Understanding Britain's 7/7 attacks
A new report suggests the July 2005 attacks could be like America's Columbine.
LONDON — Even after 9/11 and the Madrid train bombings, the bombings on the London Underground on a gray, showery morning on July 7, 2005, shocked this city to its core. Not us, we thought, not London. That sense of shock returned momentarily last Friday, when 250 police raided a house in East London and arrested two young brothers on suspicion of trying to make a lethal chemical weapon - though the police have not yet found any such device.
One way we dealt with the shock of 7/7 - 56 civilians dead, a city in mourning - was by convincing ourselves that this was a foreign act of evil. Our great city had been infiltrated, we told each other, by wicked forces from afar.
Even when the police revealed, five days after the attacks, that the perpetrators were British citizens, we insisted that they must have been brainwashed by others. There was talk of an "Al Qaeda fixer," a "Mr. Big" who may have guided the four young men.
Now, the British government's long-awaited report into 7/7 has exposed these stories to be just that - stories. The truth about 7/7 seems to be at once more mundane and more frightening than we had previously thought. It looks like the attacks were not a declaration of war by foreign elements against British values, but rather our Columbine - a murderous stunt executed by outwardly normal young men for no easily discernible reason.
And that, of course, is a more difficult reality to face.
For months after 7/7, there were rumors about shadowy Al Qaeda figures behind the attacks. Some said that Mohammad Sidique Khan, the 30-year-old ringleader who killed himself and six others at Edgware Road tube station, had visited Malaysia to meet Al Qaeda operatives. Others claimed that Shehzad Tanweer, the 22-year-old who killed himself and seven others at Liverpool Street station, had met Islamic militants in Pakistan. Yet the government report says "there is no reliable intelligence or corroborative information to support [these claims]." Mr. Khan and Mr. Tanweer did visit Pakistan for a few weeks, as do vast numbers of Britain's second- and third-generation Pakistanis, but it's not known whether they rubbed shoulders with radicals while they were there.
It was said that foreigners must have helped the 7/7 cell make their bombs.
In August 2005 one terrorism expert said: "There is definitely someone who has catalyzed them, who has given them advice on materials, provided technical expertise, and maybe paid for all this." Not so. The four bombers made their deadly cargos themselves, in the living room of an ordinary apartment in a quiet suburb of Leeds, in northern England. "[The] bombs were homemade," says the government report, "and ... the ingredients used were all readily available and not particularly expensive."
They paid for it themselves. "There is no evidence of external sources of income," the report says. The operation cost the four men around £8,000 (about $14,000), most of which was provided by Khan. The report concludes: "There is as yet no firm evidence to corroborate ... the nature of Al Qaeda support, if there was any."
We also wondered whether the men were turned on to terrorism by a radical British imam or in some dodgy mosque. In fact, they appear to have radicalized themselves, within the framework of their tiny cell, while working out in one of Khan's gyms or during outdoor sporting activities. The report says: "Camping, canoeing, white-water rafting, paintballing and other outward bound-type activities are of particular interest because they appear common factors for the 7 July bombers and other cells disrupted previously and since."
There are few clues in the four men's characters that might explain why they committed such a heinous crime. Khan is the only one to have made a video will, Hamas-style, in which he talked in vague terms about "atrocities" being "committed against my people all over the world" - yet those who knew him and the three others say they were not overtly political. Mr. Tanweer was "more interested in jujitsu" than politics; he was, the report says, "mature, modest and balanced." Khan was a "role model" to young people. The only outward sign of extremism among the four men came a couple of years ago when the youngest, Hasib Hussain - the 18-year-old who killed himself and 13 others on a bus in Tavistock Square - wrote "Al Qaeda No Limits" on a schoolbook. As the report points out, it is a long jump from "extremist doodling" to "identifying a potential suicide bomber."
There is a palpable sense of shock in the government report. It discusses "the real difficulty ... in identifying potential terrorists." What we had thought of as evil bogeymen driven by a twisted ideology in this instance were young men who liked doing what other young British men do - lifting weights, playing cricket, hanging out with friends. It is time for a radical rethink of what happened on July 7, 2005. It was not, as one commentator has claimed, part of a "world war being waged by clerical fascism against free societies," but rather looks like a British version of Columbine - a senseless act carried out by four seemingly normal men who must, somewhere, have harbored an overpowering sense of frustration and alienation.
Facing up to this fact will be difficult - but it might also help us to uncover how and why four Britons could so savagely take the lives of 52 of their fellow Britons.
• Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of spiked at www.spiked-online.com.