Lessons from London

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST

All terrorist violence, `Islam' or otherwise, is unjustifiable, unforgivable, cowardly and contemptible. But just because we condemn, does not mean we should not strive to comprehend. We need to keep asking `Why'.

- Jason Burke in Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam.

It is a sad privilege to be around when disaster strikes. When first news of the London tragedy came in, I was immediately reminded of that fateful morning on September 11, 2001 when I was walking to Harvard on what I thought was yet another beautiful but uneventful morning. What followed was an utterly painful chapter in world history that could easily be labelled Third World War. The only difference was that unlike Boston where the sun was glowing, London was grey and cold on July 7 (now abbreviated to 7/7), when a few insane elements struck abominably to traumatise a whole city, nay the whole world.

London is such a friendly and charming environ that few would associate it with anything as ugly as terrorism. It looks as if the perpetrators were bent on hurting the ego of a city that had only a few hours earlier won the Olympics bid against a traditional foe. Not many patriotic Londoners themselves had given much of a chance to their hallowed city. One main argument was that London did not have a good and reliable public transport system. It was as if to highlight this apparent handicap that the terrorists struck at the `tube'. The only incident on the ground was inside the city's pride of a red double-decker bus.

I ventured into Central London on the evening after the holocaust, from my idyllic suburb in the south-east. Charing Cross was as bustling as ever, and the crowds in Trafalgar Square characteristically mirthful. There was noticeably more than the quota of Bobbies in public appearance in their flashy yellow jackets. There was no tension writ on their faces. But their visage was serious and purposeful, befitting the gravity of the tasks ahead of them.

The Metropolitan Police is definitely under stress for what they allegedly failed to do and what they are now expected to achieve in terms of unearthing the gang that committed the atrocity. There is veiled criticism that the Met had lowered its guard during the past one month. If this is correct, it had possibly been lulled into confidence by relative inactivity in the terrorist world, barring of course Iraq. There was then the distraction of the G-8 Summit in Gleneagles. According to one report, the Met had sent nearly 1,000 of its men and women to support the Scottish Police. In retrospect, this may have been unwise. This could easily have been widely known, even if no publicity had been given. The terrorists possibly took advantage of the depleted police manpower in the city and the shift in priorities.

`Intelligence failure' is the chant that one often hears after such major tragedies. None in the establishment has claimed to have had intelligence worth its name about 7/7. But it has been known ever since 9/11 and after Tony Blair's total commitment to the war in Iraq - including the sending of British troops, which has not gone down well with the public - that the country, especially London, was a definite terrorist target. Many in government and the police had openly endorsed this fear and the need for vigilance. If things had gone wrong despite this apprehension and psychological preparedness, there is everything for policymakers in the country to worry about.

Inability to collect hard intelligence has been the proverbial failure of police forces all over the world. This is why there is no way one can dilute physical security arrangements in major cities that also attract a huge floating population to add to police problems. Those opposed to huge accretions to police forces the world over should reflect on this every time they cry hoarse against governments building what they consider a `police state'.

Police investigations are in an early and delicate stage. There seems to be a general consensus that it was the Al Qaeda that was responsible. The choice of a rush hour for the time of attack and the transport system for the target bear undeniable Al Qaeda fingerprints. Unlike the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that aims at political personalities, the Al Qaeda's favourite are soft targets, so that there is maximum unleashing of terror and a logical alienation of the government from the community. Actually, an outfit calling itself the Secret Organisation of Al Qaeda in Europe has claimed responsibility in the form of a notice posted on a Web site. My enquiries do not reveal that this was a body that had ever come to notice. In any case, it seems reasonable to attribute the crime to Islamic terrorists. Whether they have direct links to Bin Laden or not is not of much consequence at this stage.

It has now become fashionable to regard every Muslim terrorist as a member of the Al Qaeda. Experts no longer believe that the Al Qaeda is a highly centralised organisation that makes every move at Bin Laden's behest. There is strong evidence to suggest that the whole movement is greatly fragmented, with each regional group indulging in its own operations without reference to any high command. This is what makes global efforts to synergise operations against Islamic terrorism very challenging.

Bin Laden may not be in command. Nevertheless, there are international linkages that are significant for an investigation. For instance, there is a North African connection that runs through the thread of terrorist actions in Casablanca (2003) and Madrid (2004). The United Kingdom Police are looking for one Mohammed al Gerbouzi, a British resident for 16 years, who is missing from the country for a while. The French and German Police had strongly suspected him of links with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (an Iraqi insurgent leader with Al Qaeda connection) who had a hand in the murder of British hostage Ken Bigley. The U.K. government had earlier rejected a Moroccan request for handing over Gerbouzi, on the ground that the two nations had no extradition treaty. Also noteworthy is that Jamal Zougham, a suspect in the Madrid explosion, had had telephonic contacts with Gerbouzi before the latter disappeared from his north London home. All these exchanges will have to be revisited if the London explosions have to be unravelled.

There are formidable challenges to the forensic scientist. As I write, teams are digging into the Piccadilly line near the King's Cross Station (where there were maximum fatalities) to remove extricated bodies and pieces of the debris that could give some clue. The task is difficult beyond description, because of the heat and risks from exposure to asbestos. There is the greater fear of the roof of the tunnel collapsing, even as the remains are being collected for laboratory scrutiny. Finally, the space available for investigators in the tunnel to do their manoeuvres is just a few inches wider than the train carriage. Can you visualise a more unfriendly setting in which to come out with spectacular findings?

The first objective is to be clear about the nature of the explosive and the detonator used. Initial impressions are that a homemade device was employed. Also, the explosive could have been a plastic or pipe bomb, both of which are small and are carried unobtrusively. The investigator will also have to look for any unexploded device still lying around. Any such discovery will give valuable clues with regard to the source from which explosives were procured.

The question that everyone in London is asking is: was there a suicide bomber? Nobody hazards a guess. But by all accounts none is willing to rule out such a possibility, because of the immense damage to the number 30 double-decker - its roof was ripped off and the decibel level of the blast is said to have caused hearing impairment to some victims. There are several speculations about this. The miscreant who carried the explosive had possibly been denied entry into the nearby underground station after it was shut off following the earlier three explosions. This is why he got into the bus where the explosion took place either by design or by accident, and he himself got killed. This seems plausible, because in all such actions the idea is to cause maximum casualties, and a train was a better prospect. Also, when all the other criminal acts were directed at the train system, why should the fourth alone be against a bus, however symbolic it may be of London's tradition? In any case, the police will have to eliminate the possibility of a suicide attack by carefully examining the remains of the bus. This will be a Herculean task.

I am reminded here of how assiduously Dhanu's belongings were reassembled by the Tamil Nadu forensic team at Sriperumpudur to reconstruct her suicidal attack on Rajiv Gandhi.

Ultimately, police investigation will have to dovetail into intelligence tasks. Presumably, there were at least four in the deadly gang that set off the explosions. Many more could have aided them. Were these local British citizens or those who had slipped into the country evading immigration checks? If it was the former, the Met will have some questions to answer. Why did its surveillance of suspects, Al Qaeda and others, fail it? Is it an extra consideration to the feelings of the large and hypersensitive Muslim community in the U.K. that caused this apparent failure to monitor closely the goings-on in that group? It should, however, be conceded that this is an extremely delicate area for the U.K. Police, which calls for a judicious balance of security requirements and a respect for religious sentiment. Successive Met Commissioners have bent over backwards to placate the community, lest they be branded anti-Muslim. Ultimately, it is easy to be critical of the police but difficult to be understanding, especially if the terrorists are tracked down and found to be British Muslims ("clean skins"). Naturally, the police focus on terrorism had till now been essentially on outsiders who are infiltrants into British society, and only slightly on natives.

It is here that the whole controversy over the proposed identity cards is going to assume new dimensions. It was against the teeth of opposition in Parliament that the Bill on the subject was successfully steered by the Blair government a few weeks ago. There is a vociferous body of opinion that looks upon ID cards as a wasteful exercise. In the past few days, several in the Establishment are themselves said to have admitted in private that the ID card would not have prevented the tragedy. If this is the case, why go through with a scheme that has more detractors than supporters? Such a card may have other rationale, such as reducing misuse of government subsidies, but definitely not national security. This is particularly in the context of growing online identity theft all over the world. Considering the ease with which documents are stolen and duplicated and complex information technology systems are violated, proponents of the ID card will have to do a lot of explaining. This is again something that India will have to study before opting for a national ID.

The Blair government will somehow have to prevent another savage terrorist attack or else the people will show it the door. What strategy and what tactics will help to foil this probable second attack will be difficult to describe. Madrid was followed by an aborted attempt at a high-speed rail line to Seville. Also, at least three of the four main perpetrators are at large, and their first success could egg them on to repeat their adventure. Most distressful is that a section of the Muslim community, however small it could be, will be in sync with them. This is because they sport many economic grievances that are a breeding ground of potential terrorists. Also, some Muslim individuals in the U.K. with known extremist sympathies are believed to be returnees from the jehad in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq. A few of them are said to have been trained in the use of firearms and explosives during their outing. They merge so well within the population that it will be difficult to identify them. Any major operation to ferret them out will naturally require some tough policing; something that will raise human rights issues and further ignite feelings against the government. Will Blair and his Home Secretary risk this?

What do we in India learn from London? Most inspiring will be the performance of the emergency services. Almost everyone here has admired the swift and clinical response of the police, ambulance and medical personnel. Television images are breathtaking for the speed and efficiency of the rescue action that followed the explosions, a factor that has probably cut down fatalities. In one instance, a surgery was performed on the kerb of a road. There was a plan on paper that was executed with amazing alacrity. If the authorities in India do not learn from this, the public will not forgive them. There is nothing beneath our dignity to learn from the Brits, even if this sounds a little too colonial to many back home.

Notwithstanding the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism, there is reason to believe that international linkages are strong and active. Unearthing them calls for an assiduous application of public resources.

There is unconcealed Islamic antipathy to the West and those who are seen to be close to the West. A ruthless determination to hit at the latter alliance that was seen at the G-8 summit is also very much in evidence. Not surprisingly therefore law enforcement in the U.S. and U.K and the rest of Europe is more focussed on Islamic terrorism than in the rest of the world.

While we may not drastically redraw our existing priorities, there is everything to gain from being in tandem with the Western efforts. The Indian Police have already a strong and healthy relationship with foreign intelligence agencies. There is a constant exchange of information and a sharing of training skills and facilities. I know there are many detractors of this growing relationship with the West. We need to convince them that it is in our interest to conserve the ties rather than truncate them on the basis of imaginary fears. We are too strong a nation for anybody in the West to take us for a ride.

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