News

IT CAN HAPPEN ANYWHERE

Jitendra Patel, a 40-year-old software developer from London, was enjoying an "absolutely brilliant" time last week with his family in Sharm al-Sheikh, a posh beach resort on the Red Sea. Patel's 7-year-old daughter, Manisha, had just finished school in the United Kingdom, and Patel needed a break, too. He had been one of those on the London Underground on July 7, making his way to work at Merrill Lynch, when the first group of bombers hit. Like thousands of other passengers, the "cheesed off" Patel had been forced to evacuate and take to the streets.

But late Friday night Patel learned just how small the world has become. Shortly after he returned to his room at the five-star Movenpick Hotel on Sharm al-Sheikh's main boulevard, his wife, Kashmira, glimpsed a split-second flash of light through the window. Then she heard a roar. The bone-jarring force of the explosion knocked loose the doorknob of the Patels' room. Across the street they saw that a car bomb had sheared away the face of the Ghazala Gardens Hotel, turning its lobby into a pile of rubble. At least 88 people died in that and two other coordinated blasts that night. Patel, who was back at the Movenpick pool sunning himself the next day, seems resigned to the new facts of global terror in the 21st century: "We can't keep running away. It's life." Kashmira Patel, on the other hand, has nothing like her husband's aplomb. "I'm frightened for everyone," she says. "It can happen to anyone, anywhere."

That seems to be the message that this latest wave of terrorists badly want to drive home. No one is safe. While no evidence connects the suicide bombers on the London transit system with the Sharm al-Sheikh car-bomb attacks, both were coordinated, fairly sophisticated plots. And each succeeded in two of the most terror-vigilant nations in the world: Britain and Egypt. Both countries have built effective counterterrorism operations for decades--but for both, the July attacks were their deadliest ever. One of the London bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan, had even gotten into Israel--perhaps the most security-conscious state in the world--on his British passport in February 2003 with a group of other ethnic Pakistani Brits, Israeli officials said. (Two months later a Pakistani Brit blew himself up at a Tel Aviv cafe, killing three people.)

The style of the London and Sharm al-Sheikh attacks bore some similarities, too. In Sharm, three bombs went off simultaneously at 1:15 a.m. Saturday, more than two miles apart. In London on July 7, four bombers hit three subway trains and a bus at almost exactly the same moment as well. Last Thursday, four more London bombers who were believed to be part of the same terror network tried again but the bombs fizzled. The quick second strike was in itself unusual: Qaeda-related groups typically launch one big attack, then lie low for a while. British investigators now believe the explosives used in last Thursday's dud bombs were likely from the same batch as the explosives used in the July 7 bombings, which also matched a cache of explosives left in a car by the suspects at the Luton railway station north of London.

Why did the second round of bombs fail to detonate? According to a U.S. official, early indications are that the people who put them together had to use "improvised detonators" because better ones were seized by police from the car left at Luton, and the homemade explosives had degraded. The four suspects who attempted last week's London bombings were still at large late last week. Security forces chased down another suspect and shot him dead on the subway in front of terrified passengers. But then, a day later, embarrassed authorities announced the dead man, Jean Charles de Menezes, 27, was a Brazilian who was not connected to the July 21 terrorist attacks at all.

Another disturbing sign of a broad-based resurgence of Qaeda-style terrorism is the roster of victims. As in Iraq, it's not just the infidels of the West who are being targeted, but any Muslims who ally themselves with the United States and other Western powers or work for their companies. After the London bombings, some Muslim clerics began speaking out more forthrightly against extremism. And at a conference earlier this month in Jordan, a group of Sunni clerics declared an end to their centuries-old internecine war with Shiites. But bombers like those in Sharm al-Sheikh may be trying to terrorize the Muslim community into silence again. At least two of the bombs were likely aimed at tourists, at the Ghazala Gardens and at a popular boardwalk. But the majority of victims were Egyptian, and one of the targets hit Friday night was a cafe in the Old Market, where many Egyptian workers congregate. Also last week, two bombs went off in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon, only hours after a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. There were no deaths, but one explosion targeted popular Monot Street, which is frequented by Arab tourists.

This harrowing message to fellow Muslims--keep away from the infidel or die--was also delivered last week by an Islamist Web site frequently used by the group led by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq. After Algeria's envoy was kidnapped last week, the site posted a statement: "Algeria rushed to obey the crusaders by sending its envoy to Iraq... did you not learn from the fate of the ambassador of the Egyptian tyrant?" (Terrorists killed the Egyptian ambassador last month.) "They just want to kill to say to the world, 'We are still here and we are still strong and we can hit when-ever we want'," says Huthaifa Azzam, the son of Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian-born organizer of the "Arab Afghans" who fought against the Russians in the 1980s and provided the core recruits of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda.

Investigators and analysts say it is difficult to create a profile of this latest generation of terrorists. Many appear to be young men who have spontaneously created cells in their home countries--with perhaps some outside help from a skilled "facilitator." The London bomb plotters, who authorities say could number more than two dozen, included Britons of Pakistani ethnicity, while the Madrid train bombers of March 2004 were mostly Spanish nationals of Moroccan extraction. Egyptian investigators over the weekend were unsure of the identity of the Sharm plotters, but one witness account at the Old Market said a man announced, "I have a bomb," in Egyptian Arabic shortly before it went off. A group called the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Al Qaeda in Syria and Egypt, claimed responsibility. This was one of two extremist groups that also claimed responsibility for October bombings at two other Egyptian resorts, in Taba and Ras Shitan, which killed 34.

Whoever the terrorists are, they seem intent on driving wedges between the United States and its allies in both Iraq and in the broader war on terror, one by one. Some Brits looking for reasons for the July 7 and July 21 attacks blamed Prime Minister Tony Blair's support of the Iraq war, which is deeply unpopular in Britain. The London bombings also provoked a testy exchange between Blair and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose country has allegedly become a kind of jihadist finishing school, where some would-be terrorists seem to get operational knowledge and final instructions. "The problem is not in Pakistan; the problem is in England," Musharraf insisted to ABC News.

Many of these new native-born terror cells don't need much recruitment from abroad or training in Afghan-style camps--the old Qaeda model. When one of the July 7 bombers, Shahzad Tanweer, visited Pakistan in late 2004 and early 2005, he told his family that he was going to attend a Pakistani religious school, or madrassa, to further his religious education. But Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani expert on extremist groups, says Tanweer and his fellow bombers were likely "fully indoctrinated on arrival" thanks to their radical connections in Britain. Adds Christine Fair of the U.S. Institute of Peace: "The Pakistani diaspora [abroad] appears to be the place where people are radicalizing. They go to Pakistan for training."

For international investigators, the only sensible approach is to work even more closely together. British and U.S. authorities appear to have established clear connections between some of the suspected perpetrators of the July 7 suicide bombings in London and a plot that was broken up early last year by British authorities--with the help of an American informant named Mohammed Junaid Babar--to bomb unspecified targets in the London area. That counterterrorism operation was code-named Operation Crevice. U.S., British and Pakistani officials also cooperated behind the scenes to capture another man who may be connected to the July 7 bombings and whose name turned up in the Operation Crevice databases, according to a senior U.S. official who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of his work. This is Haroon Rashid Aswat, a native-born Briton of Indian or Pakistani ancestry, who may have played a critical role in this and other plots. In the late 1990s, Aswat served as a sidekick to one of London's most notorious jihadist imams, the hook-handed Egyptian-born preacher Abu Hamza al-Mazri. He was also linked to a failed effort to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon. U.S. officials said that the names of two of the July 7 bombers, Khan and Germaine Lindsay, also turned up in Operation Crevice. An official familiar with the London investigation told NEWSWEEK late last week that Aswat has been quietly captured and will soon undergo questioning.

That may help investigators desperately trying to avert the next attack before it happens. But the broader question is how to prevent another generation of terrorists from being created. British and European investigators who evince a new get-tough approach to terror within their borders may open themselves to the same kind of accusations the Americans face: that they are targeting the innocent as well as the guilty, and thereby generating more terrorists. British police indicated on Saturday that the man they mistakenly shot on the tube was followed because he "emerged from a block of flats in the Stockwell area that were under police surveillance." The police statement added: "For somebody to lose their life in such circumstances is a tragedy and one that the Metropolitan Police Service regrets." Would that the terrorists expressed similar regrets about the deaths of innocents. Instead, "increasingly we are seeing attacks either in the West or in Iraq or in Egypt that are purely nihilistic," says Bill Durodie of Britain's Royal Military College of Science. "We are seeing terrorism that is an end in itself." And that has no end in sight.

Editor's Pick