London: One Week Out

Watermark Britain's first suicide bombers? A homegrown cell?  A mastermind on the loose?

This was the working theory as of Tuesday. One week after the terror attacks in London and there's news.

Surveillance cameras at the King's Cross station captured the arrival from Leeds of four British men of Pakistani origin. The four - one of them still a teenager - arrived 20 minutes before the first of the four bombings that have claimed more than 50 lives and hurt another 700 people. British police raided six homes around the northern city Tuesday, arresting a man identified as a relative of one of the suspected bombers. Authorities were searching for explosives and computer files.

Read From Cricket-Lover to Bomb Suspect, the profile of a college-educated Leeds man called "as sound as a pound." Or snapshots of the four "clean skins."

At a Scotland Yard new conference, an anti-terror official talked of "strong forensic and other evidence" that one of the men was killed in a subway bombing. Property of the other three were found at other bomb sites.

A worried mother's phone call may have led to the suspects.

One town counselor from Leeds, Mohammed Iqbal, told the AP, "This is not good for Muslims. We have businesses here. There will be a backlash."

The news comes after some British journalists have bristled at the way their country has been portrayed in the American press. Over the weekend, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal each published stories delving into the fertility of London's extremist scene, and blogger Emily Bell on the Guardian's Web site found that uncomfortable.

From a more distant perspective, the American press has taken an early opportunity to do something it felt incapable of on September 12 2001, and apply analytical distance to the events. For a Londoner reading major articles in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and The New York Times this weekend, it was difficult to recognise the city being described.

The blogger took particular note of this lead from the Journal: "For years, London has stood as an extreme example of Europe’s problem of fighting Islamic terrorism. The British capital was home to so many extremist Islamic groups and its bookstore so chock full of Islamist tracts that law enforcement officers across the Continent referred to it derisively as Londonistan" It quotes a Times piece that describes "the deep tradition of civil liberties and protection of political activists that have made the country a haven for terrorists" and asserts that tolerance had protected the country from terror attacks until British offered unwavering support to the U.S.-led Iraqi war. The Post describes the country as a refuge for Middle Eastern dissidents since the 19th century that has more recently attracted Islamic radicals with connections to Morocco, Egypt, Syria, the Persian Gulf and Pakistan." The radicals draw from the dissaffected members of Britain's "large and overwhelmingly peaceful Muslim immigrant population. But it has been influenced, too, by Britain's ambiguous policies toward exiled radicals, a sometimes awkward blend of asylum offers, intelligence collection and criminal prosecution."

What does the Guardian make of this? They see the dark hand of U.S. intel spinners at work:

It is clear that briefings from intelligence sources in the US have conveyed their scepticism about whether Britain can pursue the same foreign policies as America without pursuing the same policies as the US with regard to the containment of those perceived to be a threat. This, despite the fact that in terms of recent anti-terror laws, Britain is now acknowledged to have a range of far tougher provisions, including house arrests, than other European countries.

The Londonist blog echoes the thought: Feel Free to give us advice in the comments on how we can change things here in order to make America a safer place to live - because that's a concept that the whole world can get behind.

Of course, European intelligence sources have been saying the same thing for years. I did a story in October 2001 quoting frustrated French police's use of the phrase Londonistan. From that article:

Three French suspects in a plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Paris are believed to have come under the influence of al-Masri, the imam who runs the mosque in north London. So is the French-Moroccan man suspected of being the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Since last month's attacks, the French have gone public with concerns that the British have long frustrated attempts to investigate terror groups that operate across the English Channel. Terrorists' financiers have also found Britain to be a center of money laundering. A French parliamentary report last week labeled London a "haven" for terrorist money laundering, which the British government adamantly denied. The government has frozen $90 million in assets believed to be connected to bin Laden.

Switching gears, I was intrugued by a report this week on Media that loosens a few of the "stiff upper lip" accounts of British stoicism after the attacks.

Did the news media let London down? Tessa Mayes asks.

In the press the next day Britons were told about how 'resilient,' 'defiant' and 'calm' everyone was via the British media. It was an over-generalisation inspired by Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, who praised Londoners’ ‘stoicism.’ It was very seductive. Publicly and politically, there’s a consensus being built here that Britons won’t be defeated by terrorism – we just disagree about how to stop such carnage from happening again.

But why, she asks, were the stories of fear and ugliness buried? Why no attention focused on the woman seen running from the exploded No. 30 bus instead of helping the hurt? Or why did The Times of London give short shrift to a survivor's account of the shoving, pushing and pulling inside the Aldgate Tube bomb site?

Reporting for the BBC 6 o’clock news, Fergal Keane gave a calm description of events and generalised about victims’ ‘individual agony.’ But not all of them felt this way. Some survivors were philosophical (the bombings were ‘going to happen some time’) and others inconsolable. Shouldn’t a news reporter show that his conclusions are based on evidence such as actual testimony rather than provide a tv voice-over that sounds like the reporter as spiritual insight to all, as if he’s a vicar tending his flock?

To me this is ‘Therapy News’, a trend in British news reporting that has emerged over the past decade. News reporters make much of people’s emotions, scrutinising them, summarising them and even predicting them. One local London television presenter warned that people may well be nervous about commuting. How did he know what people would feel? Plenty of commuters interviewed since the attack have said they’re just angry.

It's getting uglier out there.

Via MediaChannel comes this assessment from Stratfor, the US private intelligence-strategic forecasting Website:

  "Immediate conjecture following the bombings pointed to an al Qaeda sleeper cell, which would have been planted in Britain years ago, with an extremely long activation cycle. However, it seems unlikely that a cell of foreign-born Islamist militants could have escaped the attention of British authorities so completely in the dragnet that followed 9-11.

"A second possibility, therefore, is intelligence failure -- the operatives were known to authorities but were not taken seriously enough to warrant mention in the pre-G-8 security sweeps. Third, the bombers might have been a locally grown, autonomous cell of al Qaeda sympathizers who lacked the typical markers (such as criminal records or travel to and from Afghanistan) that normally would draw attention from police.

"Finally -- though we must note this is pure speculation -- there is the possibility that the London bombings occurred as a result of complete intelligence failure: Those responsible actually were known to authorities and spent time under surveillance, but the "eye" lost sight of them until it was too late."