National Security Watch: Digging into the London blasts
With the arrest of one of the suspects in last week's attempted mass-transit bombings in London, investigators finally have a crack at penetrating any linkages between the July 7 and July 21 attacksand homing in on who, if anyone, might have orchestrated them. This is clearly an urgent inquiry, as police worry that other cells could still be functioning.
There have been indications of similarities in the makeup of the bombs, but the varied ethnic makeup of the suspects is troubling. British authorities arrested a young Somali, identified as Yasin Hassan Omar, suspected of trying to set off a bomb in the Warren Street Tube station. While the first attack was apparently carried out by Pakistani militants, authorities believe the second-wave attackers were most likely North Africans.
Historically, these two ethnic groups have come from different parts of the al Qaeda tradition, and joint operations like this are rare. "It is quite unusual in the European theater, because usually it was either/or," says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at St. Andrews University. "You had Pakistani cells that were detected or the North African contingent, but not normally the cross-fertilization." This could mean that cells have been formed independently under limited central direction, making it hard for investigators to assure that there are no further cells waiting to attack. It also means the police must cast a very broad net, rather than focusing on a few key communities. North African militants have long been a concern for European police, but the Pakistani connection remains alarming. "When you're talking about the Pakistani dimension, you always have to worry they might have a connection with someone higher up in al Qaeda," says Ranstorp.
For now, it appears that the massive triple bombing in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, which killed at least 64 people, was a separate incident. Experts note that the plot most likely required complicated logistics, planning, and reconnaissance. "You don't whip together an operation of this nature," says Ranstorp. Also, the attack coincides with the planned start of a high-profile trial of three suspects in the bombing of a resort in Taba, Egypt, last October that killed 34 people.
Egyptian authorities have suggested that some of the same militants may have been involved in both bombings.
Still, with the Egyptian and British attacks coming so close together, they are a reminder of al Qaeda's ongoing strategic evolution.
"These two incidents, even though they are unconnected, reveal the debate over the strategic priority between the near enemy and far enemy," says Ranstorp. "There are those that argue for confronting the key critical Muslim states, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and also Pakistanand there are those that focus on tackling the key regimes in the West that are supporting these states."
It looks like militants from both schools of thought are active.