A Deadly Pattern

Probers Note Similarities With Madrid Attacks

Metropolitan Police officers search a trash can outside Aldgate East station in London after four near- simultaneous explosions rocked the area. Investigators said the style of the attacks recalled tactics used by Islamic radicals.
Metropolitan Police officers search a trash can outside Aldgate East station in London after four near- simultaneous explosions rocked the area. Investigators said the style of the attacks recalled tactics used by Islamic radicals. (By John Stillwell -- Associated Press)

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 8, 2005

LONDON, July 7 -- The bombings that rocked the British capital Thursday closely follow a pattern embraced by Islamic radicals in the past three years in Madrid, Casablanca, Bali and Istanbul: low-tech, but coordinated explosions in crowded public places, designed to inflict as many civilian casualties as possible.

Although investigators are a long way from concluding who was behind the London attacks, they bore an especially strong resemblance to the last major terrorist strike in Europe, the March 11, 2004, train bombings in the Spanish capital of Madrid. In both cases, the bombers targeted largely unprotected public transport systems during the height of the morning rush hour with multiple bombs that blew up within minutes of each other.

"Many things remind me of March 11, unfortunately," said Rafael L. Bardaji, a security adviser to former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, who lost his re-election bid in a highly charged vote three days after the bombings. "The modus operandi is basically the same. On the operational side, the similarities are striking."

In Madrid, assailants left 13 backpacks and packages filled with explosives on commuter trains and detonated 10 of them from afar with cellular phones, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,800. In London, witnesses and investigators said there was no sign of suicide bombers being involved in the three subway explosions, which they said may have been caused by devices that were hidden in bags and left on the trains.

British security officials were investigating the possibility that the perpetrator of the fourth bombing, on a bus near Russell Square, may have been killed in the explosion, perhaps accidentally, according to two sources who were briefed by the officials. All told, at least 37 were reported dead and more than 700 wounded in the London attacks.

Unlike the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the United States, which had been preceded by intelligence reports during the summer that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were plotting a major attack in the U.S., there was no immediate sign that officials in Madrid or London had any specific warning or indication that a terrorist strike was imminent, much less advance information on who was behind it.

"Both countries failed miserably in preventing this from happening," Bardaji said. "Such an act requires quite a lot of people. You need many people to prepare the explosives. There are many people in communication with each other. Despite all the efforts by the police and the intelligence services in London, it is a major failure."

Unlike Spanish officials, who had not considered themselves a target for Islamic radicals, leaders in the United Kingdom have known for years that the country faced a serious and deep-seated threat from extremists.

"Britain was always considered a juicy target, given that it has such a close relationship with the United States, both in the war on terror and in Iraq," said Jonathan Stevenson, senior fellow for counterterrorism research at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

For years, he noted, top British officials have warned the public that London in particular was in the crosshairs of radical Islamic groups. Security officials have long seen the London Underground as a likely target as well.

"They've said an attack is inevitable -- they've always used the word 'inevitable' -- and unfortunately they've been proven right," Stevenson said.

On Thursday, hours after the killings in London, a group calling itself the Secret Organization of al Qaeda in Europe posted a statement on the Internet asserting that the bombings were "in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan."


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