I'm clicking through the coverage of London, the latest reports of police gunning down a man they chased through the Tube, the split-personality reporting after Round 2 of the transportation-system bombings - Brits defiant, Brits wary.
Philly Future helpfully collected a series of local posts yesterday as bloggers came to grips with the reports of the four bombing attempts. It's reminding me of what it was like to travel across Europe in the days and weeks and months after Sept. 11, which I missed - at least missed the way most Americans experienced it. I was in Frankfurt, reporting on the auto show, when it happened, and after a friend sent me a text message about the second plane, I raced back to the media room, where rows of reporters were still typing about the latest Ford.
I remember stopping an American executive and his young assistant, apologizing, but asking if they knew anything. They looked at me as if I had interrupted the most important discussion on the continent. The reporter next to me, Steve Komarow from USA Today, was right on the money. "I have the feeling that everything we do for the next few years will have to do with today." He's been to Afghanistan and Iraq more than a dozen times since.
Two days later I was on a train to Hamburg, where three of the terror pilots had lived. I remember a small, older German woman watching me on the train, as I read the International Herald Tribune. "Are you American?" she asked, her English good.
She came over and squeezed my forearm.
"We have to be strong," she said.
She then laid out a several-plank strategy of attacking the problem as a group, of the need to win hearts and minds. Europe, she said, knows something about living with terror. It was one of many conversations in those days that made me feel closer to home.
I guess this is all coming back up because it looks like London is under sustained threat, and I'm wondering what to make of it as I remember for the first time in a while what it felt like to be flying right after Sept. 11 and look over everyone on the plane.
A lot of the coverage yesterday talked about how this is a B team or a C team at best. I watched a few network terror experts sing that song. Nothing has made me as uncomfortable this morning as reading the post by Billmon on Whiskey Bar. I don't know who he is - he is an anonymous Philadelphia-area blogger - but his slugging percentage is very high. Yesterday he found a blog by systems analyst John Robb called Global Guerrillas, and most of Billmon's post digs into Robb's theories of the post-Sept 11 al Qaida.
Together they do a good job of putting flesh on the idea of open-source terror -- how the Internet makes it easy for ideology and blueprints to spread:
Robb's point, if I understand him correctly, is that modern technology -- particularly communications technology -- plus the simultaneous spread of market mechanisms and old-fashioned tribal social identities, has made it possible for terrorist networks to survive and operate in highly decentralized, yet globally interconnected forms.
The good news, Robb writes, is that coordinated and spectacular operations are hard to plan in this environment. The bad news is that U.S. and Israeli-style efforts to kill the snake by cutting off the head don't work so well any more.
Billmon writes: The appropriate biological metaphor, I guess, is a fungus: organized structures (i.e. mushrooms) spout up and can be identified and picked relatively easily, but the bulk of the organism is still below the surface, randomly interwoven with dirt and rotting vegetation. Good luck trying to pull that stuff out. And of course, as soon as the gardener turns his/her attention elsewhere, up pop the mushrooms again.
So the terrorist plan is not to create devastation as much as to cause "cascading failures," Robb writes -- confusion, panic, disruption. Like setting off a bomb, as in the July 7 incidents, in subways.
This group even added their own innovation to the development of the systems disruption model (for other groups to adopt in the future): the bombs were exploded while the trains were in the tunnels rather than in the stations. This maximized disruption at the expense of body count.
Back to Billmon:
Presumably, as the Al Qaeda network becomes more adapted to "open source" operations, and as more experienced terrorists return from Iraq and pass the lessons learned on to new recruits, bombers will become more effective at identifying pressure points. In which case future attacks are likely to be progressively more targeted at knocking out infrastructure rather than causing mass casualties.
It may already be happening: Al Qaeda wanted to kill a large number of people in the first London attack -- to send a big propaganda message to the G8 summit. Today's bombs, on the other hand, may have been intended primarily to disrupt. If or when they start hitting electrical substations and telephone exchanges, we'll know our junior league terrorists are starting to get the hang of it.
Ok, time for coffee and the sports page. But, thought I'd share my anxiety with you first.