Beyond the shock, the anger and the mourning, beyond the sadness and sorrow over the dead and wounded is the anguish over the still unanswered questions. But first the shock.
Laguna Niguel resident Sir Eldon Griffiths, a former member of the British parliament and former chairman of the World Affairs Councils of America, is visiting in London and offered these impressions:
“(On Wednesday), with London winning the (2012) Olympics, Wimbledon just finished and the G-8 meeting starting, London was on top of the world,” he said. “Now, 24 hours later, the atmosphere has changed, as from noon to midnight. Britons will adjust and return to defiant normality, but the mood today is decidedly somber.”
Many answers will become apparent in the days and weeks to come, but it is clear that the information sources upon which Western governments rely are startlingly and perhaps dangerously thin.
London’s Deputy Assistant Police Commissioner Brian Paddick told reporters, according to The Associated Press, “British officials received no prior warning nor did they have any advance intelligence that the attacks would occur.”
We do know — or have been reminded, to our sorrow — that relatively open societies, even with beefed-up security and heightened vigilance, contain thousands of “soft targets” that determined terrorists can attack or blow up. One hundred percent safety is an illusion, and we would hate to live in the kind of rigidly controlled society that would ensue if we tried.
We are reasonably sure that this was an al-Qaida-style attack, probably perpetrated by Islamist or jihadist fanatics to coincide with the G-8 meeting of presidents of economically developed nations taking place in Gleneagles, Scotland, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in charge of the agenda.
We do not know, however, whether this attack was the work of foreign terrorists who came into Great Britain recently or a home-grown group drawn from the large Muslim immigrant community in the UK. We don’t know whether this was a single incident or the precursor of a wave of future attacks.
Tom Sanderson, deputy director for transnational threats at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while it’s too early to be sure, he suspects the bombings were done “by a group that has been in the UK from South Asia for a while, might have been inspired by 9/11 to do something similar, and managed to operate beyond the purview of an excellent British intelligence and security system.”
Sanderson would not be surprised if one or more members of the group spent some time in Iraq and brought back bomb-making and urban warfare skills, and possibly stolen explosives. “We know next to nothing about the foreign fighters in Iraq,” he said. Terrorism experts actively worry about militants who live in European countries traveling to Iraq, gaining invaluable experience and returning determined to wreak havoc.
What is to be done? Obviously, Americans need to step up their vigilance. This attack has made it clear that despite the best counterterrorism measures imaginable (and ours are short of that), an open society is vulnerable to a small and determined group that can operate under official radar.
The threat of terrorism cannot be defeated by military and intelligence efforts alone. More attention must be paid to political, diplomatic and old-fashioned shoe-leather law enforcement efforts. A comprehensive approach, according to Sanderson, would include a review of U.S. policies, especially the support of dictators in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uzbekistan, which tends to make the United States seem hypocritical and motivates potential recruits to terrorist causes.
We would go further and suggest that the war on Iraq has increased rather than decreased the threat of terrorism and is due for reconsideration. In this context, a long-term occupation is not in the United States’ long-term interest.