July 17, 2006

July 17, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

The links between London bombers and Al Qaeda

It was a testament to al Qaeda's media savvy, as well as its depravity, that the organization was unwilling to leave marking the first anniversary of the 2005 London subway bombings only to the relatives of its 52 victims.

On the eve of the anniversary, the terror group stole headlines worldwide by releasing a video separately featuring Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and one of the London bombers, Shehzad Tanweer, whose device killed seven others in a carriage en route to Aldgate station. In the video, Tanweer offered the now familiar al-Qaeda message of self-pitying justification for the murders and promises of further attacks.

Of greater significance was the new evidence the video provided of links between al Qaeda and the British Muslims who carried out the bombings. The video followed a past al-Qaeda production released last September featuring another of the four bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan. It also bore the al-Sahab logo, a signature of al-Qaeda videos, and featured Al-Zawahiri. Even the BBC concluded that "the evidence pointing to a major role for al Qaeda is mounting."

But even before the new video was released, what was most extraordinary -- and revealing -- was the keenness of some to deny such links even in the face of masses of evidence. An early report confessing no certainty by British security services about the extent, if any, of al-Qaeda involvement in the London attacks was hastily seized upon to this end. If the threat from militant Islam could not with credibility be blamed upon British (or American or Israeli) foreign policy, then downplaying it and minimizing the sophistication of its organization became the priority.

In fact, the evidence of links has long been substantial, compromised only by the thoughtless ambiguity of the bombers in not ensuring the survival of a few al-Qaeda membership cards as they blew to pieces themselves and dozens of innocents.

Three of the four bombers had been investigated by British security services on suspicion -- obviously correct, in retrospect -- of terrorist sympathies and involvement. Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, the apparent masterminds of the plan to murder Londoners on July 7, 2005, have links going far beyond the al-Qaeda videos in which they appear.

Attracting the notice of the security services multiple times, Khan became known for his regular attendance at a fitness center in Beeston, England so notorious as a home for Islamic extremists that it is nicknamed the "al-Qaeda gym" (attendance he had in common with Tanweer and Hasib Hussain, another London bomber).

Khan and Tanweer visited Pakistan numerous times after Sept. 11, 2001 -- including Karachi, a new Mecca for Muslim fanatics -- and began planning for the London bombings on the last of those trips. Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee concluded that the two had likely been in contact with al Qaeda on these trips and received terrorist training. One al-Qaeda aide recognized Khan from a "terror summit" held in tribal areas of the country in 2004. Other trips included a visit to Israel shortly before two British-born Pakistanis committed a suicide bombing, the planning for which Khan may have aided.

According to Pakistani intelligence officials, Shehzad Tanweer met in 2003 with Osama Nazir, a member of the al-Qaeda-linked Army of Mohammed group known best for bombing an Islamabad church in 2002. Another meeting reportedly took place in early 2005 between Tanweer and Zeeshan Sidiqui. Sidiqui left his London home in 1999 to become, as a note to his parents explained, a "holy warrior." He currently resides in a prison in Pakistan's capital for links to many of al Qaeda's most notorious figures. Tanweer may also in 2005 have met with the leader of the outlawed group Jaish-e-Muhammed, another organization with probable links to al Qaeda.

The sophistication of the London operation implies that the purpose of all these visits was more than a meet-and-greet. The complexity of the bomb suggested to experts that a practiced bomb maker had been involved. The bombers also knew to buy expensive fridges for the run-down apartment in which the bombs were assembled, to keep the materials cool. The apartment received multiple calls from public phone boxes in Pakistan, suggesting probable support from al Qaeda in Pakistan. The British government noted the awesome effectiveness of the devices used as important in distinguishing between amateur and more professional efforts. Even al Qaeda itself seems willing to remove reasonable doubt from the equation, repeatedly claiming responsibility for the London bombings.

Refusal to draw the appropriate conclusions about al Qaeda's involvement in these attacks, whatever form it ultimately took, reveals as much about the mindsets of those who issue such denials as it does about the evidence to the contrary. For those determined to see the war on terror scaled back, it is simply politically easier, whatever the balance of evidence, to minimize al Qaeda's global reach than to recognize that it is a worldwide phenomenon requiring a foreign policy and military response.

If instead the bombers were acting alone, aided only by the profundity of their objections to perceived injustices committed by the British state, then the attacks can be called upon more easily as proof not of the need for robustness of foreign policy, but of the need for appeasement of boisterous Islamic groups within Britain.

To these opponents of the war on terror, who would rather see individual appeasements of domestic Muslim extremists the world over than a united effort to annihilate this extremism whenever it takes on a violent form, admitting the evidence that Islamic terrorism is a genuinely global problem is utterly detrimental.

At some point the question must be asked: How many more of these videos must be released before Western liberals can acknowledge al Qaeda to be posing the threat that screams from its every statement and attack?

Peter Cuthbertson, who recently graduated from the University of Essex, is an intern in the Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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