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:
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.
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!
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.
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.