French Expert Discusses London Bombings
This is the text of a chat session hosted at Le Monde last Friday.
Q. Why was London hit?
Because it is an international metropolis where the press is free and therefore reacts to a terrorist bombing. Also, because British foreign policy is well-known and because of the circumstances of radical Islamists in Great Britain.
Q. Is there any link to the Olympics?
Well, I didn’t even know that London was a candidate site for the Olympic Games. I am skeptical about links between bombings and events. For logistical reasons, you can’t decide to go out and bomb something within a couple of hours. It takes a lot planning. For the time being, though, no one knows. But there was the G-8 Summit and for several weeks, information coming out of international Jihadist networks suggested that the UK would be struck.
Q. Al-Qaeda is suspected. But are we sure that Islamist groups were responsible? Are we sure of a link to al-Qaida?
I think one should think twice when the al-Qaeda label is used. It mobilizes the citizenry and it’s very good for journalism. In fact, international Jihadist networks are much less structured than is sometimes said. There may be the same structure in place as for the Madrid bombings--a facilitator linked to al-Qaeda who recruited young men on site. But the bombings could also be linked to fighters returning from Iraq or to converts to radical Islam or to Muslim immigrants to Britain from the Indian subcontinent and the Maghreb. On the other hand, it could be an autonomous terror cell with only a doctrinal link to al-Qaeda. Anything is possible at this stage.
Q. Is al-Qaeda the only Islamist organization capable of international attacks on this scale?
My answer would be “No”. There are many others, but I would say that I have never considered al-Qaeda to be a kind of specter able to strike anywhere at anytime. In my opinion, international Jihadist groups are a composite and include not only al-Qaeda but other organizations such as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group and autonomous cells carrying out their own personal Jihad. But really, at this stage, one guess is worth another.
Q. Have the Jihadists changed their appearance? Are they younger (18-20) and more radical?
That’s hard to say because in Madrid the facilitator was 35. It’s a fact that a cell was recently dismantled in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris, whose members were very young. Those who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, like Abu Mussab Al-Zarkawi, are becoming fewer and fewer through death or arrest. A rejuvenation was almost inevitable, because the origin of the violence endures.
Q : Was it an error to have cleaned out "Londonistan"?
That is a very good question. There are plenty of Londonstan clones. Prior to 2001 and even afterwards, the British were lax and permitted Jihadist proselytism--for example, at the Finsbury and Whitechapel Mosques. In fact, these places of proselytism were considered by British intelligence to be beacons of attraction which they permitted to exist and then monitored. But following September 11th, they arrested several eminent figures in "Londonistan", including Abu Qatada. Paradoxically, all of a sudden there’s a mountain of underground Islamist radicals who have vanished. We’ve witnessed two trends: 1) the disappearance out of sight by a number of persons and the dismantling of cells comprised of individuals perfectly integrated into British society with no links to radical circles and no history of crime and 2) the appearance of radical Islamist networks in the countryside and in Ireland. They call Dublin, Londonistan 2. The same thing is happening in Scotland. The situation is very dicey.
Q. What kind of political impact do the terrorists hope to have? Why do they want to target innocents?
Typically, these people spend a lot of time meditating on the legality of their acts. For example, we know that Islam formally forbids suicide. Yet there are suicide bombers. This may be traced back to the very first Muslims. In the early days of Islam, some were captured by their enemies and refused to disavow their religion. They were executed for that. That’s the justification they use for martyrdom. As to taking innocent lives, there are people among the Jihadists who believe that a citizen of an impious regime is guilty. From a theological point of view, they have an interpretation of Islam which is totally marginal and condemnable in the eyes of the rest of the Muslim world but which allows them to commit any act they wish.
Q. The British authorities are saying that they have long been predicting acts of terrorism within their borders and that the London bombings took a long time to plan. So why weren’t the terrorists arrested?
Great Britain has already foiled several attacks. There’s the Richard Reid affair of December 2001. This British convert to Islam put a bomb inside his shoe. In January 2003 a Jihadist cell was broken up in North London and in Manchester. In March 2004, nine persons were arrested in possession of 600 kg of ammonium nitrate, enough to make a bomb. And these are just the arrests that the public is aware of. This proves that it is absolutely impossible to have a 100 percent success rate, due to the highly volatile nature of the networks described above. The same is true in France.
Q. Do you think the pace of attacks in Europe is on the rise ?
It’s hard to assess a rate. If you do an extrapolation covering the last four years, you’ll see that a large number of cells have been dismantled. An attack succeeds every ten or twelve months. Now is this going to go on for the next ten years? Nobody knows! Some European countries are in more danger than others, depending on their foreign policy and the presence of radical Islamist networks on their soil: Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, Denmark, etc.. Then there’s the vacation spots visited by Europeans.
Q. Is the fact that French troops are not deployed to Iraq mean these attacks won’t happen in Paris?
The distance taken by France from Iraq means it faces a secondary threat. Nevertheless, there is a permanent threat on French soil. What is sure is that it’s completely impossible to guarantee the absolute security of public transportation. Airline security has been greatly reinforced after September 11, but pubic transit presents security problems that cannot be solved. 100% security is impossible. The only thing to do is to carry on with life as normal.
Q. Our democracies seem defenseless in the face of such attacks. We have to accept the fact that we are targets. But what can we do to end this intolerable situation?
I don’t believe that democracies are defenseless before terrorism. In fact, I think that we have the strongest form of government possible against terrorism. The difficulty is finding the right balance between individual liberties and the security of the public, which is a human right.
Q. How much do the bombings cost to the organizers?
The 1995 terror bombings in Paris cost about 120 thousand francs. At the high end of the scale, the September 11 attacks cost several hundred million dollars. The Madrid bombings were financed by sales of hashish. This doesn’t involve fantastic sums.
Q. Will we see the British authorities harden their stance towards radical Islamist movements?
That’s inevitable. They had some problems getting an anti-terrorism law passed recently but the British public is going to demand more security. That’s normal. In the USA, the situation is the same. The closer you are to a terrorist attack, the more you are in favor of security. The further away you are, the more citizens and civil liberties groups are opposed. That is typical of the democratic debate, which we will soon see in Britain.
Q. Is the war on the Axis of Evil going to be intensified?
That’s a very American concept--the War on Terror, the Axis of Evil. But the EU and France reject these ideas. I don’t believe that the US or Britain will use the pretext of the attacks to start a new war in the Middle East. Germany and France are very engaged in active negotiations with Iran on their nuclear program.
Q. Will this make French policy align itself with the United States?
I have a very simple answer for that: "No". There’s no reason for it. NATO has no role in this affair. This is a matter which involves an international police effort. NATO is not concerned.
Q. Do you think the fact that known radial Islamist groups in Great Britain were permitted to run free favored the bombings?
Being an Islamist radical does not automatically imply that one is a terrorist. Most Islamists are not interested in integrating themselves into a foreign society. But we are a nation of laws, and as long as they do nothing illegal, they are presumed innocent. But as to proselytism, Britain has tolerated a lot. If tomorrow we find out that the bombers were unaduterated products of British radical Islam, we are going to see a major impact on British democracy and politics.
Q. I’ve heard that there is some informal international cooperation, but is it effective?
It’s effective on a bilateral level. Unfortunately, I have doubts on what the European Union is doing either through Europol or Schengen in terms of cooperation. But they are doing something, and this has foiled some attacks.
Q. Will the British have the same reaction as the Madrileños and march to demand the pullout of British troops from Iraq?
The difference between Britain and Spain is that Tony Blair is not facing an election cycle. This gives him the time and the space to play Churchill to the British in their time of adversity. I don’t think we’ll witness the same thing.
Q. Is France safe from terrorist attacks?
Several operational terror cells have been broken up in France since 2001. The world recognizes that we have a good anti-terrorism and judicial investigation structures. That said, it appears inevitable to me that one day or another an active Jihadist cell will carry out some act in France because the networks are not easily detectable. It may be a question of when, not if. But we shouldn’t let our thoughts run wild and imagine the worst. In the 1970’s and 1980’s we had numerous terrorist attacks and we learned to live with it. But frankly, in terms of terrorism, I’d rather live in France than in certain other European countries or somewhere else.