The investigation of the latest terror plot to target the United Kingdom is very fluid. Right now, the headlines are these: There have been at least three attempted car-bomb attacks, the perpetrators were Islamic radicals, five people are in custody, and the police have searched various places in England and Scotland.
Many questions remain, the most pressing being: Have there been other attempts that have not yet been revealed publicly? Are additional attacks likely? Is this an al Qaeda operation? What has triggered it at this particular time?
To deal first with what we know, there were two attempted bombings in London’s West End in the wee hours of Friday morning and one at the airport in Glasgow late Saturday morning. Investigators deem them related: Aside from the timing and geographical proximity, the method of attack across-the-board involves cars loaded with gas canisters, the cars used in London are reportedly tied to Glasgow (likely, registered there), and there is good reason to believe the terrorists are all Muslims — although, as usual, the British government and press, all on their best P.C. behavior, are careful to refer to the suspects as “Asian” or, when they get really daring, “South Asian.”
So why are we thinking Islamic terror? Well, generally speaking, that is what most terror is, and we know there is a large, angry foreign (or, “South Asian,” if you will) population in the U.K. which sympathizes with jihadists and has threatened renewed attacks. British intelligence has recently indicated that it is monitoring 1,600 known terrorist suspects in 200 identified cells.
More specifically, information has begun to leak out about the five suspects in custody. Two were arrested Saturday in the foiled attack on Glasgow airport. Witnesses say one, engulfed in flames, was yelling, “Allah, Allah,” as he fought police off while his comrade unsuccessfully labored to torch the fuel-laden SUV they had rammed into the terminal. Both men are now in custody. The burned man is in critical condition, and some reports indicate he was also wearing an explosive suicide belt that had to be removed from him in the hospital.
Further, late Saturday night, on the Glasgow-bound M6 highway in northwest England, police arrested a 26-year-old Iranian-Kurd named Mohammed Asha and the 27-year-old woman who was with him (whose identity has not been disclosed). According to the New York Times, Asha is a medical doctor who works at North Staffordshire Hospital near Midlands. One of the other detainees — likely, one of the two detained in Scotland — also reportedly works at a hospital, in Glasgow.
Finally, a fifth suspect has been apprehended in Liverpool amid intriguing details that suggest the possibility of another attempted bombing. Specifically, authorities reportedly seized a suspicious vehicle Saturday at the John Lennon Airport, which was abruptly closed — though it, like the airport in Glasgow, reopened Sunday.
There are, moreover, strong indications of yet another bombing attempt. The Times report this morning refers in passing to “a controlled explosion on a car in the parking lot of a hospital near Glasgow,” which police carried out Sunday. Investigators declined to give details other than that the vehicle was somehow related to the plot.
Britain’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown, has been explicit in his public statements that this new series of attacks is linked to al Qaeda. The nature of that linkage is has not been revealed, and many experts have expressed skepticism about the possibility because the explosive devices here were poorly constructed. This, though, gives way too much credit to al Qaeda. Yes, several of its operations have been highly professional, but its operatives are not all ten feet tall and they have produced their share of amateur-hour moments.
In any event, because the Brits make extensive use of video surveillance, there are apparently good photographs of the suspects in the Friday attempts. One of them, in early reports, was said to bear a very strong resemblance to a man briefly detained two years ago in connection with an unsuccessful terrorist plot that authorities call “Operation Rhyme.” It was spearheaded by Dhiren Barot, aka “Abu Musa al-Hindi,” a known al Qaeda operative who pled guilty last year to various terror charges and is now serving a 30-year sentence.
The suspected connection to Operation Rhyme is also interesting because, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, one aspect of it bore a striking similarity to the ongoing plot: The method of filling vehicles with gas canisters and then detonating them remotely by cell-phone triggers. (Evidently, there were futile efforts to detonate the first two London bombs by cell-phone.) If it pans out, the Barot tie would be additionally alarming given that he was hoping to hit major American sites as well as targets in the U.K.
On the other hand, the Iranian-Kurdish heritage of Asha, the one detainee who has been identified, has authorities theorizing about potential connections to Ansar al-Islam, an al Qaeda-affiliated terror group whose hub was the Kurdish region of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Ansar has been ejected in the ongoing war, and, like other Qaeda-tied terrorists, found a soft place to land in Iran. Last spring, British intelligence warned of the possibility that the group would stage attacks timed to coincide with Tony Blair’s departure from office … which, of course, happened last week.
And there is a ton of other speculation, as is always the case in the early stages of these episodes. The attacks are said to be related to anger over Iraq, or over the recent knighthood of Salman Rushdie; the timing means they must be harbingers of more and deadlier strikes to mark July 7, when jihadists’ deadliest terror attacks on Britain occurred two years ago; the Glasgow angle is thought indicative of a special warning of some kind to Brown, a Scot, as he takes the reins from Blair. On it goes.
But, for now at least, these foiled attacks are best understood as new rounds in a long, global war, provoked by the challenge of radical Islam. As the new prime minister noted with apt chagrin, that challenge “is not going to go away” any time soon.