Terror Attacks: Amateur Hour or Al Qaeda Operation?

Terrorism analysts say the plotters were tripped up by simpled blunders.


July 3, 2007 — -- The terror attacks in London and Glasgow panicked the world, prompted long lines at airport security checkpoints and led British government officials to link the perpetrators to al Qaeda.

Details are still emerging about the twin plots -- to detonate two car bombs in London and to ram a Jeep Cherokee into the entrance of Glasgow Airport -- as British authorities continue to make arrests and pursue their investigation.

The country, already on edge as the anniversary of the 7/7 London transit bombings approaches, was "dealing, in general terms, with people who are associated with al Qaeda," said new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

But terrorism experts contend that the plots seem to be the work of amateurs who may have been inspired by al Qaeda but were not directed by Osama bin Laden's terrorist group.

"They seemed to be on their own due to the fact that these bombs were homemade," said Peter Lehr, research fellow at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University in Scotland, adding that most members of al Qaeda have access to explosives and training in the use of bombs.

"These guys could barely be considered amateurs they were so inept," said Larry Johnson, a former counterterrorism expert at the State Department. "You're looking at a group of people filled with desire to do something but desire doesn't equal capability. From a planning standpoint, they didn't even try to take steps to mask their identities."

The plots failed largely due to simple blunders and mistaken assumptions, said Lehr. "Just using petrol canisters, nuts and bolts and a cell phone to trigger the explosion, the London bombing attempt would probably not have worked. It wouldn't have brought down the building, but it was still powerful enough to kill and maim people," he explained. "Just compare it to car bombings in Iraq using military-style explosives, which deliver much more bang for the buck."

In addition, it was revealed that the perpetrators called a pair of cellphones six times in a failed attempt to detonate the car bombs -- the intact phones provided investigators with plenty of evidence to track down the plotters.

Also, the perpetrators didn't take simple steps to increase the power of the bombings. "The first car, they could barely get a fire started but no one thought to lower the window to feed the fire," said Johnson. "You can turn gasoline into an explosive but they didn't know what to do. Even if those tanks exploded, they don't burst apart into thousands of pieces of shrapnel. They tend to break apart at the seam."

The second attack in Glasgow was even more amateurish, said terrorism analysts. "If you take a look at most al Qaeda attacks, they did a lot of work on reconnoitering," said Lehr. "Now they got stopped by some bollards. They didn't seem very familiar with the airport, then they would have known that the bollards would have stopped them or they overestimated the thrust of the Jeep Cherokee."

Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of "Trapped in the War on Terror," said he is still learning more about the details of the plots, but that his immediate reaction was that the Glasgow attack was the work of amateurs. "They try three times, and finally the guy had to set himself on fire and he even failed at that," he said. "They were true believers, but it doesn't sound at all like al Qaeda."

In the end, it might not make a difference whether or not the terrorists were associated with al Qaeda or if their operation was extremely sophisticated -- they still wanted to kill innocent people.

"I'm not sure it matters, because they espouse the same type of hatred," explained Terry Turchie, a former FBI counterterror expert and the author of "Hunting the American Terrorist." "It wasn't just placing a simple device near a statue in a park. They had to plan on renting cars, building devices, remotely detonating them. That really takes a lot of talent and a lot of skill. ... They were obviously prepared to die for what they were doing."

The perpetrators were more likely inspired than directed by al Qaeda, due to the changing nature of that organization. "It used to be a hierarchy when they were in Afghanistan," said Lehr. "After they were driven out, they devolved or evolved into a loosely structured network. The plotters of the terror attacks in Britain "may have subscribed to the ideology without being members."

In essence, al Qaeda seems to operate like a loose federation with "a lot of franchises around the world," said Lustick. "You get crazy people who think, 'If I come up with a nifty idea, maybe I can get some money from them.' But they usually have no real links to al Qaeda."

He said that there seem to be clear differences between homegrown terrorists in the United States, most of whom seem to be bumblers tripped up by FBI informants, and those in Europe, who seem to be more serious in their intentions.

"When you talk about amateur hour, you could be talking about the hucksters in Queens who wanted to blow up the fuel line or the Rastafarians who wanted to blow up the Sears Tower," said Lustick. "Crazy people gravitate toward that type of fantasy when they go crazy. But in Europe, their Muslim populations are different from ours, and they were not as well assimilated. They are much more isolated, and that's why you get much more serious activity in Europe, whereas the Americans didn't even come close to carrying out their operations."

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