Paths to Terror

Combating terrorism would be much easier if the menace came from one unified network with a single cause, allowing authorities to infiltrate networks, to hunt down militants, and to stem sources of arms and money. In fact, for all we have heard in recent years about the threat from al-Qaeda, many of the most notorious attacks have been the work of autonomous or independent local groups only marginally connected with any central organization.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Madrid train bombings of 2004 offer an excellent example of such decentralized organization. At first sight, this attacks looks as if it should have been a manifestation of global strategy, presumably by Qaeda. The attack had a global impact in helping to swing a forthcoming election to the party opposed to Spanish intervention in Iraq. In fact, the new government wasted little time before withdrawing Spanish troops, presenting Islamist radicals worldwide with a stunning victory. But the immediate context of the attack was strictly local, as the perpetrators were Spanish-based Maghrebis linked to the GICM but working largely under their own initiative. They adopted the name Ansar al Qaeda in Europe, meaning "partisans of al-Qaeda," indicating that they were identifying with the larger movement, though without necessarily taking direct orders. While we can link the Madrid terror group to radical imams, contact does not necessarily imply control or direction.5

A similar pattern emerges from the London subway bombings of July 2005, carried out by four British-born Muslims. As in Madrid, the attack had global implications, with its goal of punishing the British government for its loyal support of U.S. policies in Iraq, but subsequent investigations do not certainly indicate direction from an international center. This may mean either that no such direction existed or that it was organized subtly enough to escape official detection. Opinions on the matter differ, though the group made martyrdom videos that look like others made by Qaeda supporters, and some of them had access to surprising amounts of money. Whatever the wider links, we know that the group became progressively more radical under the influence of Islamist mosques and propaganda, and made some contact with international Islamist forces. TWo of the four had visited a camp of the Pakistan-based Kashmiri extremist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, which operated under the cover of a religious school, a madrassa. But the final attack seems spontaneous and autonomous, the kind of event that could not have been prevented by disrupting the organizational networks of any of the well-known terrorist movements.6

Incidentally, looking at these self-organized groups, we are repeatedly shocked less by their bloody plans than by the absolute normality of the participants, the seemingly total assimilation into European society suggested by their appearance and speech. At the trial of some other British plotters, surveillance tapes portrayed a group speaking not in the caricatured Middle Eastern accents of Hollywood villains but in deepest British vernacular. Planning a bombing at a major nightclub, one member asked,

What about easy stuff where you don't need no experience and nothing, and you could get a job, yeah, like for example the biggest nightclub in central London where no one can even turn round and say "oh they were innocent" those slags [whores] dancing around? . . . Trust me, then you will get the public talking, yeah, yeah . . . if you went for the social structure where every Tom, Dick and Harry goes on a Saturday night, yeah, that would be crazy, crazy thing man.

Like any good Londoner, he pronounces "nothing" as "nuffink," while members addressed each other as "bruv," short for "brother."7

Another autonomous operation was the Dutch Hofstad Group, which never accomplished an attack as potent as that of its Spanish or British counterparts but not for lack of ambition. The case grew out of the investigation of the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri. Bouyeri spoke proudly of his staunch radicalism, modestly dismissing any comparison between himself and Osama bin Laden, but nevertheless, "the fact that you see me as the black standard-bearer of Islam in Europe fills me with honor, pride and happiness." Bouyeri belonged to a wider circle drawn mainly from first- or second-generation Moroccan immigrants. The group's leadership had connections with Takfir wal Hijra and the GICM, but may well have had other international dimensions. One member of the group, Jason Walters, boasted of his connection to the founder and leader of the Pakistani Jaishe Mohammed; another had tried to join Chechen rebel forces. They aspired to be polder-mujahideen, holy warriors within the Dutch polder landscape.8

But as in the London case, the Hofstad Group appears to have been mainly self-motivated, spontaneously organized, and even self-propagandized. Members spent their time obsessively watching web materials and videos of the most harrowing kind, with a constant diet of warfare, brutality, and beheadings. They discussed possible targets for terror attacks, including assassinations of Dutch politicians and an attack on a nuclear reactor, and sought means of obtaining weapons and explosives. One man of Moroccan origins was in possession of plans of the Dutch parliament building and Schiphol Airport, as well as night-vision spectacles and bomb-making equipment. When the group was eventually rounded up, one member threw a grenade at police trying to arrest him. Though the ensuing conspiracy trial was a sensation in the Netherlands, matters could easily have been far worse.9

Elsewhere in Europe, the celebrated terror attacks give only a limited idea of the potential scale of the subversive danger posed by groups like these, since law enforcement and intelligence agencies usually manage to thwart the great majority of plots. But just in the single year following September 11, planned schemes averted by law enforcement included attacks on the U.S. embassies in Rome and Paris, using lethal chemicals like cyanide; poisoning the water supply of an Italian city; the bombing of French and German synagogues; a bomb attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg; and attempts to sink British or U.S. warships in the Straits of Gibraltar. In 2004, Moroccan and Algerian extremists were planning a series of attacks that would have destroyed Madrid's National Court and Barcelona's World Trade Center complex. The high-speed train from Madrid to Seville was also targeted. One group in Italy planned a ship-borne attack on an Italian city, using "a ship as big as the Titanic, packed with explosives," with the goal of killing 10,000. A raid in London in 2003 discovered "castor oil beans— the raw material for ricin—along with equipment needed to produce it and recipes for ricin, cyanide, botulinum and other poisons, along with instructions for explosives." In the subsequent manhunt, an Algerian suspect stabbed to death a police officer. This list of attempts is in addition to foiled schemes to hijack or bring down airliners, especially Israeli targets. In 2006, British authorities announced that they were investigating at least thirty serious conspiracies on their territory, involving hundreds of suspects. British intelligence services believe there is "no doubt at all" that al-Qaeda aspires to launch a nuclear attack against the United Kingdom.10

One significant point to emerge from this list is that many of the most active elements identified in these planned attacks were militants of north African origin—Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian. That must be stressed in light of recent analyses portraying Britain's Pakistani minority as a uniquely radical and disaffected population. British Muslims might provide fertile soil for extremism, but they are certainly not alone. The reason that so few of the Maghrebi-rooted plots have actually come to fruition might be that the governments and secret services of Algeria and Morocco have been sincerely committed to allying with European states in the struggle against subversion—more enthusiastic, perhaps, than their Pakistani counterparts.

In the aftermath of the British ricin plot, British police made the conventional, and accurate, declaration that "the police service knows that [the terrorists] are not representative of the overwhelming majority of the law-abiding Muslim community who have stated their total rejection of violence and terrorism." But even if violent extremism attracts only a small minority of European Muslims, the potential scale of terrorist violence is still impressive. After all, mounting a serious terrorist campaign need not involve many committed activists. Through its thirty-year campaign against the British government, the Provisional IRA never had more than five hundred or so actual fighters at any given time, with this hard core of shooters and bombers supported by perhaps ten times that number of active sympathizers. For almost forty years, the Basque ETA carried on a war against the Spanish government with a military core of around a hundred; again, with a penumbra perhaps ten times as large. The German Red Army Fraction of the 1970s and 1980s relied on only twenty to thirty actual paramilitary fighters.11

These figures clearly demonstrate the danger posed by radical ideas among European Muslims. Let us assume for the sake of argument that 10 percent of adult male Muslims are regularly hearing incitements to jihad, and 10 percent of that audience might in some circumstances be driven to act on those ideas. The British government has recently suggested that some 10,000 British Muslims have attended conferences and gatherings organized by extremist movements, while the British security services report having under surveillance around 1,600 militants whom they believe to pose a serious danger of violence. This would mean that Britain alone has a core of at least a thousand potential jihad fighters, quite enough to levy a potent guerrilla war against that society. The mystery is not so much why Europe has been the setting for repeated terrorist violence but why so little of it has occurred to date.

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