Politics & Policy

Inadequate Responses

London is al Qaeda's "spiritual hub in the Western world."

With this morning’s tragedy in London many experts have noted that if London, which has long faced the highly sophisticated terrorists of the IRA and numerous international terrorist organizations, can be struck by terror then every city is vulnerable. While Britain’s domestic intelligence and counterterror capabilities are highly professional and have disrupted numerous terrorist plots, there have also been glaring deficiencies in Britain’s strategies against Islamist terror.

Just over a month ago, France’s leading antiterrorism judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere gave an interview to the BBC warning that the al Qaeda threat was growing. Bruguiere stated, “We have a lot of legal means you [the U.K.] don’t have and these legal means allow us to control and possibly prevent terrorist activities.” Specifically, he mentioned lack of compulsory ID cards, the inadmissibility of wiretap evidence in British courts, and the ease of travel between the continent and the Britain on false papers.

Judge Bruguiere’s warnings should always be taken seriously. He is an investigating magistrate (the American and British systems have no equivalent), which means he is a member of the judiciary with some police powers; it is a role that has been highly effective for disrupting terrorist activity. Bruguiere has become a leading expert on Islamist terrorism and before 3/11 attempted to warn Spain that they might not merely be a staging ground for Islamist terrorism but a target. He also tried to warn the United States and Canada about the extent of the al Qaeda threat after Ahmed Ressam was caught on the Canadian border with explosives in December 1999. The January 2003 arrests of the ricin makers in Britain were also based on a tip from French intelligence.

These different Anglo-Gallic approaches to counterterrorism are decades old. In 1986 the Paris Metro was rocked by a series of bombings. Ultimately those bombings were tied to Iran and Hezbollah and were a (successful) attempt to change French policy towards Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Because French security was caught off guard by the bombings major changes were instituted, and when the Algerian civil war spilled over into France in the early 1990s, French security was better equipped to respond. France became a more difficult operating environment for Islamists, and Islamists began to shift to London. In his 2002 book Inside al Qaeda, terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna wrote, “. . . British attempts to neutralize the infrastructure of Al Qaeda and related groups have been gravely inadequate. Without a doubt, London was Al Qaeda’s spiritual hub in the Western world.”

Numerous al Qaeda attacks have been linked to this London infrastructure. The Advice and Reform Committee, founded by bin Laden in 1994 was based in London. The assassins of leading anti-Taliban Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Massoud were linked to London’s Islamic Observation Center. Abu Qatada–who is described as the head of al Qaeda in Europe, who has been linked to Zarqawi, and whose sermons were found in the Hamburg apartments of the 9/11 hijackers–was based at the Baker St. Prayer Group in London.

Perhaps the most telling example of Britain’s inadequate policies towards Islamist terror is that of Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri. Having lost both hands and an eye fighting in Afghanistan and espousing vitriolic anti-Western rhetoric, Abu Hamza was a well-known figure on London media long before 9/11. He was wanted in Yemen for links to kidnappings of Westerners in 1998. Numerous figures linked to al Qaeda had worshipped at Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park mosque. Although British police raided his mosque in early 2002, he was not arrested until May 2004. His trial just started this week.

Considering the scale of Islamist activity in Britain and its role as America’s leading ally in the world, the shock is not that that attack took place–but that it had not happened much sooner. Britain has long been in Islamist crosshairs. Heathrow had been targeted on 9/11, but the airport was shut down after the New York and Pentagon attacks. The apparent success of the Madrid bombing, both at creating mayhem and at influencing Spanish politics no doubt further inspired Islamists to attempt to hit Britain.

The attack on London is a terrible, bloody wake-up call that, unless the ideological and logistical infrastructure that supports terror is targeted, no one is invulnerable.

Aaron Mannes is the author of the TerrorBlog and of the book Profiles in Terror.

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