STRIKING AT LONDON

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST

Terrorists set off a series of bomb explosions in Central London taking advantage of what is widely seen as a serious security lapse.

HASAN SUROOR in London

IT has been called Britain's 9/11, and the media have even invented a short form, "7/7", denoting July 7 the day London came under one of the worst terrorist attacks in living memory.

The lull of a quiet summer morning was rudely broken when a series of well-coordinated explosions ripped through London's famous Underground train network claiming more than 50 lives (the figure is expected to rise), leaving hundreds injured and traumatised, besides overshadowing two major events - a summit of world leaders hosted by Prime Minister Tony Blair in Scotland, and nationwide celebrations over winning the bid to host the 2012 Olympics.

Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York at the time of the September 11 attacks, happened to be in London when terrorists struck, and his first instinctive reaction was: "Oh, no, not again."

"I cannot help but recall the events in New York City on September 11, 2001. It was eerie once again to be in the area of an attack on a great city," he wrote in a letter to The Times.

A short plane ride away, in Scotland, American President George W. Bush was attending the summit of Group of Eight industrialised nations when he heard the news of the explosions. And, like Giuliani's, his immediate reaction, too, was one of a man who had been there before and did not wish it to happen again - to anyone.

That day, there were many world leaders sitting around the same table at Gleneagles in Scotland - the venue of the G8 summit - who, as Blair pointed out, had "some experience of the effects of terrorism". Among them was Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Spain's Premier Jose' Luis Rodriguez. Spain is still struggling to recover from the shock and sorrow of the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid.

Terrorism was not on the summit agenda, but for at least one day terrorists managed to hijack it.

A visibly shaken Blair, addressing an international television audience, said he had no doubt that the attack on London was "designed and meant to coincide with the G8" summit but he vowed that the show would go on. "Whatever they do, it is our determination that they will never succeed in destroying what we hold dear in this country and in other civilised nations throughout the world," he said.

The explosions caused worldwide revulsion and anger. But it is a measure of how much people have come to accept the threat from terrorism as a part of everyday life that few Britons were surprised that terrorists had struck again, even though this time it was in their own backyard. It is amazing how many people even on the streets of London were heard saying that they had expected something like this to happen. The least surprised were the security agencies, which had been warning, ever since 9/11, that a terrorist attack on London was "inevitable". It was more a question of "when" than "if". They were derided for "crying wolf" and accused, especially by civil liberties groups, of creating panic and exaggerating the threat to justify harsher laws.

Immediately after the blasts, London Metropolitan Chief Ian Blair said: "We have always said that London has been and is a terrorist target."

Fair enough. And to that extent the security establishment can claim to have been proved right, but that begs the question: how then did it happen? Critics have been intrigued by reports that only days before, the "alert" level was lowered a notch, suggesting a more relaxed threat perception.

The police claimed that they were able to handle the situation in the wake of the blasts because of the robust contingency plans. But critics argue that was after the event. What about the pre-emptive measures? For, as experts have pointed out, what happened on July 7 was clearly a security breach as terrorists were able to show that they could strike at will.

Considering that suicide bombing has been virtually ruled out - at least that was the line taken after the attack - the security lapse becomes even more serious. As one expert put it, "You can't prevent people from blowing themselves up but in this case the terrorists were able to beat security and plant explosives on trains. How did that happen?"

The line that there was no specific warning of an impending attack has not washed with the public even though Blair rushed in to defend the police saying that no amount of security was a guarantee against a terrorist attack.

"Probably with this type of terrorism the solution cannot only be the security measures... . If people are actually prepared to go on to a Tube or a bus and blow up wholly innocent people ... you can have all the surveillance in the world and you couldn't stop that happening," he said.

The timing of the attack could not have been more perverse, coming as it did even as Britons were still celebrating London's "historic" victory over Paris for hosting the 2012 Olympic Games. "The Difference A Day Makes," said a headline in The Times under two contrasting pictures of the Trafalgar Square: one showing a huge celebrations rally on July 6 and the second a deserted and gloomy Square less than 24 hours later.

In what looked like a well-coordinated operation, reminiscent of the Madrid train bomb blasts, at least seven explosions took place within minutes of each other, triggering panic. Thousands of shocked commuters - many bleeding, their faces covered with soot - streamed out of tube stations. At the time of writing, several people were still missing. As in previous such attacks the aim was to hit the "soft target", mainly office-goers and rush-hour commuters.

The first blast was reported shortly before 9 a.m. at Aldgate station in East London and within minutes another explosion took place at Liverpool Street station in the heart of London's business centre followed by blasts at Edgware, King's Cross, Old Street and Russell Square stations. In another incident, at Tavistock Square, Central London, a device exploded in a double-decker bus ripping off its roof and resulting in several casualties. One eyewitness said the bus was "ripped open like a can of sardines and bodies were everywhere".

Soon the entire public transport system in London was "disabled", leaving people stranded across the city and at airports, adding to the sense of panic and confusion. Blair left the G8 Summit and rushed to London to review the situation.

Dazed eyewitnesses spoke of "a massive bang" and then "smoke everywhere".

"It was hot and everybody panicked. People started screaming and crying," one commuter said. Another said the train in which she was travelling was "running along another train when there was suddenly a loud bang and the electricity in our coach went off". People did not know what had happened until emergency services started evacuating them.

"The train didn't get very far out of the station when there was an explosion. Loads of glass showered down over everyone, the glass in the doors in between all the carriages shattered. There was a lot of smoke and a lot of dust... . I could hear screams. People were trying to work out what happened. A lot of people were covered in blood," said one passenger travelling on a train from King's Cross.

By the time this report is printed, the riddle of who was behind "7/7" might have been solved, but days after the event the police had no idea who the perpetrators were. However, suspicion centred around a group or groups with links to Al Qaeda, especially after two extremist web sites with alleged Al Qaeda connections claimed responsibility for the attack.

Two days after the atrocity, a statement posted in the name of the Europe Division of Al Qaeda's Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades said: "A group of mujahideen from a division of the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades piled blow after blow on the infidel capital, the British capital, leaving dead and injured." A group calling itself the "Al Qaeda Organisation - Jihad in Europe", has made a similar claim.

A key line of inquiry is the possibility that the terrorists might have been "home-grown" British citizens radicalised by religious extremists in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A possible connection with "Madrid bombers" is also being explored as detectives from Spain arrived in London to assist British investigators.

The police have scotched speculation that they were looking for any specific "individual", and said that they were examining all possibilities. More worryingly, security agencies have warned that the threat is not over and that the people responsible for "7/7" could strike again.

The only uplifting aspect of this ghastly event has been the way Londoners responded to the event - with extraordinary courage, calm and "great inner resilience", as Blair said. In a rare display of restraint, the Opposition parties avoided the temptation of politicising the tragedy - and despite fears of an anti-Muslim backlash, there has been no significant attempt to disrupt communal peace.

Muslims, on their part, have unanimously and loudly stood up to be counted against extremists operating in the name of Islam.

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