Police investigating the London car bomb plot said it was too early to say who was behind it. But when the perpetrators are caught they will almost certainly possess a number of chillingly familiar characteristics.
MI5 believes it is dealing with an al-Qa’eda-linked plot, which means that young, radicalised Muslims will be behind it. They normally act in a cell structure. So there will be more than one of them, possibly four or five.
They will, at some point, have come to the attention of MI5 as worthy of surveillance or will have had peripheral roles in one of the various conspiracies that have been smashed in recent years.
The security service would be more relieved to find they were people it has watched at some stage, or of whom it knew something. More worrying would be if it was dealing with a completely unknown structure.
Shortly after the July 7 bombings on the London transport system in 2005 the initial belief of MI5 and the police was that the suicide terrorists were “cleanskins.” It turned out, that the two ringleaders were known to MI5, if only as bit part players in another terror plot.
But a pattern has emerged since of a closely interlocking network of jihadis, who know each other, who have been to Pakistan to train in camps and who have a hierarchy whose bosses take orders directly from the al-Qa’eda leadership.
Al-Qa’eda chiefs in Pakistan are thought to have planned all the recent terrorist incidents in Britain, including the July 7 bombs, the thwarted fertiliser bomb plot to blow up shopping centres and the alleged conspiracy to destroy transatlantic airliners.
A leaked quarterly intelligence report produced recently by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (Jtac), based at MI5’s London headquarters, said: “Networks linked to AQ Core pose the greatest threat to the UK.”
Speculation that a plot had been hatched to attack Britain around the time Tony Blair stepped down was prompted by the discovery of a letter written by Abdul al-Hadi al-Iraqi, an Iraqi Kurd and senior al-Qa’eda commander. He is in American custody in Guantanamo Bay after being captured late last year.
According to the Jtac document, Hadi “stressed the need to take care to ensure that the attack was successful and on a large scale”.
While there is no direct indication that the planned car bombing in London, with a nightclub thought to be the target, was the attack being planned, it would have fitted the bill.
Al-Qa’eda has not used car bombs in Britain or Europe, though they are the chosen method of carnage and mayhem in Baghdad and the Middle East.
However, the apparent target bore all the classic hallmarks of Osama bin Laden’s organisation: easy to hit with lots of young people attending an event that can be dismissed as “decadent”.
The plotters jailed in the recent Operation Crevice trial were also planning to bomb nightclubs, including Europe’s biggest, the Ministry of Sound.
The apparent use of gas cylinders in the car bomb recalled another terror plot thwarted in 2004 when Dhiren Barot, a British Muslim, planned to use limousines packed with gas cylinders to blow up buildings. He is now serving 40 years in prison.
The biggest concern for MI5 and the counter-terrorist police is that the modus operandi of Islamist terror groups operating in Britain is usually to carry out a spate of attacks often close together. The danger is there are other bombs out there.
Although there has been no direct intelligence to suggest such an attack was being planned, it has been a worry for some time. Recently, Scotland Yard said it was carrying out anti-terrorist spot checks on lorries entering the capital.
All leave has been cancelled at MI5’s London headquarters as it searches for the cell. The terrorist threat level, however, remains at “severe,” – the second highest, meaning that an attack is highly likely – and has not been increased to “critical”.
There are some positives for the intelligence agencies to work with: the fact that the car and the bomb are still intact will provide forensic clues and other leads that can help track down the bombers.
The attack has happened with the structures for dealing with terrorism in a state of flux, with a new Home Secretary and a new head of MI5.
For Jacqui Smith at the Home Office this will be a very steep learning curve. For Jonathan Evans the new MI5 chief, however, this is more familiar territory. He was the deputy director general during the July 7 bombs and is a counter-terrorism and al-Qa’eda specialist.
Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism command, headed by Peter Clarke, is also a hugely-experienced outfit dealing with the jihadi threat.
“On one thing people can be assured – this is being handled by people who know what they are doing,” said a source yesterday.
MI5 is currently investigating dozens of suspected plots and watching hundreds of “primary investigative targets”. It is made more difficult because many come from the Pakistani community and can move in and out of both countries with ease.
Also, despite Government attempts to win “hearts and minds” in the Muslim community, many of those jailed or arrested were not part of an excluded “underclass”. They had no obvious socio-economic reason for feeling embittered.
It does not take many people to carry out these attacks and the fact that this one failed owed everything to luck and the extraordinary courage of the experts who defused the bomb.
But it is intelligence and diligent police work that will lead to the would-be bombers and others like them.