It could have killed as many people as Sept. 11. But the plot to blow up several planes flying from London to America shows a new trend in terrorism rings since the attacks on New York and Washington -- local mujahedin working on their own initiative, instead of cells directed from far away.
The jihadists had it all worked out: They would board planes with cleverly smuggled explosives -- preferably liquid explosives as they would be invisible to metal detectors. Then, over the wide Atlantic, three -- or maybe six -- passenger planes headed for America were supposed to explode.
This plot, broken up by British authorities Wednesday night and revealed Thursday morning, was perhaps the largest attack organized against Western targets since Sept. 11, 2001. There are plenty of clues that the perpetrators this time, like Mohammed Atta and company five years ago, were motivated by radical Islam. Many of those arrested in Britain Wednesday night were of Pakistani descent, like the London subway bombers last year. The plan also required them to die as suicide bombers, which is an almost exclusively Islamist practice.
In short, the thwarted plot looks, almost by default, like the work of al-Qaida. The idea of blowing up several jetliners at once has floated through the organization for years. But despite appearances, the question is in fact still wide open. "I can't see any connection to al-Qaida," said a German security official who deals with terrorism issues.
Security experts in Germany tend to assume that the planners behind the latest London plot belong to an independent group within the international jihad movement -- a group inspired by al-Qaida, but without any direct connection to the Osama bin Laden. Twenty-one people are still being held by the authorities in Britain at present, including the supposed leadership of the group, which was divided into a main section and a second section responsible for logistics. Sources from the U.S. intelligence community estimate the network has a total membership of about 50 people. So far, there is no evidence that they are in contact with bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But it's not impossible that members of the group attended training camps in Pakistan. Nor is it impossible that al-Zawahiri will appear on TV to claim -- falsely or not -- that the attack was organized by al-Qaida.
Flights to and from London were canceled on Thursday. Those who think the attacks were planned by a terrorist cell independent from al-Qaida can present the primitive plan itself as evidence. Reduce the plot to its basic elements, commentators say, and you have only a larger version of the Madrid or London attacks: People with bombs in their luggage step onto a passenger vehicle and set off explosives. The only difference is that this time they would have stepped onto airplanes, not trains.
A comparison with Sept. 11 is hard to make. Those attacks were complex, extensive and the product of several years' preparation in a number of different countries. While the death toll from the latest London plot could have been as high as the toll on Sept. 11, the London plot also seems to provide evidence for what terrorism experts have believed for years: that neither al-Qaida nor related groups can orchestrate an attack as sophisticated as Sept. 11 today, given the ongoing hunt for them and the elimination of several of their leaders.
Security experts close to the German government say the arrested suspects need to be viewed as "passionate amateurs." The disaster averted in London, they say, can't be the "official" al-Qaida attack that some expect the terror network to stage on or around the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It's not the bearded man in the cave or his footsoldiers that are giving counterterrorism officials a headache, say intelligence agents and academic terrorism experts, it's young killers from Europe who are radicalizing quickly and almost invisibly.
Israeli al-Qaida expert Reuven Paz says the would-be killers arrested in Britain belong to a "new generation of jihad seekers" that has taken shape in recent years, especially since the murder of the Islam-critical Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam, Netherlands. These new terrorists are typically "Islamic fundamentalists with a poor Islamic education, but a great deal of motivation for jihad in the sense of terrorism. They're not waiting for al-Qaida to recruit them. They initiate their own operations, in accordance with al-Qaida's strategy," Paz says. He assumes a lot of the potential killers reside in Europe.
Ever since the attacks on London last year, this phenomenon has been called "homegrown terrorism." It became shockingly clear after those bombings that events like the war in Iraq could move apparently well-integrated immigrants to commit mass murder among people they live with every day. The investigations now being undertaken could provide even more frightening details about the attitudes current in immigrant London and beyond.
These events suggest three things. First, the authorities are getting better at catching elusive members of the new generation of terrorists, at least toward the end of the planning stage. Second, even five years after Sept. 11, Islamist fundamentalists are willing -- and able -- to target thousands of civilians. So the future may bring mainly "low-key/low-damage" attacks, which kill a relatively small number of people at a time. There will be larger-scale plots, but they're more difficult to organize, although they still seem to exert considerable fascination for "homegrown terrorists." Third: The threat posed by Islamist terrorism has more than one source.
British journalist Jason Burke put it this way two years ago: "The good news is that this al-Qaida does not exist. The bad news is that the threat now facing the world is far more dangerous than any single terrorist leader with an army, however large, of loyal cadres. Instead the threat that faces us is new and different, complex and diverse, dynamic and protean and profoundly difficult to characterize. Currently there is no vocabulary available to describe it."
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