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Europe: Slow to Wake Up to Homegrown Terror

London street scene

London's public transport has always been an obvious target for terrorist attacks.

In a small community center in a working-class neighborhood, a group of young Muslim men in well-cut leather jackets, their shirt collars peeking out, sit speaking about why they have reached boiling point. "It's hopeless," says 23-year-old Yassin El-Abdi in flawless English with an American twang he has picked up from countless movies. Talking about the whites in town, he says angrily, "They feel we should be doing the same jobs as our parents did."

This could be Leeds, July 2005, and I could be telling you why four young men, who seemed to have everything going for them -- decent education, solid families, British citizenship -- blew themselves up in London on July 7, killing at least 56 people.

In fact, the conversation took place just before Christmas last year on the edge of Antwerp, a city regarded today as one of Europe's hippest fashion and design hotspots. Like dozens of the people I met during the week I spent there talking to young Muslims, Yassin seemed like a man you might want to take home to Mom. He was born in Belgium, went to good schools, is a qualified accountant, speaks four languages fluently, and his maroon E.U. passport allows him to work and live anywhere in Western Europe. But like almost all of his friends, Yassin was unemployed; having spent nearly a year sending out resumes by the time I met him, with no luck.

Another accountant, Moussa Abdel Aziz, 27, one of 10 children of Moroccan factory workers, exploded one night when I asked him how whites in town regarded him: "We are born with this stamp on our forehead that says 'foreigner' that will never go away," he spat out, also in fluent English. "People are less surprised seeing E.T. than seeing us. We are the true aliens."

I thought about Yassin and Moussa last week while I was wandering around the shaken streets of London. One of the bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, 30, could well have been a friend of the two Belgians, had they lived in the same town. Like Yassin and Moussa, Khan appeared to be the solid son of immigrants, this time from Pakistan, working his way up the ladder; in fact, all four of the London bombers were doing a lot better than the men I'd met in Antwerp. Khan was a tutor at a local primary school, married to its pretty headmistress, who attended last year's annual garden party at Buckingham Palace to watch his mother-in-law being honored by the Queen. Khan also visited the Houses of Parliament last summer as the guest of his local Member of Parliament. And on July 7, Khan hopped a train from his home in Leeds and at 8.51 A.M. blew up an underground train, killing himself and six other people. His satchel bomb exploded virtually underneath Edgware Road -- a busy Muslim shopping area of London.

"After I flew home from London to Paris last week, I began sifting through the mountain of notebooks on my desk, looking for the warning signs for the attacks. They were pathetically easy to find."

Above ground on the street a few days later, a block from where forensic specialists were hunting for clues, women in full chador strolled past Lebanese restaurants and Arabic newspaper stands, shopping for vegetables and changing Kuwaiti dinars at the local Western Union branch. On the surface, life in this settled, moneyed corner of London seems a world away from the reality that threw up Khan and the other three Leeds bombers.

After London, non-Muslim Europeans are left wondering exactly how to distinguish the vast majority of innocuous Muslims from those who might want to kill them. "It's OK for Tony Blair to say it's not all Muslims who support terrorism," Issa Abed Bustani, a 27-year-old Palestinian chef, told me in a Lebanese restaurant on Edgware Road. "But people will think that."

For many of us living in Europe, the London attack came as only a small surprise, and even then, the surprise was mostly in the timing, rather than the bombs themselves. For decades, suicide bombers seemed almost certain to hail from Muslim communities in south Lebanon, the West Bank, Chechnya, and more recently Iraq. But by last summer, European officials had begun to sound the alarm, warning that the threat was creeping closer to home than most Europeans could dare to imagine.

After I flew home from London to Paris last week, I began sifting through the mountain of notebooks on my desk, looking for the warning signs for the July 7 attacks. They were pathetically easy to find. Among them were notes from a terrorism conference I attended last summer near Florence. Peter Clarke, the impressive, articulate chief of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorism force -- who has spent the past 10 days unraveling the London bombs -- sent a palpable chill around a table of about 20 European investigators. "The parameters have changed completely," he told them bluntly. "Until now, there has been a perception that all international terrorism came from abroad, from the Maghreb, from the Middle East, from Afghanistan. We need to look inward at our own communities."

Clarke was pleading for European officials to wake up before it was too late, and to begin tackling some of Europe's mounting social problems, which seemed like a ticking time bomb to him. But of course, the problems were a lot tougher than could be solved in a weekend get-together in a Tuscan villa. Look inside Muslim communities in Europe, and it's clear that sooner or later, people who feel marginalized in overwhelmingly white societies, and discriminated against in housing and jobs, are bound to be rich pickings for terrorist recruiters.

"Clarke was pleading for European officials to wake up before it was too late, and to begin tackling some of Europe's mounting social problems."

Last week in Holland, Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch Muslim, was on trial for killing the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had dared to challenge the rise of Islamic extremism in the country. Facing van Gogh's mother in the Amsterdam court last Wednesday, Bouyeri said: "I don't feel your pain." Given another chance, "I would do exactly the same thing," he said.

A few recruits among France's 6 million Muslims -- the largest Muslim population in Europe -- and the 1.6 million in Britain have had an ideal training ground for more than two years: the frontlines of the Iraq war. By the time the London bombs exploded, at least five Europeans had blown themselves up in suicide attacks in Iraq -- 1 British, 1 Spanish, 1 French, 1 Dutch and 1 Swede. Another four French citizens have been killed in Iraq in firefights with U.S. soldiers; all of them came from a hardscrabble district of northern Paris, not dissimilar to the Belgian neighborhood where Yassin and Moussa live, or the Beeston neighborhood of south Leeds, home of at least one of the London bombers. In recent weeks, Spanish police have arrested eight of their citizens, two of whom had already volunteered to travel to Iraq as suicide bombers.

Looking at the European citizens who have been killed in Iraq as insurgents, we cannot rely on national governments within Europe to point to where future terrorist attacks on European soil might be. The next suicide bombers could well come from French, Swedish, or Dutch towns, despite the fact that each of those governments vociferously opposed the war in Iraq. "Those European militants who traveled to Iraq and survived will return with well-developed urban combat skills that will make the German Red Army Faction and Spain's ETA look like child's play," wrote Tom Sanderson, deputy director of the Transnational Threats department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Sanderson wrote this on April 29 -- six weeks before the London bombs exploded. With stunning understatement, Sanderson added: "Solutions to help confront this threat are not yet in place."

Since I returned home from London last week, I've been considering calling Yassin and Moussa to see how things are going, and whether their job prospects in Antwerp have improved since I saw them last December. For now, I have opted to let the aftermath of the London bombs cool off before I do.

Vivienne Walt is a veteran foreign correspondent based in Paris. Born in South Africa, she has covered the war in Iraq for Time and other publications.