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Fighting Terrorism

July 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: This is not the first time London’s been struck by terrorist violence. But today’s attacks — three on the subway and one on the bus — point away from the domestic strife that’s driven past attacks. So who’s behind today’s events and why?

To assess those and other questions we’re joined by: Sara Daly, who covered the Middle East at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from 1996 to 2002. She’s now a researcher at the RAND Corporation; and Terence Taylor, president of the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He just arrived in London this morning and will join us in minute.

Sara Daly, we’ve been told that international agencies began heating up the phone lines right after these attacks occurred. Ministers in charge of homeland security started speaking to their opposite numbers in other capitals. Ideally attacks like these are thwarted before they happen, but when one comes off, what is it that these agencies are talking to each other about at this point?

SARA DALY: Well, I think they are trying to understand the specifics of the attack, how it was carried out, if they have any details as to how they can possibly prevent those types of attacks from happening in their countries as well. They’re trying to understand who the perpetrators are.

Obviously, it’s very early to have those sorts of details. But getting information about how these were actually perpetrated and done I think is important for them to see if they see similar hallmarks in their transportation systems or anywhere else in vulnerable targets in their countries.

RAY SUAREZ: What is it that agencies, Terence Taylor, would want to know from each other after an attack has occurred?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, they certainly be looking at their historical data, any warnings and information they got from various sources to see if they would match up, and of course they’d always be looking forwards as to what might happen next.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we’re told that there was no warning in the case of the London attacks and the first claim that came out was from an organization calling itself the Secret Organization of al-Qaida in Europe. How seriously do you have to take this claim and how do you rule it in or out?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, it obviously has — for the moment — to be taken seriously. This organization hasn’t been heard of before. So I think there will be a need for further confirmation and maybe some time will need to be elapsed before we can be sure that it was indeed this organization that planned and carried out this attack.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, apart from the police reasons and wanting to run down the people who did this, why is it important to know who and how?

SARA DALY: I think to understand the wider network that’s involved here, whether they have any connections to al-Qaida or a central organization that’s running or helping to plan, orchestrate these types of attacks is important and to prevent future attacks from happening and understand how these individuals are connected is crucial.

RAY SUAREZ: Because we’ve been hold over the last couple of years that a lot of al-Qaida operatives scattered throughout the world have been arrested, that operations have been rolled up, that cells have been smashed.

If a group calls itself al-Qaida and uses an al-Qaida modus operandi, does it really matter that much whether it’s being run out of a shadowy place in the hills of Afghanistan?

SARA DALY: I think it matters obviously to some degree, but what we’re seeing now as you sort of eluded to is the evolution of al-Qaida-inspired attacks, individuals who may or may not have some connection to the wider organization, but who come together to plan a specific operation like this. Many of them are not known to local security agencies, which may be one reason why they did not pop up on an intelligence radar.

RAY SUAREZ: Terence Taylor, does that decentralization that’s been talked about in recent years, ever since 9/11, provide quite a challenge for international law enforcement?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Indeed it does. It makes these groups who may be autonomous in the true sense and essentially all they might do is share the idea al-Qaida. You hear some people say it’s in fact an idea in itself, and so, for example, the attacks in Madrid in March of 2004, where 191 people were killed, where a group came from Morocco, and it’s not clear absolutely how, whether it was a precise direction on the timing of the attack and exactly where it would take place. I would say that was unlikely. And these groups operate to the general idea, the general strategy, and use opportunities as they see fit.

RAY SUAREZ: Terence Taylor, very little has come out so far about how these attacks were carried out — the materials used, the methods used. From a countermeasures point of view, from a prevention point of view, what’s the difference between a suicide bomber and a planted bomb? When you’re trying to gain this, to thwart it, what are the differences that you have to take into account with those two different methods?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, we don’t know precisely the kinds of methods that were used in today’s attacks in London, but there might be some remote control device, which may be through the means of a mobile telephone, for example, is one classic way of doing it or detonated at short range or indeed the individual may be indeed with the bomb itself and setting them off.

So it’s very hard to, particularly hard to defend yourself against a suicide type attack unless the individual is physically identified and looking odd in some way, so the suicide attacker is generally the hardest one to spot.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the threat level, Sara Daly, was raised on mass transit systems across the United States today. Was that a worthwhile thing to do in your view?

SARA DALY: I think it was, just to be vigilant and to sort of have your radar up about what to look for, suspicious individuals that might be suicide bombers, potential suicide bombers. I think it just raises the awareness in the general public to look out for these sorts of things.

RAY SUAREZ: Even when there’s no particular rise in chatter, warning, intelligence intercepts or anything like that?

SARA DALY: Oftentimes we will see repeat attacks or other sorts of ways of attacks that follow on from this; it’s a potential, so I think it is important to raise the awareness level.

RAY SUAREZ: Terence Taylor, why London, why do you think?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, I think my, I think the opinion I’ve shared with other analysts here is that of course the G-8 Summit was the time in which the world’s attention would be focused with leaders of the eight most powerful nations gathered in Scotland to the North. But, of course, what the terrorists did was attack a soft target in London, soft I mean a public transport, in that sense.

And so they hoped to strike a blow at the capital of the United Kingdom, one of what al-Qaida type organizations will portray as one of their primary enemies alongside the United States. And so they hope to strike a blow and to take their place on the world stage and to overshadow the G-8 Summit.

RAY SUAREZ: Strike a blow at a city, Terence Taylor, that’s been on anti-terror footing for decades, hasn’t it?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Indeed. If you look back over the past 20 years, this capital — and I have been present at some of these attacks – has experienced this kind of terrorism. And the resilience and resolve of people is quite remarkable over this time, although, I’d have to say the attacks today were on a larger scale than has been experienced generally in the attacks of the cities in the United Kingdom.

But it was only in the early 90′s, there was, for example, a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street right from the center of London. So this is a city where people are – I wouldn’t – it’s wrong to say they’re used to it – you never get used to this kind of thing — but they’re resilient in the face of it and the record has shown that people have drawn together and ride against the government in any perhaps security measures they may take in these circumstances.

RAY SUAREZ: Sara Daly, the warning, the claim of responsibility this morning mentioned specifically two countries: Denmark and Italy, which have troops that are in the international coalition fighting in Iraq. Should they be reacting even more seriously than other countries that might feel they have something to fear?

SARA DALY: I mean, I think they should take those threats seriously. In the past al-Qaida has or al-Qaida-like groups have singled out other countries that they’re interested in targeting in these sorts of statements. So, I think they do have to take those types of threats seriously and be vigilant, just as any of the rest of us would, but I think they do have to take that threat seriously.

RAY SUAREZ: Sara Daly, Terence Taylor, thank you both.

SARA DALY: Thank you.