Intelligence: Failure in London

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July 2, 2007: Last weeks failed attacks in London not only underscore the fact that al Qaeda has taken a lot of hits since 9/11, but also the fact that a better intelligence effort is still needed. The failed attacks did not fail due to good intelligence, but mostly due to luck. In this case, the bombs were in place, and the attack failed only due to vigilance on the site by local cops.

The mechanisms were very primitive - the bombs involved a mix of gasoline, propane, and nails. In essence, these were a jury-rigged combination of incendiary and fragmentation bombs. These crude bombs could have caused a lot of damage and casualties. But the items used are also commonly purchased in a number of Western countries to fuel cars, fuel barbeques, and to carry out home improvement projects. The cars are also plentiful.

One other thing to note is that this terrorist cell was able to implement its plan without being discovered. This was pretty good operational security - an illustration of the danger created by reveling details of intelligence programs in the media. These abortive attacks also show just how hard it is to defend against an enemy that shows ingenuity in how to build bombs and conduct attacks.

The fact remains that when terrorists get to this point, they have an advantage. In essence, they get to pick the time and place they will attack. Police cannot cover every possible target. Often, such things can be a guessing game. Knowing the style of operation a terrorist group helps - but there is an inherent problem. The inherently reactive doctrine of domestic law enforcement means they have to get lucky every time. The terrorists just need to get lucky once - and their luck will result in people getting killed or injured.

So, what sort of lessons can be learned from this failed attack? First, local cops are the last line of defense against a successful attack. The other lesson is that intelligence leaks can hurt. In these failed attacks, the attack was actually attempted, unlike the attempted airliner bombings last year, which was broken up at an earlier stage - due to assistance from the NSA. Finally, there is the fact that terrorist groups are looking to attack with whatever means are available - and state sponsors of terror can provide greater means to terrorists than the terrorists can get on their own.

Ultimately, these abortive car bombings show that terrorism - and terrorists - are still out there. The ongoing battle between terrorists and those who are out to stop them will continue for a long time. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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