Terror at Rush Hour

During the Blitz, the London Underground was a refuge. Night after night, as the Luftwaffe rained bombs down on the city, whole families would descend deep into the subway system to wait for the "all clear." They would lie in bunk beds, or talk, or tell nursery rhymes, or sing songs, or even sleep. Then they would go back aboveground, return to their homes and businesses, clear up the rubble, and life would go on.

Last week, however, the London Underground was a scene of carnage, not shelter. Three terrorist bombs in the subways (a fourth blew up a bus) killed at least 49 people and wounded 700 more. In one deep tunnel, blocked by the mangled wreckage of a subway car and teeming with rats, rescuers had still not dug out all of the bodies two days after the attack. The message was clear enough to Londoners and the rest of the world: in the age of terror, there are no sanctuaries, no safe places to hide.

The July 7 bombings were the bloodiest day in England since World War II. Still, the toll of "7/7" was nothing compared with the Blitz, which claimed 20,000 civilians between 1940 and '41, as many as 1,500 in one night. "If London can survive the Blitz, it can survive four miserable events like this," said Sir Ian Blair, the London Metropolitan Police commissioner. From the early '70s to the mid-'90s, the British endured more than two decades of terrorist attacks from the Irish Republican Army (though the IRA, in contrast to Al Qaeda, usually called in a warning before setting off a bomb). After last week's attack, British pluck and phlegm were once more the order of the day. A charming child during World War II, Queen Elizabeth II, now dowdy, squat, but unmistakably regal, toured hospitals and declared: "Sadly, we in Britain have been all too familiar with acts of terror, and members of my generation... know that we have been here before. But those who perpetrate these brutal acts against innocent people should know that they will not change our way of life." Her message: Hitler tried to terrorize Londoners into submission, too, and, far from conquering Britain, he died a suicide's death in a bunker beneath Berlin.

For Americans, the echoes were more recent and less reassuring, especially when the news first broke. Maybe, many Americans were beginning to hope, the horror of 9/11 had been an aberration, radical Islam's grotesquely lucky shot in the dark, not a harbinger. There have, of course, been many terrorist bombings since 9/11, in places from Bali to Turkey to Kenya to Spain. But Americans feel a unique kinship with their British cousins, whose common heritage and language made their suffering seem close to home. After the London bombings, repressed fears surfaced, especially for city dwellers who ride subways and buses and wonder if their everyday morning commute will turn deadly.

The roots and execution of the London plot will tell us much about the nature of the terrorist threat we are facing four years after 9/11. The story of the rush-hour murders won't reveal everything, of course--by its nature terrorism is a shadowy, elusive danger, always threatening to confound our hopes and revive our fears--but the early signs suggest that Osama bin Laden's grand dreams of inflicting a colossal defeat on the West are, thankfully, far from coming true.

Intelligence and police officials in Britain and the United States were guessing last weekend that the London attack suggests a kind of low-grade metastasis of the Qaeda cancer. Al Qaeda is still out there, perhaps planning the big "spectacular"--a suitcase nuke, perhaps, or a germ attack--but the violence in London was smaller-bore, and indicates that the terrorists are finding it more difficult to duplicate the scope of the attacks of 9/11. On a Web site, a group styling itself as "the Secret Organization of Al Qaeda in Europe" claimed responsibility for the bombings. Later the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade, which claimed the Madrid bombings, took responsibility. In Washington, according to two senior U.S. officials who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of their positions, policymakers were briefed on what might be a breakthrough: at Stansted airport outside London, a Pakistani man was detained after the bombing--carrying a map of London with the bomb sites marked--as he boarded a plane for Madrid. But in London, officials at New Scotland Yard denied that any arrests had been made.

The bombings mirrored the attacks in Madrid 16 months ago. The Madrid attackers hit 10 trains (and aimed for 14) with bombs weighing an average of 22 pounds. The London bombs were smaller--about 10 pounds each--as well as fewer, but investigators say they may have been sophisticated, made with military plastic explosive. Such high explosives are hard to obtain in Britain, suggesting a foreign source. The Madrid bombs were triggered by cell-phone alarms set as timers; the London bombs were apparently set off within 50 seconds of each other by a kind of timing device. With some relief, police officials saw no involvement by suicide bombers. In the case of the subway attacks, they believe that terrorists placed the bombs on the floor of the cars then hopped off as the doors were closing. Each of the three subway bombs blew up within a few hundred yards of a station. The fourth bomb--aboard the bus--may have gone off accidentally, or possibly was set off by a bomber who was headed for the subway but was running late.

The search for the London bombers and their masterminds will involve the intelligence services and police forces of scores of countries. U.S. intelligence put out the word that America regards an attack on London as tantamount to an attack on the United States, which means that foreign intelligence services that cooperate will be rewarded just the way they were after 9/11: with large sums of cash and "intelligence sharing," i.e., access to spy-in-the-sky electronic intercepts.

The bombers may have been untrained wanna-bes, hearing bin Laden's far-off call to attack the Crusaders in their native lands. Or they may have been a sleeper cell directly linked to bin Laden, or an associate of his anointed messenger of death in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. Possibly, they were tied to a shadowy Moroccan terror organization blamed for the Madrid bombings. But whatever their origins, they proved what most people know but do not wish to dwell upon: that transforming an ordinary morning into a milestone of terror is not all that hard to do. In the aftermath of the bombing, survivors spoke to reporters, including those from NEWSWEEK, about their experiences during 57 minutes of horror and the sometimes dazed, sometimes brave hours that followed:

In the creaky, 142-year-old London Underground, trains routinely break down or seem to stop for no particular reason. So the news that a "power surge" was shutting down trains did not seem particularly alarming, even if it meant that tens of thousands of rush-hour travelers would be inconvenienced on a muggy, drizzling July morning. But Ken Edwards, working at his fifth-floor insurance company in London's busy Financial District, was startled when he heard a sound "like a great door slamming," he later recalled. Windows shook, the building shuddered. Edwards looked out his window and saw smoke was pouring from the air vents of the Aldgate East subway station.

Michael Henning, a 39-year-old Lloyds banker making his morning commute, had been reading the paper when, at about 8:50 a.m., he was blinded by a yellow light streaked with silver lines. (He later wondered if the silver lines had been shards of glass.) Thrown to the floor, he thought to himself, "I'm not going to get out of this." Everything went pitch black. Henning put his hand to his face and felt blood. At least he was alive, he thought. A dim light came on. Then the screaming began.

About two miles away, not far from landmarks like the British Museum, the second bomb detonated a few seconds after the first. Evelyne Wade, 30, was riding with several hundred other passengers in a train that had just left King's Cross Station and descended into a 12-foot-wide tunnel 60 feet deep in the heart of London. The car plunged into darkness and quickly filled with acrid smoke. Passengers began to shout and cry and bang on the windows. It became harder and harder to breathe. The minutes passed... five... ten... fifteen. No help, it appeared, was on the way. Wade thought that she was going to die. But slowly the passengers moved to save themselves, climbing gingerly out of the train and down the darkened tunnel. They passed a man who was completely naked; a man alive but with no legs; a man who seemed dead.

Choking, in shock, streaked with grime, the survivors straggled into Russell Square Station. They found an eerily calm world. Rescue workers were holding back because, it was later explained, they feared a second bomb or that the tunnel would collapse. Some people standing about the station appeared apathetic or annoyed about the delay. In the streets outside, coffee houses filled with people watching television, waiting for news to explain the disruption. Shoppers still went in and out of stores.

But after news of a third bomb blast reached authorities around 9 a.m., the traffic began to snarl, and the city echoed with the sounds of sirens. The bombers had stitched a path across central London from east to west. As the rain began to fall, the grip of chaos tightened--though not for long. The indomitable London, the wartime London of Churchill and the Blitz, was awakening.

Hundreds of small acts of kindness and duty saved the day. At the Aldgate East subway station, a bleeding Michael Henning was ushered aboard a red double-decker bus that had been commandeered as a giant ambulance. Henning was reeling from his wounds and, worse, what he had seen and heard as he struggled though the darkness and smoke--the blood, the screams of "Help me, I'm dying." At first, his "ambulance" seemed hopelessly mired in traffic, without a police escort. But then a policeman appeared--"a great copper," Henning recalled--shouting at people and cars to get out of the way, running ahead of the bus, as it slowly picked up speed. When the bus pulled up at the Royal London Hospital to disgorge its bloody cargo, a long queue of white coats suddenly materialized, and Henning was soon lying in a clean hospital bed. He felt his anger--at the bombers, at cautious rescue workers, at misfortune--slowly dissipate, though the shock was just settling in.

In central London, a double-decker bus, a Number 30 on route to King's Cross, was diverted away from the scene of the second bombing. The driver took one detour, then another, unsure where he was going. People onboard noticed that a passenger, a young, handsome, olive-skinned man, appeared agitated. He kept reaching into his knapsack, fiddling with something. Police later speculated that he was trying to reset the timer on a bomb.

Stephen Thornhill, an interior designer, was walking through a London square at about 9:45 a.m. when he noticed that the driver of a double-decker bus, idling a few yards away, seemed to be lost. The square was distinctive, full of monuments to man's inhumanity and his hope for peace--a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, a Hiroshima cherry tree, a Holocaust memorial--but apparently it was not on the driver's regular route. The driver called out to a police officer, asking where he was. "Tavistock Square, mate," came the answer.

Suddenly, the bus exploded. The upper deck seemed to slowly peel forward, when debris--metal, glass, body parts--blew up and out the rear end. As a wave of heat washed over him, Thornhill felt lucky that his coat was heavy enough to shield him from the shrapnel flying about. Stunned, Thornhill looked for survivors. Two women walked by, drenched head to toe in blood. Incredibly, on the open-air top deck, 10 or 12 people shakily stood up from the seats. Across the street, the massive stone facade of the British Medical Association was sprayed with blood.

The London bombings appeared timed to undermine a conference of the leaders of the world's greatest industrial nations, the G8, meeting at a resort in Scotland that morning. The G8 leaders knew something was wrong as they approached the stone staircase of the luxurious Gleneagles Hotel. Their host, the normally smiling British Prime Minister Tony Blair, seemed downcast as he stood alone on the stone steps. This was supposed to be a day of triumph for Blair. Though down in the polls for his support of the United States in the Iraq war, Blair had just won a third term and scored a coup by outlobbying Paris to bring the 2012 Olympic Games to London. Blair was going to have to restrain himself not to gloat over his rival, French President Jacques Chirac. (Indeed, President George W. Bush, flying over on Air Force One, had received some advice from a senior foreign-policy aide: "No high-fiving with Blair in public.") But Blair was in no mood for jollies. As the leaders sat down for the traditional photos, known in diplomatic parlance as the tour de table, Blair snapped, "We're not doing this." His aides shooed the photographers out, and the British prime minister briefed his fellow leaders on the disaster unfolding in London. Blair returned to the capital--but then quickly doubled back to the summit to demonstrate business-as-usual resolve. His countrymen, said Blair on Saturday, "are simply not going to be terrorized by terror in this way."

In London, the most massive manhunt in British history was underway. The blasts did not leave recognizable corpses, but by using fingerprints, dental records and DNA, British police hope to at least identify the bomber aboard the bus that blew up. Britain relies heavily on cameras for security; it is reckoned that the average Londoner is photographed 30 times a day. Some 1,600 CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras in rail stations and around the city record the roughly 3 million passengers who come and go from the subway each 24 hours. The faces of the bombers are likely to show up on some of those images.

But where did the killers come from? Police and intelligence services were pondering whether the bombers were fanatical locals, operating essentially on their own, or a cell directed from on high. There was no specific intelligence predicting the attacks. Indeed, within the past two weeks, Britain had lowered its threat index from "severe general" (the fifth highest of seven levels) to "substantial" (the fourth). But in retrospect, there may have been hints that Al Qaeda was pressing for an attack on a London subway. In May, Pakistani authorities captured a high-level Qaeda leader named Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who is now being held by American intelligence at some "undisclosed location." Libbi has apparently said something about an attack on European transit systems, which could be a vague bluff--or a sign of a plot.

The CIA and other intelligence services have worried that a pipeline from Europe to the insurgent forces of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi in Iraq is, or will soon become, a two-way street. Zarqawi has long fished for recruits in Europe. Now, the fear is, hardened terrorists, trained in urban guerrilla fighting in Fallujah, Ramadi and other Iraqi cities, will return home with bombs and sharpened skills. Another suspect is Mohammed Guerbouzi, the founder of a terrorist gang called Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. Intelligence officials linked Guerbouzi to the Madrid bombings (it is hard to know who exactly was responsible for Madrid because a month after the bombing, a group of terrorists, surrounded by police on the outskirts of Madrid, blew themselves up).

To the frustration of European terrorist-trackers, Guerbouzi was permitted for several years to live in the north of London, despite being wanted in his home country and France for his alleged role in staging multiple suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003. (Guerbouzi has apparently disappeared.) For years, the British have given asylum to radicals from North Africa and the Middle East. Spooks from other countries scoff about "Londonistan," but there has been a method to British tolerance, at least up until now.

During its long battle with the IRA, Britain learned a few basic rules. One was that the powers of the state alone can-not defeat terrorists. Rather, it is the co-religionists or fellow nationals who decide (or can be persuaded) to provide the state with tips on where to find the terrorists. Rule two: do nothing to alienate those communities. The British learned that mass arrests only made matters worse.

The British strategy worked reasonably well with the IRA, whose members were routinely sold out by their fellow Irishmen. Scotland Yard and M.I.5 also relied on massive electronic eavesdropping, which intercepted dozens of plots. But penetrating the Muslim community in Britain is more difficult, partly because of language obstacles, partly because the Islamic world is just more closed. British intelligence has scored at least a couple of successes in the past two years, breaking up an alleged plot to use ricin poison on the subway, and arresting the leader of a terror cell, Abu Eisa al-Hindi, who had been running an operation to case financial centers in the United States and "postcard targets" in London. Al-Hindi was thought to be aiming to attack Heathrow airport or Parliament, but he may have also been plotting to bomb the Underground.

Its neighbors in Europe have long suspected that Britain struck a Faustian bargain with radical Islamists, offering sanctuary in return for at least a tacit guarantee of no terrorist attack. Some other European nations, like Belgium, have chosen to essentially turn a blind eye to jihadists in their midst; others, like France, have tried to crack down. But none has escaped the presence of young criminals, wrapped in the mantle of Islam, looking to serve Allah in destructive ways. Italy, in particular, seems fearful of becoming the next target of attack, possibly to disrupt or influence its national elections next year.

In Britain, the London attacks may bring demands for tighter security--as well as a new spirit of cooperation in the Muslim community. A push for a national identification card will gain momentum. The new, moderate imam of London's Finsbury Mosque, long a haven of fiery jihadist recruiters, was calling on his followers to help finger the terrorists.

But stopping another attack may be virtually impossible--in Britain or anywhere else, including the United States. Already there are calls to spend more money to safeguard mass transit against attack. Money can buy security cameras and pay for measures to mitigate disaster, like shatterproof glass. But the basic goal of mass transit--moving large numbers of people quickly--defies the sort of security that now encumbers airports. Last year Amtrak tried to screen passengers at a rail station in suburban Maryland. The experiment was abandoned when too many people complained about missing or delaying their trains. A better approach is to make riders more nosy and reactive to strange packages in their midst. The Washington, D.C., Metro has a "SEE IT? SAY IT!" campaign.

Alert activism could replace denial; it could also become intolerance. In Britain, there were reports of attacks on Muslims, including the firebombing of a mosque in Leeds in the depressed industrial north. Some people in the United States as well as Britain have learned to be more fatalistic. In a bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on the night of September 11, 2001, New Yorkers at neighboring tables linked arms and sang, "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie... Them good ole boys were drinking whisky and rye, singing, 'This'll be the day that I die'." In London on the day after 7/7, there was the sad sight of people trying to find their lost loved ones. Dressed in black as she stood beside St. Pancras Church, a few yards from where the Number 30 bus went up, Yvonne Nash spoke mournfully of her missing partner. A reporter tried to comfort her, saying, "We'll find him." Nash replied curtly, "But we haven't yet, have we?"

The British can be unsentimental. By the weekend, the city seemed eerily empty, but the buses and even much of the Underground were running. Theaters had not gone dark, and the pubs were full. The music on the playlists was upbeat. "We're just fine," said Graham Fallowes, 26, an Oxford-educated book dealer. "And that's how we'll show them that they can't win." Churchill might have said it more eloquently, but not more plainly or clearly.

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