Stephen E. Flynn, the Council on Foreign Relations’ top expert on homeland security, says that the well-coordinated July 7 bombings in London indicate that al Qaeda or its affiliates remains a deadly threat in Western Europe. “I guess it’s clear that al Qaeda retains a footprint, an organization, in Western Europe,” he says. “This appears to be a very well-organized, well-rehearsed, simultaneous attack.”
The risk for the United States, he says, is that, while al Qaeda may have a smaller presence in the United States, it is more likely to husband its limited resources for a more devastating attack. “If they took three years to put a footprint down, they’re not going to squander it on something that, while newsworthy, doesn’t have a really disruptive impact. They’re not going to risk their limited resources on a lower-end attack.”
Flynn, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on July 7, 2005.
Let us begin by acknowledging that there are many unanswered questions about today’s attacks in London. But they do have the earmarks of an al Qaeda attack. Do they tell us anything about al Qaeda in the West?
It tells us that al Qaeda is increasingly more of a movement than it is an organization. There are splinter groups and it would appear, in this instance, that many of these groups are homegrown—that is, they’re made up of U.K. citizens rather than foreign fighters who have arrived on British soil.
Why do you say that?
I don’t have a lot of detail, obviously—but what I’ve picked up from the web and the bit of reporting I’ve heard from Scotland Yard indicates that is likely the case. Many of the folks who are setting up these [Qaeda-affiliated] organizations carry a European Union passport. In some instances, they are first generation. Others are established citizens living in the cities, as opposed to Saudis who come in to carry out these attacks. Of course, that was the case with [the March 2004 al Qaeda bombings of commuter trains in] Madrid as well.
It sounds like the attackers were familiar with the travel patterns of people in London.
That’s right. They can do the surveillance and the dry runs. I guess it’s clear that al Qaeda retains a footprint, an organization, in Western Europe. It has been obvious since the Madrid train bombings that al Qaeda is able to carry out a rather sophisticated attack. This appears to be a very well-organized, well-rehearsed simultaneous attack in rush hour, set around a politically sensitive event, the G-8 meeting [in Gleneagles, Scotland]. Al Qaeda’s presence remains; its ability to carry out sophisticated, coordinated attacks in a Western democracy is an illustration of that.
Now, why do they target mass transit? One reason is that, timed as it was during rush hour, the attack would cause mass casualties and substantial disruption. Obviously, London, like New York, is very dependant on its mass transit system to function as a city. When you target that system, you get a two-fer: You not only get the loss of life and the terror that it generates, but also the loss of a critical piece of infrastructure necessary for the operation of a modern city.
Security in mass transit is almost nonexistent. No one checks baggage or takes other precautions like the kind that are common in airports.
This may be a point to make on how today’s attacks relate to the U.S. I would say that there’s bad news/good news here. The bad news is that the U.S. system is much worse in terms of the level of security. In the U.K., you have the combination of some technologies like closed-circuit television, pretty good central oversight of the security and the operation of the system, as well as a pretty mature population, i.e., one that has had a bit of experience with the [violent separatists in the] IRA [Irish Republican Army]. Things like loose packages and the general sort of commuter awareness are much higher in the U.K. than they are in the United States.
The good news for the U.S. is it seems pretty clear the al Qaeda presence that exists in the U.K, Germany, Spain, France, and so forth is much higher than what exists here. We probably have a greater vulnerability in terms of our mass transit system, but al Qaeda has less capability here simply because, unlike in Europe, it doesn’t have the sizable indigenous population groups that support its aims.
Are there further lessons for the United States?
Yes. There is this notion that we can have a threat-based approach to homeland security that presumes we will receive intelligence that will allow us to raise the alert level and then put protective measures in place, timed around what we believe to be the threat. But that’s just not going to work, because this is an adversary from whom we are unlikely to receive that kind of warning. Security has to be integrated into systems like our mass transit systems. I’m not talking about lock-down security, I’m talking about ongoing awareness and commuter education.
A lot of it, frankly, is built around effective response. If you can’t prevent these attacks—in the case of mass transit, it’s very difficult to do without the law-enforcement intelligence piece of it in place because it’s such an open system with so much usage—then it puts a premium on your ability to respond to these events when they happen. Government, in this case, should be judged equally not only on how it prevents the attack, but also how well it can respond. At least preliminarily, the Brits have shown a very capable response. I worry that, in New York’s context, you need to have effective preventative measures in place, and we have very little in the way of ability to respond effectively to large-scale casualties in our transit system. We haven’t done the drills, we haven’t done the exercises, the kinds of things that the Brits do routinely.
What does the London attack say about the ongoing threat?
It says, especially, that the ongoing threat in Europe remains. It doesn’t give us a lot of clarity about what exists here in the United States. What’s likely in the U.S. context is far fewer but more catastrophic attacks. If they took three years to put a footprint down, they’re not going to squander it on something that, while newsworthy, doesn’t have a really disruptive impact. They’re not going to risk their limited resources on a lower-end attack.
The fact that it was a conventional weapons attack in London and not one using weapons of mass destruction reminds us that terrorists don’t necessarily use the most sophisticated weapons available. They tend to use weapons that are more readily available.
And, in the aftermath of the London attacks, it’s likely that very quickly you’ll see law enforcement identify the responsible parties and to start to roll up their organization. In Madrid, the group responsible for the attacks was rolled up relatively quickly. Terrorist groups have to be careful about carrying out attacks. They have to be successful, because they put their organization at high risk whenever they carry out an attack. It’s impossible not to leave bread crumbs. The scale of the forensic evidence for this kind of coordinated, large-scale attack endangers an organization. It suggests that attacks, when they happen, are more likely to be of this sophisticated, coordinated nature, not a single event.
Compared with the death toll on 9/11, the casualties in London make it seem a rather modest attack.
This, again, is a bit of the difference between the attacks in Europe—where you have a substantial organization in place and need to do things from time to time for morale purposes—and the United States, where you’re likely to see much longer intervals between attacks but more catastrophic attacks.
The broader issue is that you’re unlikely to receive warning and that the attacks are going to be well-coordinated, targeting critical infrastructure like our transport system. It’s not all about mass casualties. And, as in this case, timing it around a political event is desirable. Someone other than I can speculate about possible links to U.S.-British relations and the war in Iraq, but one of the concerns that most of us who focus on terrorism have had is that Iraq has not diminished the threat but, rather, to an increasing extent is elevating the attacks on Western societies. In this case, it would appear it’s another way to try to isolate an important ally of the United States in the war in Iraq.
I expect though, politically, at least in the short term, this will increase support for Bush’s war on terrorism.
I think it’s safe to say in the United States it will. But it’s going to be a tricky issue for [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair. For the United States it could be interpreted as, “See, the terrorists are still out there, that’s why we need to hold the course.” From the U.K.’s perspective it will be, “See, this is the cost of being an ally to the United States.”
Won’t you get the British stiff upper lip?
I think you will get that. The first response is going to be, “We’ll be damned if the terrorists are able to change our course.” But the challenge here is there’s so little public support already for the Iraq war in the U.K. that it makes it very difficult to rally people around it.