Clues

This is not an analytical “perspectives” type post. Just a number of bitty threads that seem in one way or another worth noting (small pieces loosely joined). They could basically be grouped together under the following headings: photos, suicides, explosives and origins.

Maybe I should also point out the obvious: that living in Spain while coming from the UK gives me a rather unusual perspective on what is happening. I lived the days surrounding the Madrid bombings intensely, now I am doing the same with London (where I had my home for many years). In some ways I can’t help but see this in terms of similarities and differences.

The big difference is of course in the government reaction, and the way that this is transmitted to a wider public. The British official reaction is one of ‘containment’ in every sense of the word. I think this is a good approach, since I think that excessive shock and panic only serves the purposes of the terrorists. The overall sensation was that London was as prepared for this as it could have been, and that many of those working in the crisis management and emergency services areas were following through on already well rehearsed roles.

Things in Spain couldn’t have been more different.

In the first place the Spanish government appeared to be much more open with information, with almost hourly press conferences from the Interior Minister, and a detailed explanation of the ‘evidence’ almost as if ‘we’ the public were the investigating judge. Only as events moved forward did we discover that this apparent ‘openness’ was to a great extent a charade, and that behind the curtains a furious row was taking place between the security services and the government.

So here the contrast is huge. The British make little pretence at transparency in these situations, and I for one think this is correct. Ironically the core issue relates to trust. The British instinctively trust their government and their institutions – that is the great strength of British society – and that is why the sense of betrayal is so strong when the British public discover they have been mislead. The Spanish instinctively don’t trust theirs, hence the much greater need for theatre.

Of course I think it is important to stress that this acceptance does not imply servility (Britains never, never, never shall be slaves would be the appropriate national cliche), and there is obviously going to now be a important and serious debate about how to make the fight against international terrorism more effective, and about what can be learnt from 07/07, but only when the dead are decently buried and the principal evidence is in. I think the impact is going to be important. On 12 September 2001 many analysts speculated that the world would never be the same again, that there would be a before and an after (of course they have been proved right). Today I am speculating that this, in a more modest sense, will also be true of what happened in London this week. When we come to look back we will find that something important changed.

Now for those details:

Photos

The fact that there are relatively few “blood and gore” photos is occassioning a lot of commentary here in Spain. The Madrid experience was the exact opposite. In part this is a result of the fact that 3 of the explosions took place underground, but it isn’t only that. The British press is, for once, being extraordinarily responsible. The government is also going to considerable lengths (eg in Russell Sq) to ‘protect’ the intimacy of the dead and bereaved, and shield the public (again remember we are ageing societies, stupid use of blood and guts only needlessly upsets people) from unnecessary alarm and distress. This is being wildly applauded here, and I concur. In fact the situation with the use of images has become so serios here that the relatives of the 03/11 victims refused to participate in the official commemorations since they did not want to ‘relive’ the horror. The majority probably had their TV sets firmly switched off on 11 March 2005.

Suicides

This is becoming, as it was in Madrid, one of the main topics of discussion. In fact one of the Madrid news channels (the one basically sympathetic to PSOE) put out on the night of 11 March 2004 the rumour that there had been a suicide bomber on one of the Atotcha trains, as evidence of Islamic extremist involvement. We now know that the bombing was the work of Islamic extremists, but that there were no suicide bombers. What we also know is that many of those who were responsible did finally blow themselves up when surrounded in the Madrid suburb of Leganes.

The issue in London is muddied by the bus bomb. Reading the eye witness accounts it is difficult to see how the bomber actually got off, and this is what may have produced the speculation (see earlier post) about whether this bomb was in fact intended for the tube system.

The issue of suicide bombing is highly emotive, and it is not clear at this stage whether the ‘controlled’ use of information forms part of the picture. But I can think of one reason why it may not, and why it is quite probable that no ‘intentional’ suicide bombers were involved. This areason gain relates to the Madrid experience. Basically what we know is that many of the qaeda-type terrorists are not especially concerned about losing their own lives, but I think it would be an error to move from this to concluding that they may be so obsessed with entering ‘paradise’ that they are going to ‘uselessly’ bring them to an end. If suicide bombing has become the norm in some places (Iraq, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict) it is because terrorist strategic needs dictate this. It is to do with reaching the target. Now in Madrid, and in all probability London, there is no immediate need for this. What we can surmise is that those responsible will be prepared to take such action when they run out of options, but only at this point.

This has two implications. Firstly that the act of capturing these people will be incredibly risky, and secondly: that Londoners (and others in the UK for that matter) need to remain extraordinarily vigilant in the coming days. What we now have is a race against time. The terrorists will know that they have been filmed, and that at some point effective detective work will get to them. They know how this is going inevitably to end, so they will be intent on trying again before it does. This at least is a highly plausible hypothesis. The immediate danger lies in this moment in all probability not in Rome or Copenhagen, but in London itself. In this sense, would that they had been suicide bombers!

Explosives

According to recent information the bombs were small, and used relatively low-grade plastic explosives:

“The bombs were probably made from simple, relatively easy-to-obtain plastic explosives, not the higher-grade military plastics like Semtex that would have killed far more people, said Andy Oppenheimer, a weapons expert who consults for Jane’s Information Group.

“Any crook with ready cash could obtain this stuff if they knew where to look for it,” said Alex Standish, the editor of Jane’s Intelligence Digest.

“Plastic explosives are readily available on the black market in the Czech Republic and other central and eastern European countries or through the Russian mafia, Standish said. Large amounts of plastic explosives untagged by the chemical markers that enable dogs to detect it are missing from Czech stocks, he added.”

“Police said the four bombs that hit the London transportation network on Thursday weighed less than 10 pounds each, small enough to be carried in a backpack. They were left on the floor of the Underground trains and either a seat or the floor of the No. 30 bus that was ripped apart in the Bloomsbury neighborhood, said Assistant Police Commissioner Andy Hayman.”

What can we deduce here? Well the first thing would be that control of explosive stocks is very important, and probably an area where the UK police have been having some success. I say success since it is very likely that more sophistocated explosives would have been used had they been available. One advantage of the UK being an island is that it makes it that much harder to get things in and out, especially if they have chemical markers. The second would be the role of criminal networks. This is where collaboration between the various arms of the police and security networks is highly important. Terrorist networks are very difficult to penetrate, criminal networks much less so. The evidence from Spain is that the people involved had relatively close connections with petty criminal activities, and this may well be where the first real leads come from. In particular in Spain, one routine police informant was at the heart of the net which facilitated the explosives.

Origins

I think it is much too early to speculate about the exact origins of the bombers. When the info is available I think it will be highly significant for what it can tell us about the future direction of such terrorism. In Spain the majority of the key people were ‘foreign born’, with the only native born Spanish citizens involved being the petty criminals. As I have already said, they were also in the main ‘jihadis’ from the early 90’s. In the UK case all we can do at this stage is watch and wait.

Of course the biggest difference between Spain and the UK, is that the Madrid bombs lead to a change of government, while the London ones clearly will not. But then, while there may be ‘information control’ the UK government is not engaged in an act of ‘fundamental deception’ of its people, the Spanish government was. On the bigger question, as to whether Blair will in fact eventually go the way of Aznar, only history will judge.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Terrorism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , by Edward Hugh. Bookmark the permalink.

About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

17 thoughts on “Clues

  1. The lack of professionalism of the bombmaker is a good sign, they are sill amator, they do not have real link with a large organisation else this organisation like “Al-qaida fantasm” that would provide some real expertise, we ve seen that it s clearly not the case here.

    like in spain no real “Al-qaida”, just some independants with their own motivations.

    but the time of the professional come often after the amators, lot of them are in “Intership” in Irak where they learn to build some highly sophiticated Hallmarks message.

  2. About information “openess” in Spain, taking into account the nearby polls (only 3 days later), transparency was absolutely required. It’s sad that we got “creative information” instead.

    Another difference is the number of explosive devices; 13 in Madrid, 4 in London. Maybe that’s related with the number of people available to carry and put the bombs. That would imply a smaller group (2 to 4 people).

  3. “Another difference is the number of explosive devices;”

    This may be significant, an interesting thought. This would tend to support:

    “they are sill amator”

    Looking at the press there is, as is to be expected, urgent and patient police work going on. In Madrid the first arrests came within 48 hours. Let’s hope that model fits in this case too.

    My impression is that the intelligence work will be much more advanced than we are being told (good news), but that key information is being retained. As Gulliver indicates, the Spanish case made this impossible. All the emphasis on difficulties in making rapid progress may well be a smokescreen.

    “lot of them are in “Intership” in Irak where they learn to build some highly sophiticated Hallmarks message.”

    Fredouil, you and I do disagree on some pretty important things, attitudes to the US and Turkish membership being two of them. But as you will have noted, I (and probably the CIA) agree with you on this. I still think that if we are really going to bring an end to this we need the kind of unity within difference amongst democrats which we saw in WWII.

    The CIA said, win or lose in Iraq (ie you don’t need necessarily to have one or other view on the war itself) there will be a lot of people with serious training and experience coming out at some point. (Incidentally, I’m not strongly in disagreement that qaeda is just a label – doesn’t it simply mean net? – and that there is precious little valid information in public hands on how this ‘net’ operates).

    I think Rupert – to name but one who has put comments here – is far too complacent on this issue. Europe and the US are both at risk, and we need the maximum cooperation possible.

    Blair – in an interview on BBC radio – seems to be begining to suggest a change of emphasis may be in the air:

    “British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Saturday it is crucial to address terrorism’s underlying causes, which he identified as deprivation, lack of democracy and ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

    “I think this type of terrorism has very deep roots,” Blair said. “As well as dealing with the consequences of this ? trying to protect ourselves as much as any civil society can ? you have to try to pull it up by its roots,”

    I think we may well also see a subtle change of emphasis taking place in the US too. No-one seriously wants this to continue indefinitely, and the longer it goes on the more chance there is of even more serious incidents. Maybe there is nothing ‘easy’ that can be done, but that shouldn’t stop us trying.

  4. The thought that really frightens me is that the roots of terrorism might be repotted, so to say, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Burnley or Bradford, so that what were originally grievances about “deprivations, lack of democracy, and ongoing conflict” in the Middle East become more anarchic or nihilist grievances about the emptiness and decadence of the West.

    That may be less likely inLondon, which is a pretty successful multi-cultural city. But there are in Northern England areas of high unemployment with large muslim populations and non-existent to terrible race relations.

    The other fear is that it becomes a family business. If you look at the history of the IRA, there are Republican clans where three or four generations have been terrorists. I can’t see anything to make that impossible here. I wish I could. Such clans are almost impossible for intelligence to penetrate.

  5. Europe and the US are both at risk, and we need the maximum cooperation possible.

    The states most at risk are actually the Arab states. And I must say that we are not cooperating. On the contrary. Granting asylum to islamists must stop.

  6. “In this sense, would that they had been suicide bombers!”

    Indeed. If captured alive and put in jail, they may still be harmfull by recruiting inmates, writing, and merelybeeing living examples.
    The alternative practised by the Bush admin., to “disappear” them is so disgusting a perversion of what we are supposed to defend, human rights, the open society & western democracy that anyone preconising it should be tarred and feathered.

    If killed, they might become holy warriors dying in an heroic death battling the infidel crusaders, an even more attractive form of martyrdom than suiciding bombing to the potential terrorist recruit.

    The GIGN handled the Groupe Islamique Arm? handled in a very successfull manner, but it was an isolated cell.

    Against AQ, this modus operandi is no longer in and of itself a sufficient counter-terrorism strategy.

    Somehow,western support for regimes like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan must be withdrawn, which is AQ’s casus belli, and these countries democratised.
    The hard question is how to do it.

  7. “If captured alive and put in jail, they may still be harmfull by recruiting inmates, writing, and merelybeeing living examples.”

    Indeed, as well. This was a mistake which was made in Spain prior to 03/11, where some of those responsible were in prisons with long term Eta prisoners during periods prior to the bombing, and who knows what the conversations ran too. The authorities certainly didn’t because the islamicists personal mail went unread – and was merely destroyed – since there were no translators available at the time.

    Contrary to intuitive notions of justice, or primitive urges for vengance, the best outcome for the police here is to capture them alive (which I suspect the terrorists will try and avoid, indeed they are probably under instructions – or oath – to try and avoid) and even having done that then try and make deals in order to ‘turn them’. Unfortunately decisions when so many future lives may be at stake are not always ethically easy.

    Fredouil

    I’m just reading this, which is relatively informative. But I would highlight this:

    Spain believes the Madrid bombings were carried out by the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), and London police have so far refused to comment on reports they are hunting its leader. The radical cleric, Mohammed al Garbuzi, a Moroccan who lived in Britain for 16 years, vanished from his north London home last year. He is blamed for attacks that killed 45 people in the Moroccan city of Casablanca in May 2004. In a newspaper interview 15 months ago, a radical Islamic leader warned that London was on the verge of a major attack by a group called Al-Qaeda Europe. “Here in London there is a very well-organized group, which calls itself Al-Qaeda-Europe,” Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed told the Portuguese daily Publico in an interview on April 18 last year. “I know they are on the verge of launching a big operation.” Bakri, speaking a month after the Madrid bombings, said it was “inevitable” London would be hit by a large attack “because they are being prepared by various groups.” The Syrian head of the London-based group Al-Muhajiroun, Bakri said the Madrid strikes were carried out by a group of independent actors who backed Osama bin Laden’s organisation. “There are many youths who dream of joining Al-Qaeda, but worse than that, there are many ‘freelancers’ who are willing to launch operations similar to those by Al-Qaeda,” he said. “The attack in Madrid was carried out by one of those groups.

    Why I am citing this lengthy extract is that it shows virtually nothing is excluded. This could be a highly structured Europe-wide group, or it might not be. I think we need to be careful of playing *their* game by stressing too much the amateur nature (again, not so amateur since four bombs in different places that all work isn’t so easy, and the infrastructure would need to be much bigger. Judging from the size of the bombs, the key constraint may be lack of explosives). Anyway over-emphasising ‘amateur’ may play into the hands of the kinds of demagagues who say: “There are many youths who dream of joining Al-Qaeda, but worse than that, there are many ‘freelancers’ who are willing to launch operations similar to those by Al-Qaeda,”, giving the impression that no-one in particular is responsible. This reminds me a lot of people like Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein) and Arnaldo Otegi (Batasuna).

    “Granting asylum to islamists must stop”.

    This Oliver, as I suspect you will realise, is a very, very complex issue. The main difficulty is lack of leads. A high profile Islamist may in fact lead you to others – under proper surveillance – who you don’t and wouldn’t know otherwise. The big danger is illegal immigration, since here there is no control, and all the ID cards, and frontier checks in the world won’t easily catch people who ‘hide’ among the illegals. What we need are incentives to enable the genuine economic migrants to reveal themselves, so that there is less room to hide.

    I would say that the illegalisation of Batasuna has been completly ineffective in this sense.

    “and these countries democratised”.

    Obviously I agree, but (a) this isn’t easy, and (b) this only deal with the Wahabites. Then there is Chechnya and the Caucasus, what was some commenter saying yesterday:

    except that Russia has killed every moderate (non-Muslim extremist leader) in Chechnya in the last 10 years.What is the reason, pray tell, would you trust the remaining bandits with some kind of statehood?”

    or Central Asia, then places like Indonesia, Sunni Iraq obviously, and of course, if the conjectures in the above quoted article are anywhere near right, North Arrica (The Maghreb). What is obvious is that we have our work cut out, to say the least of it.

  8. This report – just in – doesn’t make it sound particularly amateur:

    “British police said the three bomb attacks on London Underground trains on Thursday morning occurred almost simultaneously and were more likely to have been triggered by timing devices than suicide bombers.”Bearing in mind these were almost simultaneous, we think within 50 seconds of each other, maybe that lends more toward timing devices more than people actually with the bombs, manually detonating. But we are not ruling out either of those possibilities.” Police had previously thought the three blasts were spread over nearly half an hour, but revised their information in the light of new technical data and witness statements, he said.”

  9. This Oliver, as I suspect you will realise, is a very, very complex issue.

    Well, as you might well know, intellegence is key. And that means full cooperation with secular muslim countries’ governments. Western agencies are lacking basic skills such as language.

    Either we take it seriously that the worst threat is to Arab nations themselves, or we don’t. I may point out here that some countries, eg. Syria, have taken the fight against fundamentalism to levels unimaginable here. A full cooperation must be a bilateral thing. We cannot remain credible asking for Arab governments to fight fundamentalism and grant asylum to known fundamentalists under sentence in their home countries.

  10. “you and I do disagree on some pretty important things, attitudes to the US”

    Not only US attitude, do not forget that in this Anglo-saxon war (your not agree but facts are that only US & UK wanted this war), UK sent soldiers to invade a country and kill (without lot of discrimination, 750 kg bomb are not clever).

    UK is a country at war, no one must forget that, and you can not expect invade and kill without “limited collateral damages” at home !!!! when you launch bomb, there is possibility to get bombed as well.

    when Paris was bombed, the situation was different, we were not in war !

  11. UK is a country at war, no one must forget that, and you can not expect invade and kill without “limited collateral damages” at home !!!! when you launch bomb, there is possibility to get bombed as well.

    So what? Yes, it was predicted and expected. That makes it no more acceptable. An ally has suffered an unacceptable attack. What the rest of Europe should do about that depends on the wishes of the British government and the exact details of the case, but there can be no question of the principal entitlement to full support. We do not condone terrorist acts nor give in to terrorist demands no matter what motives the terrorists may have.

  12. Edward,

    I am no Arabist, but I believe I recall reading somewhere that ‘al Qaeda’ means not ‘the net’ but ‘the base’. That said, your description sounds right; Qeada seem less a centralised operation than a loose conglomeration of franchises.

  13. “when Paris was bombed, the situation was different, we were not in war !”

    Now you are! In Afghanistan, “fighting” in an “anglo-saxon” war in a muslim country. Prepare yourself for reciprocity

  14. “Now you are!”

    And come to think of it, which war was the US in when the towers came down? Possibly it was in the same one we are all in now, just we didn’t recognise the fact that it had already started.

    “I believe I recall reading somewhere that ‘al Qaeda’ means not ‘the net’ but ‘the base’.”

    Yes, you’re right, my stupid memory playing tricks again. But, as you suggest, the point holds.

  15. “And come to think of it, which war was the US in when the towers came down? Possibly it was in the same one we are all in now, just we didn’t recognise the fact that it had already started.”

    No, it was a threat (and really small), there are always differents kind of threats, but not war : Irak was not involve in any “terrorism” before the anglo-saxon butchery there. only since the invading you can talk about war.

    it s really shocking to read about unacceptable crime when it s happen in the country that attack because few wasp were victims and just sad collateral damage when it is happen to thousands innocents inhabitant without any defense. in irak, people die under cluster bomb, people die at check point, people die because of nervous GI but of course for you, it doesnt exist because not reported by the “journalists” who do not go out of the green area.

    what you call there insurgents kill a lot but for most are not strangers, they are iraki !! and they kill far less than you ve done.

    you want to change of politic, start by stopping to kill abroad and stopping to want to be the only judge about what is right and what is wrong on the planet.

    There are no solution in Irak any more and for what you call terrorism, France had proved that one of the best way is to consider that as a police problem and accept it as a usual threat, and no give it to much importance and avoid any move than make thing worst.

  16. Fredouil

    “Irak was not involve in any “terrorism” before..”

    I don’t think this is an issue between us. I wouldn’t use the word *any* since this is impossible to know, but Iraq certainly seems not to have been a terrorist centre of any importance before the war, with the curious exception of Zarqawi who seems to have been in the mountains in the Northern, Kurdish zone.

    “but of course for you, it doesnt exist because”

    This isn’t true, I recognise that all this exists, although it is hard to quantify. I sincerely hope that the new Iraqi government will carry out major human rights investigations into all the allegations at some stage in the future. I just hope it lasts long enough to be able to do this.

    “what you call there insurgents”

    I use the terminology ‘insurgent’ since it is the most neutral available. Simply ‘terrorist’ or ‘resistance fighter’ are two extremes which I reject because they mask a pretty complex reality. Some of those killing in Iraq are better described as ‘terrorists’, but some undoubtedly consider themselves ‘resistance fighters’. I think at the end of the day we shouldn’t get hung up on words, we can call them ‘my dads old underpants’ for all I care. Words here are only ‘markers’ to enable conversations to take place.

  17. @ Fredouil

    In think btw that getting hung up on the meaning of words is one of the hallmarks of ideology rather than science: scientists tend to use names like widgits, or stuff, because they know that this gets the interesting converstions of the ground with the *minimum* of presuppositions.

Comments are closed.