In January 2003, even before the attacks in Madrid in 2004, rumours of a possible attack on London resulted in MI5 making a series of arrests that culminated in the temporary closure of the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London after arms were found in the building. But fears did not abate, with Met Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens warning Londoners last Christmas that the danger to London had not diminished and that an attack remained “inevitable”.
Involvement in Iraq doesn’t explain everything
The fact that the group Abu Hafs Al Masri, which carried out the bombings in Madrid and Casablanca, is one of the ones claiming responsibility for the attacks has struck fear into the rest of Europe, as have the revelations that suicide bombers were to blame. Even the new EU member states, which are less likely to be targets, feel threatened and three commercial centres in Budapest were evacuated on the day of the attacks in London due to a bomb alert. Anxiety is even more pronounced in the countries of Western Europe, for example in France where the alert level has been increased to red. There has been speculation that the date of 7 July was chosen for the attacks on London because it was the day after the city was declared winner of the 2012 Olympic bid. As a result, Parisians are asking themselves if there was an attack already planned for their city which would have been unleashed if Paris had been successful in its bid to host the Olympic Games.
The Italians and Danes are also nervous. The Secret Organisation of Al Qaeda in Europe, which has also claimed responsibility for the London attacks, has directly threatened Rome and Copenhagen because of the presence of their troops in Iraq. But this is not the first time that Italy has been menaced. The peak came in August 2004 when Abu Hafs Al Masri called upon Italians to kick out Berlusconi’s government or “have Italy burn”. In Denmark too, people feel that they are in danger. In the media the fear of attacks on national territory and of retaliations has increased because of the engagement of Danish troops in Iraq. “But Iraq doesn’t explain everything” comments Ricardo Alcaro from the Institute for International Affairs, a research centre in Rome. “We shouldn’t underestimate the fact that the [Secret Organisation of Al Qaeda’s] claim contains references to the war in Afghanistan”. In Afghanistan international forces are present from countries including France, Germany, Poland and Spain. “Hate for the West and crusade-style rhetoric are justifications that implicate all” concludes Alcaro.
Europe: from base to target
And to think that in December 2003 a terrorist attack in Europe seemed, in spite of everything, a remote possibility. In the days following the massacres in Casablanca and Istanbul, the Italian Home Secretary, Pisanu, declared in a speech to the European Commission that “to strike in the same fashion in Europe would be much more difficult”. But in June 2004, a few months after the Madrid attacks, another “planned attack” came to light, the target: Paris. Three people were arrested in Italy, 14 in Belgium and many more were rounded up elsewhere in Europe. It is evident that the question of terrorism concerns everyone. Since 9/11, Europe has emerged as both a target and a base for terrorists. Alcaro underlines that “in Europe the particular danger that we have millions of Muslim immigrants which have not integrated with the rest of the population and it is therefore very difficult for the intelligence services to single out possible minority groups colluding with terrorists and find useful information.”
So it seems that there are many susceptible targets but it is unclear whose turn is next, and when. Alcaro makes clear that “we know that no proof exists of a centre of power that coordinates the network of terrorist cells but we know that there are several groups which share some tendencies in both methods and motives of attack.” The bombs in London and Madrid show that these groups have a smaller destructive capacity than those who carried out the 9/11 attack, but they have devastating psychological power and the same target: ordinary people, who they attack in an indiscriminate manner. “When small cells strike, it is extremely difficult to thwart their attempts in time and protecting public places is almost impossible” declares Alcaro. “The location and method is chosen in such a way as to have an enormous psychological impact. London was an obvious target due to the UK’s current status as host country for the G8, its presidency of the European Union and as the next Olympic city, but also due to the fame of its secret service, which is among the most efficient in the world.” If the last attack was predictable, who will be next?