Thursday, July 21, 2005

Connecting the Dots

Two weeks after the London terrorist bombings, new details have emerged about the Al-Qaida plot that resulted in the deaths of 56 people.

From today's edition of The Times, there's a chilling report that a senior Al-Qaida operative traveled to Britian in the months leading up to the attacks, and even selected the targets. He also chatted with the four homicide bombers on his mobile phone shortly before they blew themselves up on crowded subway trains and double-decker bus.

The Al-Qaida planner, Haroon Rashid Aswat, has emerged as the primary figure in Scotland Yard's investigation of the terror attacks. Aswat was arrested in Pakistan after the bombings, hiding in a madrassa (Islamic religious school), and posing as a businessman under an assumed name. He was carrying about $20,000 in cash and reportedly planned to slip across the border into Afghanistan.

Aswat hails from the same British town as one of the bombers and he was carrying a British passport at the time of his arrest. These details confirm original suspicions about the London attacks; the tube and bus bombings were home-grown affairs, planned and conducted by Muslim subjects of the crown.

Connecting the dots after any terrorist attack is always illuminating, offering new insights into the operational methods of the organization. The London bombings indicate Al-Qaida is still in something of a de-centralized operating mode, relying largely on home-grown radicals to do its deadly bidding. That suggests that Al-Qaida may still lack the capability to launch a 9-11-style "spectacular" operation, while retaining the ability to stage attacks on the scale of London or Madrid.

But the details emerging now are also disturbing, in a couple of respects. First, despite concerns about the ability of western intelligence to monitor cell phone conversations, Aswat felt comfortable enough to call his "team" shortly before they departed on their murderous errand. That suggests that Al-Qaida has sufficiently modified its procedures to allow some use of cell phones, with little fear of being caught. There is no evidence that western intelligence had any prior knowledge of the plot, including the conversations between Aswat and his fellow terrorists.

Security officials have also learned that Aswat spent time in America in 1999, attempting to set up an Al-Qaida training camp. Aswat ultimately decided against establishing a camp, because the designated site (in rural Oregon) lacked necessary facilities. However, Aswat and another Al-Qaida suspect did deliver a series of lectures at a Seattle mosque, expouding the radical teachings of their London-based mentor.

The FBI has begun new interviews with U.S.-based Al Qaida suspects, attempting to determine the full extent of Aswat's activities in America. When details about the aborted camp were first uncovered--and several suspects arrested--there was a general belief that a major terrorist attack had possibly been avoided. But in light of Aswat's role in the London bombings--and his time in the U.S.--there is new (and justifiable) concern about his American "legacy."

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