The Changing Threat of Al-Qaida How Widespread is Terrorism in Europe?
The London bombings prove one thing: investigators still have not infiltrated the world of radical Islam in Europe. Hampering their efforts are increasingly sophisticated cells that move undetected across borders and individuals who lead seemingly inocuous lives --until they attack. Those attacks can come at any time, and it seems, can happen anywhere.
As the death toll in London is still counted, the world wonders what terrorist cell will succeed next and what city will be the next victim.
It was a perfidious plan, filled with dark, hateful tirades. And, it was also planned down to the last detail. Part of it involved blowing up trains. The goal was simple: an enormous massacre of infidels.
Investigators discovered the plan in a file on a laptop hard drive. It was allegedly written by a British citizen with South Asian roots: Abu Issa Al-Hindi, a man with excellent connections to the top echelons of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization. Al-Hindi's résumé reads like the biography of a model jihadist. At 20, he converted from Hinduism to Islam, then learned the fundamentals of hate in London's radical mosques and went to the Kashmir region and Afghanistan to fight. On August 3, 2004, British authorities arrested Al-Hindi near London.
The plans found on his hard drive, though interspersed with gruesome fantasy, revealed a highly refined command of technology.
Al-Hindi's fellow Muslim extremists had even measured the normal wind pressure on building facades to determine their weakest points, locations likely to suffer the greatest damage in an attack.
The scenario on Al-Hindi's hard drive is reminiscent of the July 7 bomb attacks on the London Tube and a double-decker bus. By last Friday evening, it was still unclear who had detonated the bombs but the attacks, say British security experts, bear the handwriting of Islamic terrorists.
Perhaps as frightening as the bombs themselves is the fact that intelligence agents and investigators in Great Britain and throughout Europe had no idea an attack was imminent -- and this despite the fact that they have spent years trying to infiltrate the Islamic extremist network in Europe. Indeed, one month before the attacks, Scotland Yard lowered its terrorism alert level for the British capital by a notch.
But al-Qaida in Europe is not an organization that readily lends itself to infiltration or wire-tapping. That's because al-Qaida is not a fixed structure, but rather an ideology that has managed to fascinate young Islamists from Gibraltar to Scandinavia. These young terrorists may know each other and even cooperate when it comes to logistics, but they operate in small, flexible independent groups, making them almost impossible to catch.
A wounded woman being helped after the November 2003 attack on the British Consulate in Istanbul.
The Old Continent, once a place for Muslim extremists to withdraw and recuperate, has turned into a battlefield. Gilles Kepel, a French expert on Islam, is already referring to the current situation as a "fight for Europe."
For most experts, it was only a matter of time before Islamic militants would attack again. In Germany, national security officials have become so used to falling into "terror mode" that they can almost respond by rote. This time, by 2:00 p.m. Thursday, they held a teleconference to discuss the consequences of the attacks. "It was virtually certain than London would be attacked at some point," says a high-ranking German security official. Britain's massive deployment in Iraq makes it a prime target. "The same thing could happen here," says the expert. After all, he adds, there are German troops in Afghanistan.
Guido Steinberg, a terrorism expert working in the office of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, summed up the situation with these words: "Terrorism is coming home." And it's coming home to those countries whose governments may have believed they were immune from terror because for years they have provided safe haven to notorious Islamic extremists.
The profile of a potential bomber
Graphic:Terror on trial.
Their adversaries, on the other hand, are highly mobile, networked across the entire continent, supported by sympathizers and powerful financiers, but also able to operate independently. This new generation of holy warriors has already established sufficiently deep roots in Europe to be able to move about freely and without attracting attention. Many have German, Spanish, British or French passports. They often speak several languages, are employed and develop their attack plans in their free time. Security officials are dealing with fewer and fewer Islamic extremists who have just arrived from abroad -- with the exception of globetrotting preachers of hatred.
Dutch authorities, for example, were aware that Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch citizen of Moroccan origin, was a member of an Islamic group. But they didn't consider Bouyeri to be a particularly important figure -- that is, until Bouyeri, wearing a white, floor-length shirt, tracked down filmmaker Theo van Gogh last November 2 on an Amsterdam street. He shot van Gogh several times, slit his throat with a butcher knife and then used another knife to pin a threat to kill politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali onto van Gogh's body.
What may at first have seemed to be an act committed by a lone madman was probably part of a larger plan -- and the doing of an entire group. Although the plan the group executed may have been what one Dutch intelligence official calls "a Dutch plan," it was acting in the spirit of Osama bin Laden.
From community worker to radical Muslim killer
The case illustrates how a trace can lead from one Islamic extremist cell to another. In June of last year, months before the Amsterdam murder, the Portuguese police arrested several suspected terrorists who were apparently planning to murder Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, then the European Union Commission's president-designate. One of the main suspects had apparently shared an apartment in Amsterdam with Bouyeri, 27. Moreover, the men were traveling in a VW Golf that apparently belonged to Bouyeri.
Only after wiretapping an important telephone conversation did the police discover that the so-called Hofstad group was probably responsible for planning van Gogh's murder. It appears that at least 12 members of this group were involved in the preparations for the murder. The group has contacts in Belgium and Spain. Investigators also assume that there are links between the Hofstad group and a terrorism suspect involved in the 2003 suicide attacks in Casablanca.
And the investigations continue. A little more than a month ago, counterterrorism investigators arrested a Russian in the central French city of Tours who was being sought in the Netherlands for his alleged involvement in the van Gogh murder. The man had excellent contacts to Islamic extremists in Chechnya.
Bouyeri himself also typifies the new euro-Islamists. He seemed to be an extremely well-integrated Muslim -- that is, until he suddenly drifted off into the world of Islamic extremism. His parents arrived in the Netherlands in the 1960s and he was born there. He held Dutch and Moroccan citizenship, finished high school with good grades, and went on to study computer science at a Dutch university. His only noticeable ticks were the American gangster cap he wore and his involvement in community work. But he changed drastically in the fall of 2003.