The bombers' trail

Published : Aug 12, 2005 00:00 IST

Investigations reveal that home-grown British boys, rather than foreign mercenaries, were used as suicide bombers in the London blasts, and there is concern that there may be more such people around in the country.


SUICIDE BOMBERS blowing themselves up on the streets of London had always been regarded as a worst-case scenario by British security agencies whenever they warned of a terror attack on Britain. And when it happened on July 7, as a series of explosions ripped through the London Underground network killing up to 60 people and leaving hundreds injured, the first police instinct was to play down suggestions that it was the work of a suicide squad. This, despite eyewitness accounts suggesting that at least one incident - the explosion on a double-decker bus - looked like a suicide attack.

As investigations progressed, however, the worst fears were confirmed: suicide bombing had arrived in Western Europe. Less than a week after the attacks, four alleged suicide bombers were identified - three of Pakistani origin, born and brought up in Britain and sons of respectable and hard-working immigrant families from Pakistan settled in Leeds, West Yorkshire.

Soon, faces of Shehzad Tanweer (22), Hasib Hussain (19), and Mohammed Siddique Khan (30) were staring out of newspapers and television screens - all described by their families, friends and neighbours as "decent" and "nice" lads who nobody imagined could do such a thing. All the three had reportedly visited Pakistan and attended "madrassas" where, it is suspected, they were "brainwashed".

The fourth was identified as a Jamaican-born British citizen, who had converted to Islam and lived with his wife - a white woman, also a convert - and child in a quiet suburb of well-heeled Buckinghamshire.

There is still speculation that not all the four may have known that they were on a suicide mission, and may have been duped into believing that their job was only to plant the bombs which would be triggered after they had fled to safety. The basis for the speculation is their behaviour as they set off on their mission. Experts are intrigued that they should have been carrying tell-tale personal documents which helped the police to identify them and trace their families. Why should someone who was going to die provide such helpful clues to the police and compromise their families?

Second, all the four bought return tickets when they boarded a train from Luton Station for King's Cross - their collective destination before dispersing. "People who are going to die don't want a return ticket," one expert said.

Third, as the closed circuit television (CCTV) images show, when they parted company at King's Cross to head indifferent directions there were no "emotional" farewells that would have suggested that they were meeting for the last time. Also, they did not leave behind any messages or tapes as suicide bombers are known to do.

The police insist that they were suicide bombers. Even if they did not know it themselves, whoever masterminded the attack planned it as a suicide operation. This has been established from the pattern of explosions which, contrary to initial assessment, took place within minutes of each other suggesting that the bombs were timed to go off almost simultaneously in order to cause maximum panic and loss of lives within the shortest possible time span. If it had not been planned as a suicide attack, the carriers of the bombs would have been given sufficient time to flee before they exploded.

At the time of writing this article (July 19), the police were looking for a fifth man, believed to be the mastermind. Media speculation centred on an unnamed and alleged Al Qaeda operative who was believed to have slipped into Britain to plan the atrocity, and left hours before the terrorists struck.

Although the police ruled out the involvement of foreign terrorists, newspapers speculated on the role of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a 47-year-old Syrian-born Spanish national, with links to Britain. The Sunday Times said that Spanish security forces had warned four months ago that Nasar had "identified" Britain as a likely target of a terrorist attack. It claimed that "coded commands" attributed to Nasar and seized from a flat after the Madrid bombings last year were thought to have included threats to other European countries, including Britain. Another suspect was said to be Zeeshan Hyder Siddiqui, who was arrested in Pakistan recently for his alleged Al Qaeda links.

The breakthrough in the investigations came after the CCTV cameras at King's Cross station picked up images of four young men of apparent Asian origin, all carrying similar-looking rucksacks and then splitting at one point to head in different directions. This was at 8-20 a.m. - and 30 minutes later the first bomb went off on a train between Liverpool Street and Aldgate in East London, followed by more explosions on other routes in quick succession, including one on a bus.

The police believe that while three of them travelled to London together, Tanweer went separately. Ironically, the search for at least one of them - Hasib Hussain - started after his mother called up the police to report that he had been missing and might have been caught up in the blasts. He had left home the previous evening telling his parents that he was going to meet friends in London.

In the suburban Muslim neighbourhoods of Leeds, there were gasps of disbelief. An uncle of Tanweer, whose father runs a fish-and-chip shop, said: "It wasn't him. It must have been the forces behind him."

A relative of Hasib Hussain said that after a visit to Pakistan last year he had suddenly become very religious and "gone off the rails". "His parents were very worried. They wanted to instil some discipline in him," he added.

The discovery that home-grown British boys, rather than foreign mercenaries, were behind the attack has alarmed security agencies and there is concern that there may be more such people around. The police have warned that the threat is not over.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has voiced his "profound shock and anxiety" that the suspected terrorists were British and called for efforts to "mobilise the moderate and true voice of Islam". He has met Muslim leaders and urged them to help the government fight the "evil ideology" of terrorism. And the Muslim community has offered its full cooperation.

The police have been widely praised for their quiet efficiency and the speed with which they achieved the breakthrough, but intelligence agencies have been accused of some sloppy footwork. They allegedly lowered their guard even as the police were warning that an attack was "inevitable" - more a matter of "when" rather than "if".

It has emerged that barely weeks before the bombings, the threat level was reduced after the Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre, which pools information from intelligence agencies, concluded that there was "not a group with both the current intent and capability to attack the U.K.", according to a leaked confidential report published in The New York Times.

It has also been repeated that Mohammed Siddique Khan - one of the alleged bombers - was investigated by the British intelligence agency MI5 last year in connection with another case but he was not regarded a security risk, and left alone. His activities remained undetected in the run-up to the bombings. Another suspect, Germaine (also known as Jamal) Lindsay, was also not monitored, according to media reports quoting U.S. intelligence, even though he was said to have been on a security watchlist.

The Blair government has rejected calls for a public inquiry into alleged intelligence lapses but there is no doubt that an internal post-mortem will soon take place - and hopefully lessons will be learnt from it.

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