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Reexamining the British Terror Plot


British and foreign investigators are continuing their probe into a series of recent attempted terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow. They are pursuing leads as far away as India and Australia. Security analysts find themselves re-examining some of their terrorist profiles.

Britain seems to have emerged as a favorite terrorist target. For three years running, Britain's mid- to late summer months have been marked by terrorist plots or actual attacks. Most horrific was the July 7, 2005 attack on the London transit system that killed 52 people.

Most recently, two car bombs were discovered in London on June 29 before they could be detonated. The next day, two men drove a jeep packed with gas cylinders into the airport entrance in Glasgow, Scotland. It caught fire, but failed to explode as they might have hoped.

The Changing Face of Terror

The profile of the typical terrorist attacker in Britain has been that of a young Muslim male born in Britain of South Asian immigrants, alienated from British society, and seeking refuge in radical Islam -- what British media have labeled the "homegrown terrorist."

But Paul Wilkinson of the Scotland-based Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence says the outlines of the most recent plot that have emerged so far appear to break many of those preconceived notions.

"It's already clear from the investigation that this is the work of international terrorists who had been working and living abroad, [and who] came to the United Kingdom relatively recently, and it is not the work of a particular cell that was born and brought up in a particular part of the United Kingdom. So the description of 'home-grown terrorist,' which we used in the context of the 7th of July [2005] bombers, is not really appropriate for this group," says Wilkinson.

Bilal Abdullah, who is the first to be formally charged in last month's plot, is not a British-born Muslim, but a physician from Iraq. Others with alleged links to the plot are non-Britons who also have some connection to the medical profession. And the man who police say crashed the gasoline-laden vehicle into the Glasgow airport is an aeronautical engineer from India.

An al-Qaida Connection?

British and American authorities say the plotters were al-Qaida or "al-Qaida-inspired." But did the terrorists actually link up with al-Qaida?

Bob Ayers, an intelligence and security analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, says that is difficult to pin down.

"Al-Qaida doesn't issue an I.D. card and you don't take an oath of office when you join al-Qaida. What we have is a group of radicals who are embracing the philosophy and ideology as espoused by al-Qaida. But they're not necessarily part of a closely coupled, vertically integrated organization like a military force," says Ayers.

Paul Wilkinson is among the security analysts who find it disturbing that the car bombs discovered in London are similar to ones insurgents have used in Iraq.

"There is considerable concern -- not just in Britain, but in all the European Union countries -- that people in the extremist groups within their countries have gone out to Iraq and seen the kind of tactics that are being used by al-Qaida there and are bringing that knowledge back into their own groups," says Wilkinson.

Wilkinson also finds it unsettling that the plot was not intercepted by police or security agencies. "The police and the intelligence service say they did not have any advance information of a specific nature, which would have enabled them to intervene and preempt the attacks. This is a source of considerable concern because they have been successful in preempting a number of attacks."

Intelligence Gathering

David Claridge, a terrorism expert and managing director of Janusian Security Risk Management in Britain, says that after the 2005 London bombings and the foiled 2006 airliner plot, the security services may have been looking at the threat coming from within rather than from abroad.

"The direction that the security service here had been giving to the public was that was where they expected the next threat to come from. And, in fact, the way in which it turned out was much closer to perhaps what we had been expecting prior July the seventh [of 2005], which was people from outside who may have been living here for some period of time but who had been born outside the U.K. and perhaps radicalized outside the U.K.," says Claridge.

Claridge's firm concludes that Britain, in fact, is more likely to suffer another attack than the United States. The threat to the U.S. comes primarily from abroad, he says, but Britain is at additional risk from homegrown terrorists.

"We've recently been involved in a map project, a terrorism threat map project looking at relative terrorism threats. And the U.S. we scored lower [risk] than the U.K. And I think it was quite hard to pin down precisely why we had that sort of gut feeling. But I think in the U.K., there are much more homogenous immigrant communities who perhaps look to radical Islam, becoming more radicalized, than in the U.S.," says Claridge.

Claridge says it is very likely terrorists will attempt other attacks in Britain and that, at some point, one of those attacks will succeed.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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