Britain is a different country this morning. Yesterday, the possibility that suicide bombing may have come to these shores was still mere speculation. Today, if the police are correct, it is a fact.
It was a small detail, in the description of what may turn out to be the bomber who blew up the No 30 bus in Tavistock Square, that gave the clearest indication of what has changed. The detail that Richard Jones thought important to record, aside from the agitated behaviour of the man fiddling with his bag, was that he had “olive skin”. He considered it to be significant, others will too.
No longer will people be looking out for an abandoned bag, or a suspicious car. This morning, passengers riding on London’s Tube trains and buses will be glancing at those standing or sitting near them who they believe fit the profile of a Muslim. Darker skin, beards, possession of a Koran – like it or not, these previously innocuous details will now inspire fear and suspicion.
And it will not just be in London. In towns and cities around the country, on public transport, in shopping centres, walking down the street, a significant number of innocent Britons will be viewed with suspicion by those around them.
Suicide bombing is a peculiarly difficult method of attack to counter, as has been demonstrated so effectively in Iraq and Israel. The Israelis have some of the world’s most elaborate and restrictive security measures in place, yet the bombers still get through; the suicide bomber defies all the normal precepts.
An article in the United States Journal of Homeland Security in July 2003 offers an insight into the mindset of the suicide bomber. It quotes a series of interviews with Arab terrorists by a psychologist, Jerrold Post, who concluded that they did not think of themselves as committing suicide: “They believe that they are holy fighters sacrificing themselves in the name of Allah. One terrorist stated: ‘I am not a murderer, a murderer has a psychological problem’.”
The same article, written by experts who had advised the US and Israeli governments on dealing with suicide attacks, highlights the difficulties faced in combating anyone prepared to give up their own life.
“Western society does not depend on preventing actions or crimes, but instead focuses its efforts on attribution and punishment, which are aimed at acting as a deterrent to members of society who wish to avoid punishment,” they wrote.
They cited, as an example, the crime of speeding, pointing out it “is not actually prevented, but only deterred by the speeder’s fear that he will be caught and fined for his misdeed”.
And they went on: “Western society is now dealing with a new problem: the fundamental breakdown of what has always been thought an almost inviolable concept, the instinct for self-preservation.”
For the government and the police, it is a devilishly difficult problem to address without lurching into areas which curtail civil liberties.
They have the advantage that every suicide bomber can only mount one successful mission. But there is the problem that in Britain there is now a group of people so disaffected, confused or misguided that they have convinced themselves that the random killing of civilians is acceptable.
It was known before that there were Britons prepared to mount such attacks: Britain’s first suicide bomber was a 21-year-old Londoner, Asif Hanif, a former public schoolboy who blew himself up outside a Tel Aviv bar in April 2003, killing three people and injuring 60. His accomplice, Omar Khan Sharif, 27, from Derby, failed to detonate a bomb. His body was later found in the sea.
In another case, Saajid Badat told the Old Bailey he thought he would find “paradise”. He was jailed for 13 years after he admitted plotting with Richard Reid to explode a shoe bomb on a transatlantic flight in 2001.
Some traditional methods are as effective against suicide bombers as any other criminal. Good intelligence work can crack their cells. Effective border controls can pick up the bomb-making materials being smuggled into the country.
But there will be those who call for more, and the government will be watching carefully to gauge the public appetite for more Draconian measures.
But where it gets difficult is the knowledge that the suicide bombers come from an identifiable ethnic group. Despite the assertion of Brian Paddick, the Metropolitan Police’s deputy assistant commissioner, that “Islam and terrorism don’t go together”, it must be clear to him that there is little point targeting Scots republicans or Irish Protestant groups in the hunt for suicide bombing cells.
The police know the groups from which the terrorists will be drawn; the question is whether it will be politically acceptable to target them.
The best hope now is that the country’s Muslim clerics take action to tackle the problem at its roots. The vast majority preach the true Islam of peace.
CHILLING NETWORK FOUND BY SIMPLE INTERNET SEARCH
DOZENS of extremist groups, including al-Qaeda, are no longer hiding in caves and recruiting from the desert. Increasingly, they’re using the internet to send messages, spread hatred, and recruit and train members.
Earlier this year, the Washington-based Search for International Terrorist Sites Institute, which monitors terrorist websites, uncovered a 26-minute video documentary that offered a step-by-step guide on how to make a “suicide-belt” bomb for use on a crowded bus.
A simple search query today brings a list of sites from the darkest parts of the internet, including the highly-publicised text books The Anarchist Cookbook and The Terrorist’s Handbook.
The latter gives instructions on how to build bombs and concoct poison and chemical agents.
The internet is also used to connect terrorists with willing bomb-makers. Richard Reid, the 29-year-old so-called shoe bomber, is said to have told investigators that he acquired his explosives from a dealer in Amsterdam, whom he tracked down through the internet.
The web is also a resource for al-Qaeda to publicise its messages. One of the methods employed to hide messages is steganography, a technology that hides documents and secret messages inside digital photographs, maps and other images.
Alneda.com, an al-Qaeda site that first appeared after the 11 September attacks, has functioned for the past four years as a so-called internet parasite – a site that is embedded within another website without the site owner’s knowledge.
A cat-and-mouse game with enforcement agencies led the website to show up inside the sites of a 14-year-old student, a software security firm and a horror movie fan’s tribute pages to the director Clive Barker.
One of the most-watched al-Qaeda websites, although its location and URL address constantly changes, is Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad). The site first carried the declaration of war by Osama bin Laden against the United States in 1998.
Another al-Qaeda website, al-Battar, offers chilling details on how to conduct private and public kidnappings.
Al-Battar, which means The Sword, is posted on the internet twice a month. It is one of several websites that posted footage of the beheading of hostages in Iraq.
Another website – al- Muhajiroun – threatens to murder, crucify or cut off the hands and feet of anyone who co-operates with American forces in the war on terrorism.
Still another – 357 Islamic Hosting – provides a way to set up terrorisist websites, “anonymity guaranteed”. It even accepts credit cards.