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Plot trial runs frLessons From Londonom Pakistan to London

Lessons From London

Author: Jason Burke in London
Publication: India Today
Date: August 28, 2006

Introduction: Investigations into the foiled air terror attacks in UK suggest that the new generation of jehadis do not wait for orders, they conduct their own operations

They had been watching for weeks, months, possibly years. When the British police and agents from MI5, the United Kingdom's domestic security service, finally launched the series of raids on suspected Islamic militants last week, they were sure it was time to move. Plain-clothed officers slipped down quiet roads in the leafy country town of High Wycombe and in the city of Birmingham, vans with darkened windows parked to block off streets. With little fuss, 24 suspects were quickly rounded up. Searches continued for days afterwards at various locations ranging from Internet cafes to a patch of woodland where a gun was rumoured to have been found.

The British investigators knew exactly where to go and what to look for. Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, explained that the police had "been behind this group of people for some time. The decision to move in was not taken lightly. What we always have to do is balance waiting to gather more evidence and make sure you get all the people, against the risk to the public by not moving in earlier. That's the decision that was reached. There's a point where the information reaches a level of concern that means if you don't take action it is indefensible."

But if the operation was very low-key, the threat was, at least according to the police, not. The men, who are still being questioned and have not yet been charged formally, are believed to have been in the final stages of preparing simultaneous bomb attacks on six passenger jets heading from the UK to the US. The explosives would be mixed on the plane-out of adapted household chemicals such as peroxide-by teams of bombers. The planes would be brought down one by one, a tactic to maximise terror and chaos.

It would have been a strike to rival those of September 11, 2001. Paul Stephenson, Blair's deputy at Scotland Yard, did not mince his words: "This was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale." As the British Government imposed draconian restrictions on security at airports and on planes, plunging peak holiday period air traffic into confusion, Britons struggled once more to come to terms with the menace within. Just over a year ago, 56 people-including four British Muslim suicide bombers-had died in a series of attacks in London.

The first question was how grave was the threat? Critical and chronic, according to John Reid, home secretary. He said that police and security services were aware of about 24 "major conspiracies", each believed to be "multi-handed" or complex plots involving many people. According to one senior British policemen a further 50 terrorist-related inquiries are being conducted by anti-terrorist police, most of them involving Scotland Yard and MI5. Some relate to fundraising activity-aimed at Iraq or other foreign "theatres of jehad" including Kashmir, as well as the UK. Some involve intelligence gathering, such as details of potential targets or Internet communication between groups, often between young Muslim men at college or university.

The total number of suspects in Britain has not been disclosed and security sources say it is often fluid as individuals sometimes drop in and out of suspect groups and, at times, obvious overlaps emerge between terrorist gangs. "The numbers are very difficult," one intelligence source said. "Some may not be about to launch a bomb attack but may be suspected of background help." As with last year's attacks, almost all the current suspects come from within Britain's large Muslim community of Pakistani descent and are predominantly young. Once again, British newspapers, though this time celebrating what appears to be a significant counterterrorist success, are full of editorials agonising over the failure to assimilate immigrant communities and debating whether the government's controversial and unpopular policy of unquestioning support for President Bush is a contributory factor in the radicalisation of a significant number of its citizens. And as with the 7/7 attacks, links quickly lead to Pakistan.

It was the arrest of the relative of one of the suspects in Britain earlier this month which forced the UK police to move in, according to several sources. Rashid Rauf, a Briton who has been officially described as a "key" suspect, is the brother of Tayib Rauf, 22, one of those arrested in Birmingham last week. Rauf's exact role is unclear though a Pakistani security official said his frequent use of text messages to Britain was the reason for his arrest outside an Internet kiosk in Zhob, in the border region of Balochistan.

Seventeen individuals have now been arrested in Pakistan prompting British Prime Minister Tony Blair to ring President Pervez Musharraf to thank him for his cooperation while urging others to make less celebratory remarks about the southwest Asian country's apparent continuing role as a haven for radical militants. But the real importance of the "Pakistani angle" in the alleged London plot is still not evident. Some observers have cited the importance of Mati-ur Rehman, a senior figure in the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. "He's big, and getting bigger all the time, but that does not mean he is connected to this plot," said one militancy expert.

Observers dismissed links to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the officially banned militant organisation, saying that the group was currently focused just on Pakistan and Kashmir. However, men like Rehman, who is believed to have been involved in the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 as well as a series of attempts on the life of Musharraf, have played a key role in the rapprochement of international jehadi groups such as Al Qaida and sectarian or Kashmiri Pakistani groups with a more local agenda. There are also investigations into a possible transfer of charitable donations sent to Pakistan as quake assistance last year to militant groups.

A strong Pakistani link-beyond the normal family affinities expected of a group of Western men with string ancestral ties in the country-will strengthen those who still argue that Al Qaida is a powerful organisation. Senior American officials have not hesitated to point the finger of blame at Osama bin Laden's group. "Certainly in terms of the complexity, the sophistication, the international dimension and the number of people involved, this plot has the hallmarks of an Al Qaida-type plot," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. But is the alleged London plot really the work of the same group responsible for the attacks of 2001?

Many analysts have a more nuanced answer. "There is no such thing as Al Qaida as it existed before we went to Afghanistan and destroyed it," said Marc S. Sageman, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and author of a book closely studied in intelligence agencies, Understanding Terror Networks. "We won the war against the old Al Qaida, but we're not winning against the global social movement that Al Qaida was part of, because more and more kids are joining the movement."

And it is the current wave of recent recruits that all agree is the problem. Israeli Al Qaida expert Reuven Paz says the would-be killers arrested in Britain belong to a "new generation of jehad seekers" that has taken shape in recent years. They are typically "Islamic fundamentalists with a poor Islamic education, but a great deal of motivation for jehad in the sense of terrorism. They're not waiting for Al Qaida to recruit them. They initiate their own operations, in accordance with Al Qaida's strategy," Paz said.

Other experts point to the rapidity with which youngsters complete the transformation into killers. "Once it took at least a year," said a French counterterrorist analyst. "Now we are talking a few months or even weeks. That means the turnaround time for an attack is much shorter." British policemen agree. "It is not the ones we know about that are worrying," one told India Today. "It is those that we don't know about."

Secret services around the world are now citing last week's operation as a text-book example of how to disrupt an attack. In every region threatened by Islamic militancy, especially South Asia and the Middle East, the combination of surveillance, patience, technical skill, coordination between security agencies and timing that lay behind last week's arrests are being examined. Indian intelligence officials, reeling from the recent Mumbai attacks, are paying special attention.

But, if security services in the UK and elsewhere have learned much about the difficult business of stopping bomb attacks before they happen without dismantling the legal safeguards that characterise a democracy, their governments are far from dealing with the problems that lie behind the decision of dozens of young men to blow themselves up. For some, the reasons for terrorism are clear. Last week US President George W. Bush said the plot was "a stark reminder that (America) is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom".

British politicians denied terrorism had any link with their country's foreign policy. For other observers, nothing is quite as clear cut. "The propaganda pumped out by the militants works," said one former radical Islamic activist. "It works because it is easy to understand, because it is easy to find and because it is easy to manufacture." But more than anything, it works because, very sadly and very worryingly, for a growing minority of young Muslim men, it makes sense.

Burke is chief reporter of The Observer, London, and authored the book Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam.

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