The London Bombings One Year after a New Breed of Terror was Born
Exactly one year has passed since four British Muslims blew themselves up on London's public transportation system, murdering 52 people. The attack offered a sense of just how unpredictable the new generation of al-Qaida terrorists has become.
The British aren't the only ones marking the first anniversary of last year's attack on London's subway and bus system. Islamic terrorist network al-Qaida certainly hasn't forgotten what happened on July 7, 2005. According to the BBC, Arab television network al-Jazeera broadcast a video this week in which one of the attackers, Shehzad Tanweer, says: "What you have seen is only the beginning of a series of attacks."
Fifty-two people died one year ago, as three Britons of Pakistani extraction and a Jamaican-born convert to Islam blew themselves up in three London trains and a bus. It remains an incomprehensible act, especially considering the perpetrators. The four terrorists seemed perfectly integrated. They played cricket, taught children and were avid kayakers. Their radicalization came almost as a complete surprise to their parents and friends. Where did the will for mass murder come from?
An initial explanation came to light two months after the bombings. On another farewell video, the only video until recently, bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan, speaking in the broadest of Yorkshire accents, declared: "We are at war and I am a soldier." Referring to the Iraq war, he said: "Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world."
If this part of the tape offers an explanation of sorts, it appears as if the attackers had reinterpreted their entire existence. In their minds, the western, British society in which they grew up became the enemy. From then on, their allegiance was to the Umma, or community of all Muslims, and they committed their attack in its name. The integration of these young men turned out to be a superficial sham, as they were seduced by the propaganda of al-Qaida and its ilk.
Perpetrators without a profile
The attack on London rattled terrorism experts throughout Europe, because the people that carried out the bombings were considered completely non-threatening. Their profile didn't exist -- they were off the radar. Most terrorists from previous generations had joined the jihad in countries in which they had neither been born or had lived for extended periods of time. Now a "third generation" had launched an attack in Europe, their supposed home -- young Islamists whose radicalization had been wholly underestimated.
"With this incident, Islamist terrorism became an internal problem for Europe," says Berlin terrorism expert Guido Steinberg, summing up the extent of the watershed moment July 7, 2005 was. The London bombings confirmed what the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands had already suggested six months earlier: that the latest generation of attackers could be recruited from within immigrant communities in the West. And despite the fact that a similar incident has not occurred in the West since the London attack, the writing is on the wall. Intelligence agencies are certain that the risk of a repeat attack hasn't disappeared.
And experts believe that a number of factors make some angry young Muslims in the West still susceptible to al-Qaida's ideology: the absence of a sense of belonging in their host societies, a general lack of prospects and opportunities to get ahead, anger over wars they see as an assault on the Islamic world and, finally, an all-embracing sense of debasement and humiliation, partly as a result of reporting in the media and their treatment since September 11, 2001.
A new form of organization for al-Qaida
According to French Islam expert Olivier Roy, those who are most susceptible to radical Islam are cultural outcasts in the West. In seeking to establish their own identities, says Roy, they go well beyond the cultural and religious heritage of their parents. For this reason, Roy sees them as a product of the West. "Their background has nothing to do with the conflicts of the Middle East," he says. Guido Steinberg also warns against taking stated motives like the Iraq war all too seriously. "Until now, it was always one motive among many, and it is by no means certain that a resolution of the conflicts in Iraq would bring an end to the attacks in Europe." According to Steinberg, the Muslims in the European diaspora have proven to be "more receptive to al- Qaida's internationalist ideology, because they have already separated themselves from their native countries."
The radicalization of the London bombers is undoubtedly linked to the omnipresent propaganda of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and his associates. But London wouldn't be such a terrifying warning signal if it didn't also suggest a new form of organizational integration.
Or perhaps it would be more aptly called non-integration. After all, the only shred of a clue to the London bombers motives consisted of visits to Pakistan lasting several weeks. There was no evidence that they attended al-Qaeda training camps or that the attacks were prepared well in advance. Instead, the bombings were an accelerated form of terrorism, acts committed by inconspicuous people who had only briefly been in contact with a small number of helpers. A nightmare had become reality for European intelligence services.
Al-Qaida has played an active role in helping to develop this new, abbreviated approach to terror. "We call upon young people and all Muslims to choose individualized resistance, and not resistance based on network-like and hierarchical structures in which the arrest of a few individuals results in the destruction and arrest of all members," says Steinberg quoting from the work of Al-Qaida mastermind Abu Musab al-Suri. "This is achieved by choosing an approach that is not a form of organization in the known sense. Instead, each participant contributes independently to the activities of the resistance movement, thereby becoming a part of the 'global Islamic resistance.'"
In 2004, Abd al-Aziz al-Mukrin, the now-dead head of al-Qaida's Saudi arm, wrote that the network no longer strives "for conventional organizational integration," and that one no longer needs "permission to become active."
Radical potential in London, and elsewhere
The London bombings made it clear that there is "a class of self-radicalized jihad seekers," says Israeli al-Qaida expert Reuven Paz. Al-Qaida no longer seeks new recruits because they essentially recruit themselves. The words "You are al-Qaida!" resonate throughout the vastness of the Internet, and young Muslims searching for meaning are responding to the call.
According to a recent survey commissioned by the British newspaper The Times, seven percent of British Muslims believe that suicide bombings against civilians in the United Kingdom are justifiable under certain circumstances. This number jumps to 16 percent when the military is the imagined target of such bombings. Thirteen percent of respondents view the London bombers as martyrs. These numbers are as sobering as they are dangerous.
"I leave you now so that you can form your own opinions." With those laconic words Mohammed Siddique Khan ended his farewell video. One year has passed since the bombings. The scope of the danger and the threat has become clearer.
But very little light has been shed on the motivation and thought processes of Khan and his partners. This too is one of the lessons of London: that we must learn more about what goes in the heads of this third generation of terrorists, so that Khan's prediction will not come true: "I and thousands like me have forsaken everything for what we believe," he said. "Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan