London After the Attacks

Robert Groezinger is a German writer, translator, and copy editor who has been living with his British wife and two children in Bath, Great Britain, since 2000. Among other things, Robert writes and translates articles for Germany's one and only libertarian magazine, "Eigentümlich Frei." He's the latest addition to our team of international "correspondents" and will keep us informed about what's going on across the Great Pond. Today, he gives us his views of the aftermath of the London terror attacks.

It may still be too early for final conclusions of the terror attacks on London on July 7 and 21, but the pictures emerging from the investigations are worrying, to say the least.

On July 7, at 8:50 am, the three bombs triggered in the equal number of underground tube cars, together with the fourth in a double-decker bus 57 minutes later, killed more than 50 commuters and injured some 700 more. Exactly two weeks later, again three tube trains and one bus suffered explosions. Because only the detonators exploded and not the bombs themselves, the damage incurred here was very small, resulting only in a few minor injuries. Nevertheless, Britain's cosmopolitan city and financial markets again were thrown into turmoil, especially as there had been fears of chemical, biological and radiological weapons being involved--a suspicion that luckily proved groundless... this time.

In contrast, the July 7 attack, claiming more victims than any other since 1945, was a horrific experience for all those involved and their families. However, considering that Britain's capital city, currently with a population of 7 million, has survived Irish Republican Army terrorism in the '70s and '80s and the air raids of World War II, and considering that the damaged transport system was essentially up and running again the next day, these acts of violence, savage and incomprehensible as they are, do not even come near comparing to the attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath.

An attack of this kind had been expected in London for years, especially after the WTC towers had crumbled to dust. Government agencies claim that a number of similar attempts had been foiled previously. Add the relatively minor damage suffered, and the broadly sober and rational response of the public seems less surprising. However, underneath the image of a "stoic" London that "keeps a stiff upper lip" and defiantly posts photos and messages on a website called werenotafraid.com, signs of a permanently heightened level of nervousness are detectable.

In the first days after July 7, sales of bicycles in London soared and they are still selling like hotcakes. More people than before are now seen on the streets, either pedaling a bike or walking. Commuters reliant on the tube try to avoid the morning rush hour peak time between 8:30 and 9:00, when tube cars used to be packed. Now, one can actually get a seat on the tube at that time of day, and the peak time has simply moved forward. Londoners are worried, and rightly so--for as the investigations unfold, the true nature of the underlying threat is emerging, which is sending shudders down the spine of Europe.

At least three shocks were in store for the public. First was the fact that the killings were very likely the result of suicide bombings, the first in Britain.

The fact that three were British born (of Pakistani origin) and the fourth an immigrant British citizen (from Jamaica) was the second shock. All of them had been unobtrusive up to that point--one had only been involved in some petty crime, another was a teaching assistant and a respected and well-loved member of the community.

The third shock came when investigations led to the conclusion that the explosives had not been smuggled into the country or stolen from the military, but were homemade in the UK with ingredients available from any high-street pharmacy.

Homegrown, inconspicuous suicide bombers with homemade explosives... a nightmare scenario for counterterrorism forces. In the short run, there seems to be next to nothing that government agencies can do to stop the perpetrators of this in essence religious war. Added to these already existing difficulties is the international dimension of Islamist terrorism. Three of the bombers traveled to Pakistan last year, two of them together. Their aim seems to have been to establish contacts with the country's thriving militant scene, as the Guardian reported on July 19.

In the wake of the atrocities, politicians all over Europe are frantically scrambling to find and implement "tougher" counterterrorism measures. In Britain, legislation covering offenses of preparing, training for and inciting terror acts will come before Parliament in a few months. Identity cards, planned by the government long before, are now well on their way to becoming law. And we can certainly expect more state powers to observe and eavesdrop in the pipeline. No indication can yet be seen as to how the international dimension of the problem is to be tackled. A fatwa against suicide bombings, an idea currently being considered by the country's Muslim leaders, cannot be more than a symbolic gesture.

Comments by European government officials betray their helplessness in the face of this challenge. Otto Schily, Germany's Minister for the Interior, said in a recent article in the German magazine Der Spiegel that terror in Europe is "metastasizing" and concedes that it is "highly dangerous, because hardly controllable."

French investigative judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere compares the jihadists to HIV: whenever anyone thinks it has been conquered, it just returns in a newer, more dangerous form.

There are of course attempts to link these attacks to Britain's continued presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no doubt this policy has fueled any previous negative feelings among many Muslims. However, as not only the government but also the largest opposition party remain firmly behind Blair's military commitment in the Middle East, nothing much will change on this front soon.

In any case, it is far from clear that a withdrawal from there would help in the long run against Islamist terrorism. As a Journalist of the Dubai-based TV channel Al Arabiya explained in a BBC broadcast after the attack, the hatred of the radicals against London runs deeper than the feelings against the invasion of Iraq. According to him, it is a crucial part of the fundamentalist world view that devout Muslims and "unbelievers" cannot peacefully coexist. Cities like London call this belief into question on a daily basis, and this, he said, is simply unbearable to the extremists.

European countries have been far too lenient toward Muslim extremists, some analysts believe. Radical preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri, for example, was allowed for many years to sow his evil seed in Britain. Ironically, it is the fact that these radicals can speak English that is actually helping them recruit new jihadist foot soldiers: contrary to common belief, any split between Muslim and non-Muslim communities within Europe may not be the worst problem. Instead, reports are pointing to a widening generational gap within the Muslim community as the main source of trouble.

This gap "is based on the language barrier between English-speaking young Muslims and their elders", writes the Guardian, quoting a 38-year-old Islamic book seller who lives in a neighborhood not dissimilar to the ones the terrorists came from: "It doesn't matter what the imam says inside the mosque because the young people don't understand. The real education goes on outside. In mosques our religious leaders are speaking in Urdu. The only people speaking in English are extremists like Abu Hamza and Bakri Mohammed. Youngsters do not get the real message of Islam."

Whilst effective surveillance will always be crucial for preventing actual terrorist acts, the lesson from London is that inevitably some determined native suicide bombers will slip through the nets. As Europe cannot wait for predominantly Muslim countries such as Pakistan to clamp down on militants, long-term prevention can only be accomplished if disaffected young Muslim descendants of immigrants can feel at home in a modern and open society without at the same time losing touch with their cultural roots. Government programs supporting and fostering "multiculturalism", however, don't seem to be doing that job at all.

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Posted 07-26-2005 1:09 PM by Doug Casey