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Britain faces evolving threat
Toronto Globe and Mail


July 02, 2007

LONDON -- In Britain, where terrorist plots have become alarmingly familiar, last week's dramatic string of attempted car bombings demonstrated a new and disconcerting element: An enthusiastic, and often incompetent, amateurism.

Saturday's fiery attempt to drive an SUV packed with propane cylinders and gasoline into Glasgow airport, and Thursday night's twin car-bomb attempts in London's entertainment district -- attacks now believed to be the work of a single gang -- failed to claim any lives, although one of the two Glasgow attackers is in critical condition after setting himself on fire during the attack.

Investigators say the car bombs, using cylinders of compressed propane or oxygen and large quantities of gasoline and shrapnel-producing nails, are the same as Iraqi bombs such as one that killed 87 people in Baghdad two weeks ago. This time, the execution was inept and amateurish.

But the apparently bumbling nature of the attacks has given little comfort to security officials. Instead, it has roused a deeper fear: That a new, less rigidly organized form of Islamic terrorism is emerging in the West, without tight links to al-Qaeda leadership, populated with inconspicuous citizens whose extreme beliefs may have escaped the notice of police and intelligence agencies.

Little is known about the gang, apparently based in northern England, that carried out the car-bomb attempts, although at least three of its active members are believed to remain at large.

Two of the five people arrested, including one of the drivers of the Jeep Cherokee, are reportedly doctors employed in Britain's public medical system, and one was the wife of a doctor, respectable members of society whose terrorist plans had escaped notice.

It was also clear that most of them had not lived in the cities attacked.

"The people we have in custody came to Scotland a short while ago to seek work," said John Neilson, an assistant chief constable with Glasgow's Strathclyde police force. "Other than that, I can't tell you, but I'm sure the community in Glasgow in particular will be reassured. These are not your young people."

Police conceded that at least some of the gang members have never been subjects of surveillance, despite the fact that tens of thousands of Britons are being watched by MI5, the domestic spy agency that is now entirely devoted to counterterrorism.

Senior officials, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown, described the gang as being affiliated with al-Qaeda. But the precise nature of the links is unknown, and there are fears that a new wave of terrorists is emerging that has never had physical contact with al-Qaeda leaders.

In most major terrorist plots, there have been at least some cell members who have used family connections to attend al-Qaeda training camps in the mountainous regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. There, they have met senior leaders of the terrorist network, learned bomb-making methods and often fallen under the eyes of intelligence agencies.

But there is a fear that members of this gang could be so-called "clean skins," people who developed an affinity with al-Qaeda through Internet connections or personal beliefs, without making any actual contact.

"It's too early to tell whether al-Qaeda central had a role in this attack," said Sajjan Gohel, an analyst with the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation. "Because it failed, it's unlikely that al-Qaeda leadership will want to be claiming credit for them ... but since 2004, all attacks apprehended in Britain have had at least indirect links to al-Qaeda leadership."

Senior political officials described the gang as part of a new al-Qaeda thrust, timed to coincide with the change of governments in Britain.

"Make no mistake, this weekend's bomb attacks signal a major escalation in the war being waged on us by Islamic militants," John Stevens, Brown's security adviser, said Sunday. "The terror of 7/7 (the 2005 bombings) was awful enough, but now al-Qaeda has imported the tactics of Baghdad and Bali to our streets. ... It will get worse before it gets better."

Yet intelligence officials said that it is also clear that years of intensive policing and surveillance have changed the nature of terrorist cells.

In earlier years, officials saw al-Qaeda cells as being similar to the Irish Republican Army groups that terrorized Britain with bombing campaigns throughout the 1980s and '90s: They were fairly well-trained and organized, often veterans of military campaigns and able to channel their extreme beliefs into well-orchestrated actions.

The latest generation seem more similar to the left-wing terrorist cells that emerged in the United States in the early 1970s, setting off dozens of bombs, most of which failed to explode or kill anyone. Because intensive policing prevented larger or more permanent extremist groups from forming, the scene was dominated by the small, the amateur and often the undetectable.

Police said that the bombing attempts were almost certainly carried out by a gang of eight people, and that the Glasgow and London attacks used almost identical devices.


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