By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 11, 2005
LONDON, July 10 -- As British police searched for the bombers who killed at least 49 people in London last week, they faced the same problem that has stymied investigations into several other major al Qaeda-style strikes around the world: finding the masterminds in the background.
A clear pattern has emerged from attacks in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in recent years that strongly suggests an element of central planning or instruction, according to counterterrorism officials and analysts. But so far, the people at the top have managed to cover their tracks by using a sophisticated cell structure that keeps their identities secret, even from the foot soldiers and mid-level operatives in their networks.
In the aftermath of the London bombings and others in the past three years in Madrid, Casablanca, Istanbul, Mombasa, Kenya, and the Red Sea resort of Taba, Egypt, counterterrorism officials were able to determine who actually carried out the attacks and arrest most of the surviving perpetrators, usually homegrown cells of Islamic radicals who lived nearby. Authorities blamed al Qaeda for inspiring the plots in each case, but failed to find or even learn the names of the individuals who conceived and directed the attacks.
"We might be able to apprehend the hands, but not the brains behind it," said Mustafa Alani, an expert on Islamic terrorist networks and a senior adviser with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "This is the problem. The brain keeps working somewhere else."
The Bush administration has said that al Qaeda's old command structure has been decimated. Much of the organization's top leadership has been captured or killed since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, while the rest -- including founder Osama bin Laden -- are in hiding or on the run. The training camps that graduated tens of thousands of Islamic radicals in Afghanistan in the 1990s have been put out of commission.
But the remaining operatives work in an amorphous network that in many ways is even more difficult to fight. Several major bombings since 2002 have reflected a pattern in which experienced operatives and bomb-makers travel around the world to give strategic and technical advice to local cells of Islamic extremists who otherwise lack the knowledge to launch sophisticated attacks. By the time the attacks take place, the advisers have long since left the country and erased their tracks, counterterrorism officials and analysts say.
"There are middlemen who are effectively giving the al Qaeda stamp and some professional help to these local groups," said Michael Clarke, director of the International Policy Institute at King's College London. "They're giving them some real expertise. They're also creating this dynamic which is very difficult for the authorities to follow."
In Madrid, Spanish police arrested more than two dozen people for playing a role in the March 11, 2004, commuter-train explosions that killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800. Seven other suspects were killed a few weeks later after police surrounded them in a suburb of the capital. Many of those detained were Moroccan immigrants who had lived in Madrid for several years and had records for petty crime, but were not veterans of al Qaeda training camps or considered terrorist threats.
Since then, Spanish investigators have identified two al Qaeda veterans who they think may have helped orchestrate the bombings but whose exact roles remain a mystery. One of them, Amer Azizi, is a Moroccan national who provided military training at camps in Afghanistan and who is also a suspect in the May 16, 2003, suicide bombings in Casablanca, according to Spanish court records.
Another is Mustafa Setmarian Nasar, a native of Syria with Spanish citizenship who is a leading ideologue in radical Islamic circles. The U.S. Justice Department has posted a $5 million reward for Nasar's capture, accusing him of training extremists to concoct chemical weapons.
British newspapers reported Sunday that Spanish intelligence officials had warned their counterparts in the United Kingdom four months ago that Nasar may have been planning an attack in London. Nasar lived in London in the late 1990s before moving with his family to Afghanistan in 1998. "He's one of the go-betweens who could be a connection between al Qaeda the movement and al Qaeda the organization," said a European intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But Spanish investigators remain uncertain about how the Madrid bombings were conceived and developed. Counterterrorism officials and analysts in Madrid said there could be other figures in the plot whom they still haven't identified. "We don't really know who the intellectual author was," said Charles Powell, deputy director of the Elcano Royal Institute, a think tank in Madrid that specializes in security issues.
Turkish investigators are also still trying to figure out who orchestrated multiple explosions that hit synagogues and the British Consulate and a bank in Istanbul in November 2003. Those attacks killed 57 people and wounded more than 700, the deadliest bombings in the country's history. An al Qaeda-related group asserted responsibility and police said a cell of Turkish nationals carried out the bombings, but investigators have been unable to identify the mastermind. "It's just been a dead end," said Alani, the Dubai researcher, who has studied the case extensively.
Similarly, Moroccan officials detained more than 2,000 suspects after the May 16, 2003, attacks in Casablanca that killed 45, and quickly determined that the suicide bombers came from the slums that ring the capital. While Moroccan security officials have variously blamed al Qaeda and Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who is a leader of foreign fighters in Iraq, they also have had difficulty pinning down how the plot was organized, and by whom.
That counterterrorism officials have been unable to figure out how the operations were put together indicates that al Qaeda has shifted its approach since the Sept. 11 hijackings in the United States, a conspiracy that investigators were able to trace in great detail from beginning to end.
Unlike the 1990s, when terrorist groups were quick to take credit for bombings and hijackings, al Qaeda and other networks of Islamic extremists have increasingly embraced a strategy of silence.
In 2001, for example, about 80 percent of terrorist attacks worldwide were committed by groups that publicly asserted responsibility, according to Raphael F. Perl, a terrorism expert with the Congressional Research Service. Last year, the figure dropped to about 30 percent, he said.
The statistics do not include shadowy groups that assert responsibility for attacks but whose existence or role cannot be verified, Perl said. Already, two organizations identifying themselves as al Qaeda splinter groups have posted Internet statements saying they were behind the London bombings last week. British authorities said they were taking the claims seriously but weren't sure whether to believe either one.
"They've become increasingly decentralized," Perl said of al Qaeda. "It's like a fungus: They send out spores all over the place. That makes it much harder for law enforcement and the intelligence community to go after them."