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Assessing the London Terror Plot


Security at most major airports around the world remains high in the wake of last week's foiled terror plot in London in which about two dozen people were apprehended.

Traffic at Heathrow Airport, one of the world's busiest airports, came to a halt last Thursday as security personnel searched passengers' carry-on luggage for liquids and gels that could be used to make bombs in flight.

An al-Qaida Link?

Magnus Ranstorp directs the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and says the plot bears many of the earmarks of an al-Qaida operation.

"There is no proof that al-Qaida would be the directing hand [in the plot] from Pakistan. But the nature and the ambitiousness of the plot would suggest that it probably was directed from the outside, with the possibility that there may be an al-Qaida connection," says Ranstorp.

According to Vincent Cannistraro, former Chief of the C.I.A.'s Counter-terrorism Center, the foiled plot is an example of al-Qaida's determination to refine its tactics. He says it bears a strong resemblance to what terrorists had planned a little more than a decade ago.

". . . to combine two separate chemicals into a nitroglycerin-based explosive on-board a plane and use it to blow up planes. The plan actually was to attack 11 or 12 airliners flying from Asia to the United States and to try to blow them up simultaneously. It was called the Bojinka Plot," says Cannistraro. "It appears that what we have just seen in England was an attempt to resurrect that, but with airliners flying from Europe, using basically the same chemical formula to devise the explosive device."

Bin Laden's Strategy

Nearly five years after the September 11th attacks on the United States, most experts agree that al-Qaida remains the world's number one terrorist organization.

Despite the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq this past June in an allied attack, analyst Loretta Napoleoni, who closely follows Islamist movements, says al-Qaida has been able to promote its goals.

"The emphasis is back on Osama bin Laden and his strategy, which is the same that it was in 1998, 'We have to destroy the far away enemy, which is the United States, and now the U.S. and the United Kingdom. And then, we will solve the problems inside our [own] countries, and then we will attack the near enemy, which are the existing Arab regimes,'" says Napoleoni.

Identifying and monitoring potential terrorist cells as Britain did to uncover last week's plot is a huge undertaking for any one country.

Robert Ayers, an analyst at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, says, "To perform surveillance of one person, it takes five people to do it. And if you do this 24 hours a day, you need five teams. So you need 25 people to follow one guy to see what he is up to. So the logistics of maintaining covert surveillance on suspects are astronomically expensive."

International Cooperation

Terrorists use the Internet and wireless telephones to recruit new members and coordinate their activities. And because these capabilities stretch beyond national borders, Robert Ayers says global cooperation is crucial in the war on terror.

"The key to dealing with international terrorism is international security collaboration. These guys [i.e., terrorists] move with impunity through nation-state boundaries. They talk across national state boundaries. They move money back and forth. And unless the nation-states collaborate, they are never going to be successful in defeating these guys," says Ayers.

But according to James Phillips, a terrorism expert at The Heritage Foundation here in Washington, progress has been made during the past five years.

"Especially encouraging is the fact that the British authorities apparently were tipped off by someone in the Muslim community. And I think that shows that British Muslims are supportive of their government realize and that this kind of Islamic fanaticism undermines their own interests. And I think that is a strong reason for long-term optimism," says Phillips.

Many analysts say anti-terrorism efforts also need to address the poverty and hopelessness many Muslims feel in their home countries or as immigrants in foreign lands.

Terrorism expert Loretta Napoleoni notes that most of the suspected terrorist plotters arrested in London were young people who were born and raised in Britain.

"If you look at the United Kingdom, for example, which is clearly the center of the Jihadists today in the world, we have 14-percent unemployment among the Muslims. And you have four-percent unemployment among non-Muslims," says Napoleoni. "That gives you an idea of the difference. These people cannot find a job, they feel frustrated and alienated. And this is really a great ground for recruiters -- the Jihadists."

In contrast, many analysts point out that the United States has not produced a homegrown terrorism movement among its immigrant communities.

International security expert James Lewis, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that is because of America's tradition of tolerance and inclusion -- regardless of ethnic or religious differences.

"We [in the United States] apparently are a more open society. It is hard for some people in Europe to believe it, but we are more open. We are more accepting. A lot of people here are immigrants, so you do not get that 'us and them' mentality that you find so often in Europe where you basically have immigrant ghettos. That is not the case in the U.S. and it has been an advantage and hopefully will remain an advantage in protecting ourselves," says Lewis.

Most experts agree that the war against terrorism requires greater security and intelligence efforts, as well as closer cooperation among nations. But, they say, it should also include implementing policies that reach out to the Islamic world, which often lacks prosperity and political pluralism.

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

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.

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    Victor Morales

    Victor Morales is Senior Analyst for the Voice of America, where he has reported on U.S. and international affairs for more than two decades.  He is the former head of VOA’s Focus New Analysis Unit and VOA Learning English.  He also hosted the agency’s premier public affairs talk shows, Encounter and Press Conference, USA, and anchored the leading English news program, VOA News Now.

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