String of bombings could set off others

England, Egypt incidents may embolden extremists elsewhere, specialists say


July 24, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As the bombing investigations continue today in London and another begins in Egypt, the attacks not only serve as a wake-up call to government officials around the globe but also might well prove infectious, inspiring more attacks in London and elsewhere, including the United States, terrorism analysts said.

The second round of London bombings, especially, offered several gruesomely motivational lessons for al-Qaida sympathizers, said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Lesson one is that success isn't necessary, he said. After the second round of bombings in London, the havoc, dislocation, fear and the reported surge in bicycle purchases were, from a potential bomber's perspective, almost as good as mass casualties.

The reason is that two events in succession shake the faith of citizens in their government. Thursday's bombings showed that, in a city under high alert and already investigating an attack, it was possible to launch another one.

The second lesson for aspiring bombers is that their plans don't have to be terribly sophisticated. Intelligence professionals have long assumed that al-Qaida spends months, if not years, planning each attack, which gives an aggressive intelligence officer time to try to trip up the terrorists as they plot.

Thursday's bombings radically altered that equation. They taught this lesson: "You could even forge ahead without a detailed, formulated plan, and go ahead and do some stuff that would have a pretty serious impact," the U.S. intelligence official said. "That's something I would worry about."

A third lesson would-be bombers will take from the pair of bombings is that it is possible to hide in plain sight. The bombers' plans for the first round of London transit system attacks were unknown even to the four bombers' friends and relatives.

If terrorists-in-waiting take those lessons to heart, the most likely outcome is more frequent, lower-level attacks, analysts said.

The lessons from yesterday's bombings in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, seemed similar, even as officials continued sifting the rubble. The apparently coordinated bombings testified to considerable planning and daring.

It's possible that future attacks might come from al-Qaida sympathizers who had been undecided about executing an attack - until they saw the impact of even botched bombings like those last week in London, said Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University.

"It seems quite possible, indeed probable," said Post.

A number of analysts said that with the franchising of al-Qaida, some local, start-up jihadist groups might execute attacks to prove themselves to either the core leadership of al-Qaida or, more important, to Allah.

"That's probably a motivation for a lot of these groups," said Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow for counter-terrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington.

Orchestrating a small-scale attack such as the July 7 bombings in London requires only a handful of local residents, so the math is in the attackers' favor, said Mark Lowenthal, who has served as assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production at the CIA and Vice Chairman for Evaluation on the National Intelligence Council.

"That's the attraction to this kind of activity," Lowenthal said. "You don't need many people to have a lasting effect."

Even well-educated Muslims who have lived much of their lives in Western culture have become radicalized. Though the first Muslims to permanently settle in the United Kingdom, Yemenis, did so about 1900, experts said many still have not integrated into the larger society.

For Muslims in Britain, segregation, some of it self-imposed, is rife even among the nationalities. Many Pakistanis, for example, migrate to England's West Midlands, industrial towns in the southeast, such as Luton, or to West Yorkshire.

That is where three of the July 7 bombers lived, in West Yorkshire, in or around the town of Leeds, in tough neighborhoods where futures can look bleak.

"One of the effects of the long-term marginalization of the Muslim communities - whether some wanted to be integrated or not - is the ideology of confrontation," said Steven Simon, a counterterrorism expert with the Rand Corp. "It doesn't matter that they don't go to mosque and can no longer relate to the countries their parents came from. Now they have an option. They have an identity, this transnational identity."

While the extremist mix is far more incendiary in Britain, current and former U.S. government security officials said they worry about the recent London bombings swaying would-be jihadis in the United States.

"If I were in law enforcement today, I would be worried about someone who was on the fringe gravitating toward an activist approach," said Robert Liscouski, formerly assistant secretary for information analysis at the Department of Homeland Security.

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