Understanding the July 7 London Bombings

Posted in Terrorism | 12-Jul-05 | Author: Erich Marquardt, Yevgeny Bendersky and Federico

An Underground train arrives at Tottenham Court Road station in central London, July 11, 2005.
An Underground train arrives at Tottenham Court Road station in central London, July 11, 2005.
On July 7, terror attacks struck the West again, with the latest salvo occurring in downtown London. The unidentified attackers targeted London's transportation system, successfully exploding four bombs within an hour's time frame. Three of the bombs struck three underground trains, while the last bomb destroyed one of London's trademark double-decker busses in the Russell Square area; the first blast occurred at 8:51 AM, while the last blast detonated at 9:47 AM. The attacks left some 50 dead and hundreds injured in what is considered to be the worst attack on British soil since World War II.

Islamic Extremism Strikes Again

British and international authorities believe al-Qaeda, or a group influenced by al-Qaeda, is behind the bombings. The attacks appeared to be perfectly timed with the opening of the G8 Summit of the world's leading industrial countries, which took place in Gleneagles, Scotland. The world's most influential leaders were present at the summit at the time of the attacks, including U.S. President George W. Bush. The target and timing of the strikes is significant, since it brought the most media attention possible to the bombings.

Furthermore, the attacks were very similar to the March 2004 terror attacks on Spain's transportation system which resulted in 191 deaths. In that incident, four commuter trains in Madrid were targeted in similar fashion. The Madrid attacks involved knapsack-contained bombs left on trains, equipped with cell phone-triggered detonators. While it is not yet clear the exact nature of the explosives used in London, the international media has reported that British authorities recovered detonators and did not find any traces of the attacks being the result of suicide bombers.

Shortly after the London incident, a group calling itself the Secret Organization of al-Qaeda in Europe claimed responsibility for the bombings by releasing a statement on the Internet. The statement read: "the heroic mujahideen have carried out a blessed raid in London -- Britain is now burning with fear, terror and panic in its northern, southern, eastern and western quarters." The statement also warned that Italy and Denmark -- two states that support the United States in its ongoing intervention in Iraq -- will suffer next.

It is far from clear whether this organization had any role in the bombings since often times after terror incidents there are diverging claims of responsibility by different organizations in the hopes of garnering media attention for themselves. The claim of responsibility by a relatively unknown group also highlights how difficult it is for authorities to find the perpetrators of attacks related to the Islamic revolutionary movement now that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network has been attacked and scattered as a result of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. [See: "The Threat of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Revolutionary Movement"]

More Terrorism to Follow

London and Madrid-style attacks can be expected to continue as long as countries in the West influence political affairs in Muslim-majority countries. Western influence in the Middle East led to al-Qaeda's targeting of the United States and Western interests, and so long as this relationship continues, attacks by both sides are inevitable.

The United States and its allies clearly have the upper hand when it comes to the level of accessible power available. The ongoing U.S.-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to U.S. military or political involvement in other Muslim-majority countries such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia, have been easy for the United States to initiate. That being said, the interventions have not been costless for the United States; Washington has suffered politically, economically and militarily due to the ongoing insurgency in Iraq.

The Islamic revolutionary movement, on the other hand, has less power at its disposal. The infrequency of its attacks demonstrates its inability to wage a constant campaign against the United States and its allies. While it is possible the attacks will increase in frequency, this has not yet occurred since the present day struggle began.

Instead, attacks are launched periodically with the hopes of using fear to damage the interests of the United States and its allies. As argued by bin Laden in the past, "Terror is the most dreaded weapon in the modern age…It can add fear and helplessness to the psyche of the people of Europe and the United States. … You can understand as to what will be the performance of the nation in a war, which suffers from fear and helplessness."

Furthermore, while the United States and its allies must generally restrict its targets to the military and political spheres, the Islamic revolutionary movement has the advantage of being able to target any industry, including those that have the best ability to influence public opinion. As al-Qaeda articulated in late 2002, "The enemy's tourist industry…includes easy targets with major economic, political, and security importance. This is because the impact of an attack on a tourist facility that cannot be protected equals, and sometimes surpasses, the impact of an attack against an enemy warship."

The attacks in Madrid and London were clear demonstrations of this, and an attack in other relevant countries -- Italy, Denmark, Poland -- can be expected to mimic this style. Such attacks can also influence political decisions in the affected country. After the Madrid bombings, for instance, the incumbent government lost the subsequent elections partially as a result of fallout from the attacks.

Yet, when measuring the psychological effects of the July 7 bombings on British society, one is forced to notice how the first days after the attacks signal a different dynamic at work when compared to the incidents in Madrid. London's political situation is different from the Spanish one. In Spain, the bombings were immediately followed by national elections. The then ruling party, José Maria Aznar's conservative Partido Popular, stood as a strong supporter of the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq.

Its opposition, formed around José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist Party, had in contrast promised a quick withdrawal from the Iraqi theater of operations. The catastrophic attacks in Madrid and Aznar's awkward attempt to use the tragedy as a tool to increase repression against Basque separatists led to Zapatero's victory and to the promised withdrawal.

On the contrary, British citizens of today just recently made their political decision to reconfirm Tony Blair as prime minister. Therefore, unlike the Spanish operation, last week's terrorist attacks do not appear aimed at "regime change," but rather at sending a strong political message to the world. That message is that U.S. moves in Afghanistan and Iraq have not seriously hampered al-Qaeda nor improved security for the United States and its allies.

Attacks Reverberate Through Europe

The London blasts are having a deep impact on other European societies. Italy, Denmark and Poland believe they are the next targets since they support ongoing U.S. military operations in the Muslim world. Additionally, of the countries present at the G8 summit, a majority have experienced similar attacks on their soil propagated or sponsored by Muslim forces or organizations. London's attack is a clear message to the G8, highlighting these states' vulnerability to similar strikes, as the visiting powers have extensive involvement in Muslim-majority countries, whether or not they openly support U.S. policies in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Middle East in general.

While the party allegedly responsible for the July 7 bombings singled out Italy and Denmark as the next possible targets, the actual list could be much longer and may include the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. All three states have Muslim populations that harbor strong sympathies with al-Qaeda. In all three states, local Muslim populations have not been able to successfully assimilate, thus potentially mitigating societal tensions, with the German, Dutch and Belgian governments being partly responsible for this result. This, in turn, translates into misunderstanding and resentment among some Muslims and local populations that may lead to an agreeable environment for certain al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda affiliated organizations to orchestrate similar bombings in more European capitals.


The July 7 bombings in London have brought the war on terrorism back to the doorstep of Western capitals. The attacks demonstrate that while terror attacks on Western interests do not occur on a frequent basis, al-Qaeda and those organizations influenced by its ideology are continuing to plan and execute military operations. The ability to strike at the heart of a major European capital -- whether in London or Madrid -- demonstrates that any city in any country is at risk. It is only a matter of time before other Western cities, including cities in the United States, suffer from new terror attacks. Furthermore, the attacks will not be limited to the country's transportation system, but could take place in a historic shopping district, filled with pedestrians; the goal of most terror attacks is to create a feeling of insecurity, and any location that fulfills these objectives can become a target.

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