The enemy is closer than we think

A top counterterrorism expert says the London suicide bombers may not have acted alone -- and America may be next.

Published July 19, 2005 11:05PM (EDT)

The terrorist attacks that rocked London's mass transit system on July 7 were a shock but not a surprise. The British government had expected, planned for and thwarted plots to carry out similar attacks for years. Though the bus and subway bombings were no less devastating for the families and friends of the 56 people killed and more than 700 injured, the storyline quickly became one of British stoicism and resilience -- the bustling capital took a punch to the gut but stood tall, essentially getting back to business by late that day.

But a different shock wave hit several days later, as investigators began to dig out details of how the attacks were executed -- by four British nationals from Leeds, radical Islamists who had concealed, even from their own families, their plans to commit mass murder using their own bodies as weapons. One was a respected counselor at a primary school; two had left behind their own young children. Nearly four years into the U.S.-led global war against terrorism, the first ever "homegrown" suicide attacks carried out in Western Europe had redefined, chillingly, the parameters of the battle.

"What this shows us is that in many societies the enemy is closer than we think -- and that includes the United States," says Bruce Hoffman, a top counterterrorism expert and director of the RAND Corporation in Washington. Hoffman says the threat of suicide attacks is more acute in Europe than in the U.S., but he warns against the "false expectation" that it won't happen here. "We simply can't stop all terrorist threats and live hermetically sealed off from this particular menace," he says. "There is no such thing as a perfect defense."

Late last year, in a RAND report titled "Three Years After: Next Steps in the War on Terror," Hoffman wrote that suicide attackers are "perhaps the ultimate 'smart bombs'" and that it appeared "very likely" that there will be more suicide attacks in the United States in the future.

European and U.S. intelligence officials have been facing one particularly troubling question since the London attacks: How do you stop an enemy that you can no longer effectively categorize? The inability to profile the enemy -- a pursuit deemed essentially impossible by Israeli security experts after extensive experience with suicide attacks there -- makes it more critical than ever to take away terrorists' ability to recruit and regenerate, according to Hoffman. "Win, lose or draw in Iraq," he says, "in some respects the damage has been done." Hoffman spoke to Salon by phone from his office in Washington.

Were you surprised to learn that these were suicide attacks carried out by four men who had grown up in Leeds?

Intelligence officials in Europe have known for some time that this was a problem waiting to explode into reality. For example, the Dutch intelligence and security service report for 2002 had stated this was an emergent trend and a profound threat. They had noticed that terrorist recruiters and talent-spotters were no longer only hanging around radicalized mosques, but were deliberately seeking out youths, in this case Dutch, who were for all intents and purposes as Dutch and as adolescent as any other teenager -- but who also had about them some sense of alienation or cultural dislocation. And they would move in, almost like sharks smelling blood, to exploit and radicalize people who were assimilated, many of whom had been born in the Netherlands rather than North Africa or Southeast Asia or the Middle East, and who hadn't been practicing Muslims.

It has certainly been the same situation in Britain. In 1999 a senior British police official told me exactly what Tony Blair and British police officials said the weekend after the bombings: that British authorities were aware of upwards of 3,000 British Muslims who were trained in al-Qaida camps in the 1990s. The British official also told me that they'd counted 53 British Muslims since the 9/11 attacks who left the United Kingdom to engage in acts of terrorism elsewhere, so it was just a matter of time before it was turned inwards. Before this attack, the authorities had disrupted at least a half dozen fairly serious plots within the U.K. since 9/11.

So what do these attacks say about the nature of the enemy? They seem to have chilling implications in terms of the ability to identify who the enemy are, and how to stop them.

Often suicide terrorists are portrayed as angry, frustrated and marginalized individuals, in some instances with a hatred and anger that's so profound that they're willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. But that obscures the fact, for instance, that many of the 3,000 British Muslims who left to train in terrorism didn't just pick up on their own; it may be the same in the case of these suicide bombers -- there's an active recruitment process and an organization behind this.

It raises a key point: As the Israelis have already said in the context of suicide terrorism there, it's essentially impossible to profile. Keep in mind, this isn't the first evidence of this. There was the time when two British Muslims went to Israel in 2003 and carried out a suicide attack on Mike's Place, a bar on the Tel Aviv waterfront. They appeared to be similarly assimilated and well-adjusted; one was a graduate of the London School of Economics and was married and had children. So on the one hand you have people like Richard Reid [the convicted "shoe bomber"], a juvenile delinquent who spent much of his young adult life in prison, where he converted to Islam; and on the other you have a graduate of a leading British university.

With these four suicide bombers, what I find both striking and alarming is that it isn't a matter of one size fits all. You've got an 18-year-old, you've got somebody who was a teacher; you have three of Pakistani origin, but also someone from the Caribbean. This is a particular problem in the United Kingdom; when you talk about rounding up the usual suspects, the short list is pretty long. There are the various immigrant communities, but also the phenomenon of British converts to Islam -- people of color, but also not.

So it sounds like profiling is pretty useless at this point. What does that say about the magnitude of the threat?

What this shows us is that in many societies the enemy is closer than we think -- and that includes the United States. Al-Qaida, of course, maintained offices inside the U.S. through the 1990s, operating out of Brooklyn and many other places. I don't think any country is necessarily immune.

I think there is almost a desire to believe these attackers in London were acting on their own, because that would mean the end of the threat, as if it were a one-off or an aberration. But it becomes much more disturbing a problem when you find that there is an organization that is identifying and cultivating people who they think would be susceptible to signing up for "martyrdom."

In light of London, how do you rate the threat of suicide attacks in the United States now?

Well, to some degree past is prologue: In 1997 two Palestinians living in the United States plotted a suicide attack on the New York City subway. They weren't citizens, but they were residents here, not belonging to any [known] terrorist group. It was averted literally at the last minute because a third accomplice got cold feet and informed the police, who had no idea about it. So we shouldn't delude ourselves that this can't happen here.

That said, it's still an apples-and-oranges comparison between the United States and Britain. We know al-Qaida was active here -- they even had an agent who infiltrated the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg in the 1990s -- but I don't think there's anyone in the U.S. who can stand up and say, "We know 3,000 Americans have trained in al-Qaida camps." Jose Padilla was one, but the number is much lower. I don't think we have the same hard core of disenfranchised, alienated people who form the nucleus of the problem.

What about the danger of a copycat attack here? Or by so-called sleeper cells that may have existed here for a long time and might see London as a signal to take action now?

In most cases, what launches someone on a trajectory toward suicide "martyrdom" is an organization that's encouraging and cultivating it, that provides the recruiters and handlers. I don't see the same organizational infrastructure in the United States that the British authorities say exists inside of Britain. Even with 9/11 you had an operation in which all the main operatives had to be infiltrated into the United States. That's very different from the half a dozen or so aborted incidents in Britain, where almost all of them had a homegrown element.

But that said, now is the time for authorities in the United States to think seriously about the evolving threat and to prepare and train for it. In my research, this is something the Israeli police repeatedly pointed out: that they had deluded themselves into thinking that they understood and were prepared for suicide attacks, because of their experiences with it in the 1990s. But it was a very different manifestation of it after [the beginning of the second intifada] in 2000, and they weren't prepared, and they said they'd wished they'd spent that time doing more and training more so that they weren't just reacting. We face the same challenge now.

Sometimes I've found myself wondering, while on the train or walking into a crowded shopping mall, why hasn't there been another terrorist attack here since 9/11?

It's a really good question, especially considering that there have been some aborted attacks since then. But again, when you look back at what they were -- for example, Iyman Faris, the person who was supposedly going to cut the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge -- at least from what we know, he was acting on his own. The same with Jose Padilla [the person accused of plotting to set off a dirty bomb in Chicago]. Whereas all the British plots arose from a hardcore circle of activists and used an outer circle of sympathizers.

Also, based on the higher number of both averted and successful attacks in Europe since 9/11, I think al-Qaida and affiliated groups have made a conscious effort to focus on Europe rather than the U.S. It's more of a crossroads and easier to gain access. I think the United States is viewed as a more difficult -- though certainly not impenetrable -- target. And I think the jihadists have also pursued the idea of splitting the alliance between Europe and the U.S., such as they believe they did with the attacks in Spain. I think they may view Europe as more vulnerable than the U.S., both physically and politically.

Opponents of the war in Iraq are pointing to these attacks as evidence that, contrary to Bush administration claims, the war has made the world less safe from terrorists. What if any connections do you make between the attacks on London, and Iraq?

Well again, long before the invasion of Iraq, 3,000 British Muslims had already gone to be trained as terrorists, so I don't think we can conflate the two too much. At the same time, we can't ignore the fact that the invasion and continued presence of British and U.S. forces in Iraq is an inflammatory issue, particularly in Britain and particularly among the British Muslims, with profound effect. As we know, there have been British nationals who have gone off to Iraq to fight [against the allied forces], so it has served as something of a rallying cry.

But I don't see the London attacks as a quid pro quo for the British role in Iraq. On October 7, 2001, Osama bin Laden was quite explicit in linking President Bush and Prime Minister Blair as one and the same. Iraq doesn't mitigate this animus and hostility at all, but it existed irrespective of Iraq.

At the same time, I don't think there's been much diminishment of recruits or financing to terrorist organizations. They're not necessarily thriving, but they're not withering on the vine either, and clearly Iraq has played a role in sustaining that.

What's your view of the "flypaper strategy," the idea that we're drawing the terrorists to the fight in Iraq so that we don't have to fight them elsewhere?

I think the problem is that there are more than enough terrorists to go around. It is clear that lots of people who may have gone elsewhere to fight are indeed going to Iraq now -- but a number of them are also returning to where they came from afterward, and this is the fundamental problem we now face. Win, lose or draw in Iraq, in some respects the damage has been done. What we'll see is a greater dispersal from Iraq at some point in time -- paradoxically, I think, the more successful we are. People like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi aren't going to make their stand in Iraq; for them the road to Amman and Tel Aviv, and perhaps also to Riyadh or even to Western Europe, leads through Baghdad. Eventually we will have to contend with this problem. Just as fighters left Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the late 1980s and were behind attacks years later, when these fighters leave Iraq, we're likely to face a similar new generation of Iraqi jihadists down the line.

So has the war in Iraq in fact made things worse in the global battle against terrorism?

If it's made things worse, it's because it has not addressed what I think is the fundamental challenge we face in responding to terrorism: breaking the cycle of recruitment and regeneration that sustains terrorist organizations. They've been very quick and adept in seizing upon Iraq as a highly effective means to generate new recruits and sources of support. I'm not necessarily making a statement about whether the war was right or wrong, or whether or not we should stay in Iraq -- but this is a reality that we do have to accept and deal with. We have to find a way to counter that propaganda and hatred, to take away that weapon from the enemy.

To date, there hasn't been much evidence that the Bush administration shares that view.

I think there is some reassessment of the war on terrorism going on in Washington now. There is some talk of shifting the paradigm to a struggle against "violent extremism," which would get away from the war vernacular and would address much more effectively the problem of terrorist recruitment and support. It accepts that you have to deal with root causes, that you have to have a very robust public diplomacy and information campaign, and that you have to work equally as hard with nonmilitary means as with them.

When you've got a "war on terrorism," it implies that the reliance is on military force, and I think some in Washington are starting to recognize that. Important as that aspect is, it has to be complemented by harnessing American power in nonviolent ways as well. It's what we did in the Cold War.

That sounds a bit like coming full circle: You're describing the paradigm that many opponents of the Iraq war argued for from the get-go.

Remember that 9/11, unlike previous terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, was viewed as much more of an existential threat, so the imperative, at least in the aftermath of 9/11, was to respond with military force and break the backs of our enemies. So I think it wasn't an inappropriate response.

Are you referring to the war on Afghanistan, or on Iraq, or both?

I'm talking about the war on terrorism in general. But the key is what it looks like for the longer term, when you move beyond only using "kinetic force," as the military calls it, to include persuasion, development and other options. One could argue that the timing is critical, and that this should have started sooner rather than later. I think the important thing is that it is being recognized now. More and more in Washington, I get the impression that there is an understanding that the approach to countering terrorism has to be holistic.

And this is one of the lessons of the London attacks: Terrorism is not a problem that is exclusively amenable to a military solution. It is critical to have the other approaches in place -- and that they be given more resources and be made more of a priority than they have to date.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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9/11 Afghanistan Cia Fbi Iraq Iraq War Islam Middle East Osama Bin Laden Religion Terrorism