Here is something you may not know about the recent terrorist attacks in London: Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist mastermind currently plying his lethal craft in Iraq, may have had a hand in their execution. As we speak, counterterrorism investigators are actively pursuing any connection between the 7/7 bombings and the al-Qaeda commander. Whether this turns out to be the case remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that European intelligence services remain dangerously ignorant of al-Qaeda’s internal hierarchy as well as the extent of its reach in Europe.
Before we address this intelligence failure, we must first understand the London attacks. And to do this we must begin by placing them in their correct context. Many will seek to lay the blame for these attacks on British involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom. That assertion is false. The London attacks have their origin in attacks that were planned by al-Qaeda and foiled in the fall of 2002. These planned attacks were to use ricin, cyanide, or both, and were aimed at London and Paris. (Al-Qaeda had planned a similar type of operation in Rome around the same time.) In addition, in 2002, the London cell was also reportedly planning to target the city’s subway, the Underground, with this unconventional attack. Significantly, that plot was hatched—and the target chosen—long before coalition forces had set foot inside Iraq.
But can the London blasts credibly be ascribed to al-Qaeda? Consider the evidence: Al-Qaeda’s retargeting of the London underground on July 7 fits perfectly with its larger strategic pattern of returning to targets that prove initially elusive. Consider the terrorist network’s unsuccessful attempt to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993, and its failed attack on the U.S.S. Sullivan in January of 2000. Reflection on the difference between the effectiveness of the first and second London bombings also reveals a chink in al-Qaeda’s armor. The first, successful attack, on July 7, was planned well in advance, which is when al-Qaeda is the most effective. By contrast, the second attack was more of an ad-hoc mission, which betrays an al-Qaeda weakness: In its single-minded determination to capitalize on the murderous success of its first strike, al-Qaeda bungled the sequel.
It is important to note in this context a fact that many in Europe seem to have missed: the al-Qaeda chieftain Zarqawi not only presides over terrorist operations in Iraq; he has also been in charge of operations in Europe (including Turkey) and North Africa for many years. In 2003, for instance, al-Qaeda created the "Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades." Captained by Zarqawi, it was a front organization for al-Qaeda’s large-scale operations. The group was named after Mohammed Atef, a key planner of al-Qaeda operations from 1996 until he was killed by U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan.
The group has openly declared its intention to carry out an attack in Europe. For instance, Spanish intelligence officials have translated a threat placed on an Islamist website on May 29. It included the instruction to launch an attack in Europe: "We now call on the mujahedeen around the world to launch the expected attack,” it stated. Titled "Letter to the Mujahedeen in Europe,” this threat, which was not handed over to the British until a few days after the attacks in London, is attributed to the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades’ European faction. This front organization has been tied to al-Qaeda terrorist operations in Morocco, Turkey, Spain, and now London. Notably, it was under this alias that al-Qaeda offered a truce to Europe after the Spanish withdrawal from Iraq and threatened the U.S. homeland directly following President Bush’s reelection. This same front organization issued a further warning on July 19, warning of "a bloody war" that would be waged across European capitals in the coming months. Besides serving as an alias for al-Qaeda, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades is also the name that routinely appears on terrorist propaganda declaring war against the West.
Keeping that background in mind, what should have caught Spanish intelligence officials’ attention was that the Internet posting they translated was preceded by a series of two videos by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second in command. The first was broadcast on February 20 of this year. In it, al-Zawahiri specifically mentioned the targeting of financial interests in the west. (The London bombings of July 7th were in and around the London financial district.) The February video was followed by a second video on June 17. It would be easy to dismiss the June 17 video as little more than a rambling stream of extremist rhetoric. But it takes on a greater importance when examined in light of two videos that were released last year.
On September 9, 2004, al-Zawahiri released a video that was followed a few months later, just like the February and June 2005 pattern of videos, by a second video in November 9, 2004. This second video in 2004 was followed less than a month later by the brazen attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah Saudi Arabia by al-Qaeda forces. We do not yet have all the information about the recent attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Yet the attack, in which scores of Egyptians and tourists were killed, bears all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda’s handiwork: multiple simultaneous attacks with claims of responsibility coming from obvious front groups. Just as important, the blast in Egypt and the London blasts share a commonality. It is likely that, like the London attacks, the attack at Sharm-el-Sheik was targeting the economic interests of the Egyptian tourism industry—precisely as demanded by Zawahiri in the February 2005 video.
Another interesting component of al-Qaeda's battle plan against Europe—which, according to some observers, includes Turkey and North Africa, as well as targets in North America—is that an attack can not be planned nor launched without the express, personal order of either Bin Laden or al-Zawahiri. An order for such an attack would have been given to the head or emir of the military committee (a.k.a. the military commander of al-Qaeda) on the Al-Qaeda’s Shura Council, (The Shura Council is the leadership board of al-Qaeda under Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri and it is known to have four operational committees).
Since the capture of Abu Zubaydah on March 28, 2002, however, the title of emir of the military committee has been held by Saif al-Adil al-Adel. It is al-Adil’s task to relay instructions from al-Qaeda leadership to Zarqawi, who oversees the operations of the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades. Al-Qaeda’s forces that make up these brigades then execute the operation. Factor in the importance to al-Qaeda of the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades and its terrorist campaign in Iraq, as well as the close relationship that has existed over the last 3 years between al-Adil and Zarqawi, and it seems sensible to conclude that Zarqawi is now serving as a deputy emir of the military committee within al-Qaeda. If so, this means that al-Qaeda has reestablished its operational system command, control, and communications.
As for al-Adil, since late 2001 he is known to have been living and operating in Iran under the protection of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). By providing a safe haven in Iran, the IRGC has likely aided the reconstitution of the Al-Qaeda command structure following the liberation of Afghanistan. It is likely that, with recourse to local al-Qaeda commanders from Iran, al-Adil has been overseeing terrorist operations in the Arabian Peninsula and Afghanistan and Pakistan. This would tie him to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Jeddah in 2004 in addition to other such al-Qaeda attacks in both areas. In this regard, it is worth considering what is perhaps the greatest intelligence failure in recent history: the undue importance accorded by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, to the capture of Abu Faraj al-Libbi. True, Al-Libbi likely headed an al-Qaeda branch in Pakistan. But he was never the military commander of al-Qaeda. The real military commander of al-Qaeda, after all, would have been in close contact with al-Qaeda cells throughout Europe, and would surely have known about the London cell, if not the planned bombings. Al-Libbi did not.
None of this is to excuse the failures of European intelligence services. The London attacks have revealed massive flaws in the system used for intelligence sharing and, very possibly, the basic collection and analysis capabilities of many nations. They also remind us that while al-Qaeda has been severely damaged by the United States and its coalition partners, it remains functional.
Furthermore, the role of front organizations like Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, and the shifts in al-Qaeda’s command structure should indicate clearly that the lines of command and control have been reestablished and are operational. In addition, the presence of at least al-Adil, if not other even more senior al-Qaeda officials, in Iran, and Iranian assistance to Zarqawi in Iraq should raise the question of how much longer the United States can afford to sublet its Iran policy to Europe before another successful attack on American soil.
The good news is that preventing terrorist attacks is not as impossible as conventional wisdom would have it. Al-Qaeda, after all, is anything but subtle. Al-Zawahiri has clearly indicated al-Qaeda’s desired targets. Note that his second video was at once an order and a warning that the attack was going to occur within a month. Finally, the Internet posting a week before the London attacks gave us a clue that the target was Europe and the attack would come shortly. Put all of this together with al-Qaeda’s previously scouted targets, its propensity for going back to targets that they failed to destroy before, its limited yet strategically successful attack in Madrid, and a globe of potential targets is reduced to a few neighborhoods in London, Paris, or Rome. (It is very likely that a similar set of indicators will emerge in relation to the Egyptian attack.)
In the coming weeks, expect the intelligence communities around the world to parrot the mantra that only the terrorists’ failures are known while their successes remain secret. The truth of that observation will surely be of little comfort to the innocents who paid for the failures of the intelligence community with their lives.