
recruits, the report warns, "may have the capability for wider and more
Extremist organizations have set up outlets on university campuses and, if
banned, simply open up again under different names, said the document, whose
contents were first disclosed in The Sunday Times. The document divides
young extremists into two broad categories. The first category is
"well-educated undergraduates" and those "with degrees and technical
professional qualifications in engineering" or information technology. The
second is "underachievers with few or no qualifications, and often a
In particular, the report said, "Muslims are more likely than other faith
groups to have no qualifications (over two-fifths have none) and to be
unemployed and economically inactive, and are over-represented in deprived
The idea that the terrorist threat is increasingly homegrown and transcends
both ethnicity and direct links to a global Qaeda conspiracy is welcomed by
Pakistan, which has been accused of not doing enough to root out the
remnants of Al Qaeda. Three of the four bombers in the first London attack
were of Pakistani descent and at least two had spent time in Pakistan.
"When the first bombing happened and everyone focused on Pakistan, we said,
'You may be making a mistake if you have a unifocal view,' " said Maleeha
Lodhi, Pakistan's ambassador to Britain, in an interview. "It's much more
mixed up than people think. What you're seeing is something very lethal and
it has nothing to do with ethnicity."
"We are seeing a lot of local groups that seem to have a random pattern, no
operational linkage or even inspirational linkage," she said. "Some may
claim to be Al Qaeda, some not, and that is foxing everybody."
Earlier attacks reflected some of the same elements found in the London
bombings. First came Casablanca, then Madrid.
In May 2003, a dozen young, poor, undereducated men, all born and reared in
the same slum in Casablanca, Morocco, attacked five sites there, four
apparently chosen for their Jewish connections. Forty-two people died,
including the attackers.
"It was local guys thinking global," said Olivier Roy, author of the book "Globalized
"They didn't target a symbol of the Moroccan government," he added. "They
inscribed their actions in a global perspective. I'm not sure the ethnic
Pakistanis involved in the first London attacks have anything to do with
The train attacks in Madrid in March last year represented more of a blend.
While most of those involved were Moroccan, some were from other countries.
Some of the attackers were radicalized Muslims, others common criminals.
The most senior member of the team, and the suspected local leader of the
cell, was a Tunisian who aspired to be a fashion model but became a
successful real estate agent before turning radical.
The Madrid plotters included native Spaniards, who had no connection to
global jihad, including a former miner who was arrested on charges that he
stole and handled the explosives used in the operation and a 16-year-old
nicknamed "The Gypsy" who was given a six-year youth detention sentence last
November after pleading guilty to transporting explosives. In searching for
the mastermind of the Madrid attacks, the Spanish authorities have focused
on a number of foreign-based suspects, including an Egyptian and a Syrian.
In London, investigators are trying to determine whether the cells involved
in the attacks were homegrown or had any operational link to a wider
Investigators say that while they see the terrorism threat in Europe as more
homegrown, the inspiration is increasingly Iraq. In the past several months,
a number of European countries have uncovered cells of native-born men
poised to travel to Iraq to fight alongside the insurgency.
In an interview published in Le Parisien on Friday, Interior Minister
Nicolas Sarkozy of France said at least seven Frenchmen had been killed
while fighting with the insurgency in Iraq.
The ever-shifting nature of the threat has made it increasingly challenging,
in Britain and elsewhere, to come up with a strategy to combat it. Police
and intelligence officials acknowledge that they are still too focused on
threats linked to clearly identifiable ethnic radical groups, both domestic
and international, and not enough on homegrown blends.
In a cover letter to the 2004 British report on counter-terrorism, Sir
Andrew Turnbull, the cabinet secretary and one of Mr. Blair's closest aides,
said the goal of Britain's strategy was "to prevent terrorism by tackling
its underlying causes, to work together to resolve regional conflicts to
support moderate Islam and reform and to diminish support for terrorists by
influencing relevant social and economic issues."
But, he added, "without being clear about the nature of the problem, one can
only tentatively identify possible responses in general terms."