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Police Make Arrests in Failed British Bombings

July 2, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: And to discuss the latest developments in the London and Glasgow plot investigations and what British authorities think they know about the perpetrators so far, we’re joined by two analysts who’ve written extensively about terrorism and its trends. Bruce Hoffman is a professor of security studies at Georgetown University. And Brian Jenkins is a senior adviser on terrorism at the Rand Corporation.

Welcome, gentlemen.

All right, Bruce Hoffman, the news today is the arrest — at least it’s believed, these are the reports, that one’s Iraqi, one’s Jordanian, both doctors. What does that tell you?

BRUCE HOFFMAN, Professor, Georgetown University: It tells me that it’s very difficult to any longer profile the suicide terrorists. They can be young or old. They can be educated and uneducated. They can be poor and rich. They can come from the Middle East, but also from South Asia, as we’ve seen in the United Kingdom, from North Africa, even the Caribbean.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Brian Jenkins, the focus after the 7/7, the foiled — I mean, the successful 7/7 bomb plot in 2005 was on the homegrown British Muslims. Would you say, though, does this suggest what happened today that the threat is also growing in Britain from foreign nationals who are coming in?

BRIAN JENKINS, Senior Adviser, The Rand Corporation: Well, I think it is both. Certainly al-Qaida, the jihadist enterprise, those who broadcast that ideology have been very, very effective in creating a narrative that attracts a number of people. They may include individuals within the country and within the immigrant community, sons of immigrants, people who have migrated to these countries more recently, as well as converts. Those are reservoirs that this message is tapping into right now.

Tactics are not new

Brian Jenkins
Rand Corporation
The investigation is clearly moving along very, very quickly. The ability of the authorities to recover both of the devices in London intact in those vehicles as opposed to picking up debris provides an enormous amount of forensic evidence.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Bruce Hoffman, the prime minister's newly appointed counterterrorism czar, Sir John Stevens, who's formerly of the Scotland Yard said today or yesterday, "Al-Qaida has imported the tactics of Baghdad and Bali onto the streets of the U.K." How new for Britain are the tactics that were used this weekend or attempted to be used?

BRUCE HOFFMAN: Well, in some respects, they're not all that new, because, of course, the IRA detonated car and truck bombs in London and Manchester and other cities in England, as well, of course, as in Northern Ireland. I think what we're facing now is a much more diversified threat.

It's not just people strapping on suicide belts or putting bombs in backpacks. But now we have people using vehicles, and especially in London we see an incident where one car is placed with explosives, and then a car is parked nearby precisely to get the emergency rescue teams and precisely to get the gathering crowd that's fleeing the scene of the first attack, so therefore to commit wholesale homicide, very different from the IRA, who often gave warnings ahead of time.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Brian Jenkins, nonetheless, four days into this, we still don't know much about the alleged perpetrators. Why is that?

BRIAN JENKINS: Well, I think that the investigation is clearly moving along very, very quickly. The ability of the authorities to recover both of the devices in London intact in those vehicles as opposed to picking up debris provides an enormous amount of forensic evidence, that plus the intensive television coverage that they have throughout the city of London, especially in the financial district and West End of the city, where the principal targets are for possible terrorist attacks...

MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about closed circuit television?

BRIAN JENKINS: ... provide them with an opportunity to really move the investigation along very, very quickly.

The authorities in this investigation, their primary objective is to get all participants in this conspiracy off the streets before another event occurs. The fact that they haven't let out much information to the public, the fact that they haven't enlisted the public much, in terms of trying to identify individuals, means to me that they're doing fine right now. Public involvement will come when they feel it is useful to them, not before.

Connections to al-Qaida

Bruce Hoffman
Georgetown University
We know from the British authorities themselves that, in recent years, they've disrupted upwards of 30 plots that link back to al-Qaida commanders and operatives in Pakistan, directing their supplicants in the United Kingdom.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the prime minister and others have asserted, Bruce Hoffman, an al-Qaida connection. Where do you see a connection that is either in methodology or the nature of the alleged perpetrators that we know so far?

BRUCE HOFFMAN: First and foremost, we know from the British authorities themselves that, in recent years, they've disrupted upwards of 30 plots that link back to al-Qaida commanders and operatives in Pakistan, directing their supplicants in the United Kingdom. So it would be, I think, out of the ordinary now to see one plot that does not have some kind of al-Qaida imprimatur and, indeed, al-Qaida involvement.

Secondly, it's just the means of the attack. The London bombings, for example, is a carbon copy of a plot that British police broke up in 2004 that involved taking limousines, packing them filled with gasoline with canisters of flammable gases, and detonating them in front of nightclubs, department stores and so on. So we see both consistent al-Qaida involvement, but also a carbon copy of what has become at least the staple of al-Qaida operations now.

MARGARET WARNER: But has al-Qaida actually -- is this a sort of operational -- is this from the command level, where they're trying to implant people in Britain? Or do you think these are al-Qaida wannabes, sort of the franchise that has metastasized at work here?

BRUCE HOFFMAN: I actually think that it's the fruits of a strategic investment that al-Qaida made in the United Kingdom nearly a decade ago. We know from the British authorities that nearly 3,000 British Muslims trained in al-Qaida camps in the late 1990s and returned to the United Kingdom.

I think they've been successful in building an infrastructure that both recruits locally, that succeeds in radicalizing British nationals, but also is a feeder or a conduit for also foreign nationals to bring them to the United Kingdom, to break the profile that the British authorities are working off of, and even to include doctors in that profile.

A lack of technical expertise

Brian Jenkins
Rand Corporation
Intent was there; capability, not quite, which would suggest that these individuals may not have had access to a master bomb-maker or hands-on instruction or experience in dealing with making an explosive device.

MARGARET WARNER: How compelling, Brian Jenkins, do you find the possibility of an al-Qaida connection here?

BRIAN JENKINS: Well, connectivity within the jihadist universe is always murky. And it can mean -- when the authorities say that there's an al-Qaida connection, it can mean anything from the fact that al-Qaida ideology has incited individuals to carry out an attack, all the way over to the other end of the spectrum, which means a central direction, planning, technical assistance, financing of a specific operation. And it can mean anything in between.

What is interesting in this recent attack is that clearly, while intent with manifest, thus far what has been reported about the devices themselves doesn't indicate a high level of technical sophistication. So intent was there; capability, not quite, which would suggest that these individuals may not have had access to a master bomb-maker or hands-on instruction or experience in dealing with making an explosive device.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what does that tell you?

BRIAN JENKINS: That suggests in this case that, if there was an al-Qaida involvement, certainly not at the technical level. I would be careful coming to a conclusion just yet that this particular set of events that we've seen in the United Kingdom is a centrally directed operation. We have to be careful here, and that's why I say caution is in order.

Homegrown and foreign terrorists

Bruce Hoffman
Georgetown University
I don't know of one British case since 2001 that hasn't had direct al-Qaida involvement in it.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

BRIAN JENKINS: Initially after the July 7, 2005, bombings in London subways and on the bus, there it was initially thought that these were entirely homegrown terrorists, unconnected with al-Qaida.

As the investigation unfolded over the months, then it was discovered that at least one, possibly two, of the individuals had received training in Pakistan. A tape was broadcast. The suicide testament of one of the bombers, alongside, coupled together with a tape from Sheikh Zawahiri, from al-Qaida central. And so, as it unfolded, it appeared there was greater al-Qaida involvement than we had originally imagined. We just don't know yet.

MARGARET WARNER: Bruce Hoffman was shaking his head, so a final comment from you?

BRUCE HOFFMAN: I don't know of one British case since 2001 that hasn't had direct al-Qaida involvement in it. And even in the 7/21/05 bombings that were two weeks later, those bombs didn't explode, yet the leader of that cell was trained in the same al-Qaida camp in Pakistan as the more successful bombers on 7/7.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, much more to find out. Bruce Hoffman, Brian Jenkins, thank you both.