By John P. Sullivan
Over the last weekend in June, three failed car bomb attacks in the UK signaled the potential resurgence of al-Qaeda and groups sympathetic to its global salifist jihadi network. First, on Friday, 29 June, two car bombs packed with propane gas canisters, gasoline and nails meant to be detonated by cell-phones—VBIEDs in current counterterrorism parlance—were positioned near a night club, poised for a "one-two punch" yielding mass casualties. The first unsuccessful car bomb was discovered by rescue workers and rendered safe, as was the second car bomb discovered nearby. The next day, two men drove a flaming SUV into the terminal at Glasgow's airport. These would be "martyrs" were captured by bystanders. It appears at least one sustained severe burns requiring treatment in hospital, an irony as the men were physicians themselves.
The men, Iraqi doctor Bilal Abdullah and Kahlid Ahmed, along with co-conspirators Mohammed Asha, a Jordanian-educated physician, and several others, are not the first British residents of a diaspora community to plot or carry out terrorist attacks. Two weeks prior to these attempts, seven men, including Dhiren Barot, were found guilty in an al-Qaeda linked plan to use limousines laden with gas canisters to attack soft targets by detonating the devices beneath buildings.
British counterterrorism officials assume that all three recent attempts are linked to al-Qaeda in motivation and ideology, if not direct control or support. The London and Glasgow attacks are linked, but the depth of the conspiracy and the exact nature of their links to the broader global jihad await the results of the fast-moving investigation. What is known thus far is that the investigation is yielding a treasure trove of forensic and human intelligence. This aids efforts to counter future attacks and understand the evolution and migration of terrorist tactics, techniques and procedures. Four immediate observations can be drawn from an assessment of these attacks.
• First, their timing coincides with the arrival of a new government. This reminds us that all terrorist attacks are instrumental in nature. These attacks were coordinated to yield maximum political influence as well as maximum casualties.
• Second, the "Martyrs of Mesopotamia" are inspiring "Global Martyrs." The use of car bombs demonstrates the migration of tactics employed in Iraq to other theatres of operation. As Sir John Stevens, the UK's senior counterterrorism official has warned, al-Qaeda has "imported the tactics of Baghdad...onto the streets of the UK."
• Third, while these attacks were unsuccessful in generating casualties or damage they can be viewed as a success from the jihadi standpoint. While the operational bombing technique has not been refined, the power of the message remains. Failed attacks still signal resolve and cause mass or systems disruption. Police and intelligence services can become swamped and distracted as failed attacks enhance the level of "noise" which they must assess to discern emerging threats. Failed strikes draw resources and attention serving as means of deception masking other conspiracies and clouding the indicators of pending attacks.
• Fourth, networked diasporas require attention. Diaspora communities can provide extremists with a permissive environment that can favor conditions that enable the emergence of extremist cells. Radical enclaves may emerge with diaspora communities and serve as catalysts for radicalization. When linked to lawless zones and other radical enclaves through social networks and Internet media a powerful "networked diaspora" results.
Britain is currently the vanguard of violent jihadism in Western Europe with adherents of extreme Islamist sects active in British cities. Members of these groups—separate and in concert—construct viable rationales that legitimize extremist narratives and actions. The threat is certain to extend beyond these current attempts—more London bombings are on the way—as reflected in the statements of British Islamist Anjem Choudary who led the banned Al Muhajiroun: "There is no doubt whatsoever that there will continue to be attacks against the British government...there are many in Britain who take their ideology from Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and are ready to carry out many more attacks." Ultimately, this threat if unchecked will mature in the United States and elsewhere.
Countering the reach of the global jihad within networked diasporas is a global security priority. Police and intelligence services worldwide—especially in "Global Cities" with international political and economic importance and transnational connections—must develop relationships with diaspora communities. These efforts must build upon community policing and develop the cultural understanding and community trust required to recognize the emergence of extremist cells, radicalization, efforts to recruit terrorists, and efforts to exploit criminal enterprises or gangs to further terrorist activities. These efforts need to be linked to develop the intelligence needed to combat a global networked threat. This requires more than "information-sharing" and co-operation, it requires a multi-lateral framework for the "co-production" of intelligence so police and intelligence services can recognize global interactions with local impact and local activity with global reach.
John P. Sullivan is a senior research fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism, a member of the board of advisors for the Terrorism Research Center, Inc., and serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He is also co-editor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a global counter-terrorism network (Routledge 2006).