A year after bombings, London still on alert
On the anniversary of 7/7, Al Jazeera airs a video warning of more attacks.
LONDON — Ben McCarthy didn't usually ride the subway. But he'd left his motorbike at work the night before, so on he went.
Fifteen minutes later a bomb demolished his train in the sooty gloom of the London Underground, one of four explosions a year ago Friday that claimed 52 lives and injured more than 700.
"I was quite traumatized by it, and still don't like traveling on the Tube," says Mr. McCarthy, who was able to walk to safety through the smoky carnage. "But you get to view life slightly differently, perhaps try and live it to the full a bit more."
A year after 7/7, it is clear that London's deadliest bombings since World War II have affected far more than the lives of McCarthy and the estimated 4,000 or so caught up in the attacks.
That day was Britain's Sept. 11, inasmuch as it woke authorities to the threat posed by Islamic radicals at home. It has piled pressure on police and intelligence services, stretching both to the limits. Recruitment for theintelligence agencies is rising sharply, and the government has introduced tough antiterror legislation that some support, but others say sacrifices liberty on the altar of security. Heightened antiterror efforts have left many Muslims – including the overwhelming majority that decried the attacks – feeling alienated in their own country.
"The most important thing that has changed was the perception held by the government, police, and intelligence services that Islamic terrorism was not something that would happen in the UK," says Bob Ayers, a security expert with the Chatham House think tank. "There used to be a very hands-off approach. That has changed.
"There is now a clear and unamibiguous recognition that domestic terrorism is a serious and viable threat," he adds.
Al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared in a video on Al Jazeera Thursday praising one of the London bombers, who threatened more attacks in a testament filmed before the 7/7 bombings.
"What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq," said the man, identified as Shehzad Tanweer.
A flurry of antiterror activity has underscored British authorities' recognition of the heightened threat, though no one has yet been charged in connection with the bombings.
MI5, the domestic-security agency, is recruiting vigorously, and plans to boost staff numbers by more than 50 percent over the next three years. Some candidates have been rejected on security grounds, leading to fears that Al Qaeda sympathizers may be trying to infiltrate the organization.
Police meanwhile have foiled at least three terror plots since last summer, and are working on 70 antiterror investigations – more than ever before – according to Peter Clarke, London's top antiterror officer. Sixty individuals are awaiting trial for terrorism-related offenses. Several arrests have been made including at least one involving a man said to have ties to an alleged plot to bomb targets in Canada.
The London force is stretched thin, sucking in specialist resources – surveillance, armed support, intelligence analysis – from other areas, experts say. The 7/7 investigation alone has yielded more than 13,000 witness statements and 6,000 hours of video surveillance footage, some of which still has to be analyzed.
"Despite the increase in resources, we are running at or near capacity," said Mr. Clarke. "There has been an unrelenting demand for intelligence to be investigated and operations conducted to arrest suspects or disrupt terrorist activity when judged to be appropriate."
Two mistakes by police officers have dented reputations, however. Charles Shoebridge, a former counterterrorism intelligence officer, says the shooting of an innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, at Stockwell subway station has created such outcry that it may jeopardize future antiterrorist operations.
"Were Stockwell to happen again, but this time with a real suicide bomber, officers may be less willing to open fire purely on the basis of intelligence they've received," he says. "Such a delay could prove catastrophic."
An incident at London's Forest Gate, meanwhile, in which two innocent Muslims were roughly arrested, has provoked anger at what some feel is the scapegoating of an entire community for the actions of four misguided youths. Since 7/7, many Muslims have complained bitterly about being targeted disproportionately by the police.
But the authorities say they have to act early, before they can be sure that intelligence is watertight, in order to prevent terror plots from reaching fruition. "I suspect that most Muslims would recognize that Forest Gate in a sense had to happen," said Prime Minister Tony Blair this week. "The police, if they receive this information, ... are bound to go and investigate and take whatever action, and actually if they didn't, most people would say they are not performing their duty properly."
Asghar Bukhari, chairman of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee lobby group, counters that such tactics will generate disenchantment, radicalizing Muslim youths. A poll this week found that 16 percent of Muslims – more than 150,000 adults – say that while the July 7 attacks may have been wrong, the cause was right.
For many Muslims, Mr. Bukhari says, sympathizing with the right of Palestinians or Chechens to resist oppression is a natural instinct.
He adds that many have been alienated by new government legislation which makes "glorification of terrorism" an offense. "Should I be locked up for supporting the Palestinians? Where does that leave us? All that is saying to us is, don't support the Muslims or we're locking you up."
The measure is part of a package of laws drawn up to counter the terrorist threat. One bill in particular, giving police 28 days to hold suspects, has created alarm in a country that prides itself on liberal values. Another that severely curbs the freedoms of terror suspects is being challenged in the courts.
But for most Londoners, life has reverted to business as usual, says McCarthy. He adds, however, that "individuals caught up in it will always see their city in a different light. I don't think I will ever forget that whenever I'm on the Tube."