On the Scene in London
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GWEN IFILL: Joining me is Vivienne Walt, a reporter for Time Magazine. She was on a train coming into King’s Cross Station in central London this morning right after an explosion hit on a subway approaching that station.
Vivienne, thank you for joining us. Give us your on-the-ground experience of what you first saw there today.
VIVIENNE WALT: Well, it was total bedlam, as you can imagine, Gwen. But the curious thing which seems so surreal now is that there was a sense of just total confusion and even though this was the third bomb on the train system this morning, there was still a sense among many people that perhaps it wasn’t a terrorist attack and in fact the station was completely jammed with people trying to get to work, with tourists who had just arrived and were trying to get to the airport.
And a very calm official from the underground system was directing everybody to buses saying that, in fact, there had been some electrical problem on the line and they had decided to shut it down. It was really only out on the street that the full impact of what had happened hit people. And there were ambulances and police cars screaming down the streets with their sirens wailing, and there seemed to be mounting sense that something awful had happened in the city.
GWEN IFILL: So typically this is normally a very busy area so it took a while for all this to sink in?
VIVIENNE WALT: Well, King’s Cross is usually — usually has a kind of tint of chaos about it. It’s being rebuilt at the moment. There are barriers everywhere. There are sidewalks you cannot walk on these days, and so it looks a little bit in disarray anyway on a normal day. And it took a while for people to realize that, in fact, something extraordinary had happened here.
The other thing is that Londoners are very sanguine about their railway system. It really is in terrible shape. And, in fact, when I finally did get a taxi today, I climbed in, and the driver had still not heard that there’ been a terrorist attack in London. And he said, Oh, no, don’t tell me there are problems again with the tubes. This happens every day. And what are we going to do about the Olympics; they’d better sort out this problem. So, you know, for a lot of Londoners, they just felt that it was sort of another day of chaos.
GWEN IFILL: After it began to sink in, was it widely accepted — by now is it widely accepted that this was — that these attacks were related to the meeting of the G-8 in Scotland?
VIVIENNE WALT: Well, I’ve spoken to a number of analysts today in London, and they have some interesting insights, one of which is clearly this was timed for the opening of the G-8, but not because al-Qaida particularly cares one way or another about poverty in Africa or climate change issues, the two big hot button issues that is being discussed at the G-8 summit this week.
It’s more that the security services themselves in Britain are somewhat focused at the moment and making sure that things go okay in Gleneagles. And as one analysts said to me, perhaps the eyes were off London. Another one said to me of course, you know, the world’s press is all gathered in Britain this week; if they want maximum impact, this was a great day to do it on.
GWEN IFILL: So at this point, what can they tell us, or can tell they tell us anything about what they suspect — who they suspect the perpetrators are?
VIVIENNE WALT: Well, there has been claim on the Web site, although I think but we ought to be a little bit circumspect about that. I mean, usually when al-Qaida does claim an attack, people see other Islamic Web sites join in and essentially support the claim. They haven’t done that today, which suggests that perhaps this is either a group that is not connected to a wider network, or perhaps it’s a false claim and that we haven’t actually seen the real claim emerge yet.
Certainly the people I have spoken to today who have studied al-Qaida tactics for many years believe that this has all the trademarks of al-Qaida. It was a soft target, public transportation. Infrastructure has become one of the favorite for al-Qaida attacks. It’s well coordinated, simultaneous attacks at morning rush hour and certainly it suggests a degree of sophistication.
That doesn’t mean to say that it has any link to bin Laden himself. At this point al-Qaida’s a fairly decentralized organization and could well be a cell that doesn’t have much contact with anybody else.
GWEN IFILL: I’ve read today that there is apparently an extensive system of public surveillance cameras in Great Britain, but especially in London, and it may be helping them, or at least we assume that tonight they’re spending a lot of time reviewing those tapes. Do you know anything about that?
VIVIENNE WALT: Yes. I mean, ironically London and Britain generally is well known to have the densest number of closed circuit television cameras per capita anywhere in the world. And wherever you go, in every building and public space there seems to be a little lens, you know, focused on you. So hopefully those videos will eventually tell a story.
But, you know, as people today — both regular Londoners and also analysts said to me today — there is really only so much you can do. There is almost no way to prevent an attack on something like an underground train, and you have about three million people a day in and out of the tubes on London. This was the height of rush hour. Every single train is packed, every cab is packed. And, you know, it just seems the easiest thing in the world to do to walk onto a train, leave an explosive and get off at the next station.
GWEN IFILL: Vivienne Walt, Time Magazine in London, thank you so much for joining us.
VIVIENNE WALT: You’re welcome.