Features

Nightmare comes to Britain

Terrorism | Quadruple rush-hour bombings leave U.S. ally traumatized and locked down

Issue: "Africa: The new frontier," July 16, 2005

Commuters knew their world had turned upside down when signs on the expressways outside London began flashing: "Avoid London. Area closed. Turn on radio." Soon they learned that authorities had shut down the tube, London's extensive subway matrix, as reports of one, then two, then more bombings spread throughout the capital city of the United States' staunchest ally in the war on terror. The first of what appeared to be coordinated blasts hit a train leaving Liverpool Street Station at 8:51 a.m. Within hours seven people were confirmed dead in that blast.
At 8:56 a.m. a blast occurred on a train between King's Cross and Russell Square-likely the worst blast, with at least 40 people confirmed dead by evening.
Then, at 9:17 a.m., a blast in the Edgware Road tube station hit three trains simultaneously.
At 9:47 a.m., as stranded tube commuters clambered onto double-decker buses to escape affected areas, not far from the King's Cross blast, a number 30 bus at Upper Woburn Place in Tavistock Square was hit by a fourth bomb. Eyewitnesses described the bus ripping open like a can of sardines. One, Belinda Seabrook, told the BBC she heard "an incredible bang" from the bus she was riding in front of the blast. "I turned round and half the double-decker bus was in the air," she said. That bus, she said, was "packed" with people who had been turned away from tube stops.
The Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard said they believed the bus explosion was the work of a suicide bomber. If confirmed, it will be the first time a suicide bomber has struck in Britain.
"Although we cannot confirm casualties-it is too early-we are dealing with large numbers of casualties," said Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick. Scotland Yard has long experience with terrorists, in years past perfecting rapid-response tube shutdowns for bomb threats and eliminating trashcans and other usual culprits as well as installing surveillance cameras to quash IRA terror strikes. But these strikes were almost certainly the work of al-Qaeda or an Islamic affiliate and came on the heels of key arrests of al-Qaeda recruiters by Scotland Yard.
A previously unknown group calling itself "Secret Organization al Qaeda in Europe" said it carried out the attacks as revenge for British "military massacres" in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Rejoice, community of Muslims," the letter stated, according to a Der Spiegel translation. "The heroic mujahedeens today conducted an attack in London. . . . We've warned the British government and the British people time and again. . . . We've kept our promise and have carried out a blessed military operation."
Another new jihadist organization, The Iranian-backed World Islamic Organization's Headquarters for Remembering the Shahids, issued its own first threat this month, primarily against Americans. In an al-Arabiya broadcast on July 2 the group said 40,000 "time bombs," or volunteer suicide bombers, had been recruited to carry out "martyrdom operations." One year ago, British forces in Iraq detained 40 suspected suicide bombers from the group's affiliate, and Iran's Revolutionary Guard captured and detained in June 2004 eight British soldiers based in Iraq-resulting in a tense Tehran-London standoff anti-terrorism experts now say was an Iranian attempt to initiate a prisoner swap for the jihadists.
At a press conference in Scotland, a plainly shaken British Prime Minister Tony Blair and grim-faced President George Bush once again stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the terrorists. Flanked by a sober Jacques Chirac and the five other heads of state attending the G8 summit, Mr. Blair said the attacks represented "not an attack on one nation but on all nations." Mr. Blair, who for months pushed to make Africa's problems and fighting world poverty the themes of this summit, instead found himself returning to the foreign-policy issue that has dominated his time in office: terrorism. In a familiar Bush-Blair refrain, he said, "We will not allow violence to change our values or societies nor to stop the work of this summit."
In the United States law enforcers also took what are now familiar steps to increase security, tightening protocols on Amtrak's trains and increasing airspace restrictions over Washington and New York immediately after the London strikes. Even mid-sized cities like Minneapolis took precautions to prevent rail attacks on their own transit systems.
But the "Madrid model" of smaller attacks on soft targets makes it more difficult to take precautions, according Matthew Levitt, Director of the Terrorism Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "We can defend the White House and the British parliament and nuclear facilities because we can identify them as likely sites for attacks," he said. "There's much less we can do in terms of protecting individual buses and trains."
For Americans watching from both sides of the pond, the scenes in London were too familiar: dazed and bleeding rush-hour commuters emerging under a sunny sky to tell dark tales of crumpled metal, burning hair, and asphyxiation. "The contrast between the euphoria of yesterday when we won the Olympic bid for 2012 to the devastation and terrorism of today is extreme, to say the least," said Merrily Richie, an American working in London.
Londoners furiously worked their cell phones to locate friends and loved ones employed in the city center. Tim Montgomerie, editor of conservativehome.com, was still trying to locate one friend when reached by WORLD on the afternoon of the attacks. He described the scene as "very frightening" and "truly terrorizing."
While the G8 summit presented an obvious moment to attack Britain, Mr. Montgomerie said, "All Western nations have begun to let their guard down. The world has become complacent since 9/11. The success of the authorities in preventing many terrorist attacks has bred complacency amongst the populations of Britain, America, and other free nations. We have had a horrible reminder that there are many terrorists in the world. They hate us and they are determined to destroy our way of life."
-with reporting by Priya Abraham

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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