More London blasts

Terror returns to London
July 21st 2005
From The Economist Global Agenda

Exactly two weeks after the deadly bombings of London’s transport system on July 7th, Britain’s capital has been hit by a fresh wave of attacks—though with few casualties this time. Were the four reported explosions the work of further members of the Islamist group that struck last time—or unrelated “copycats"

A FORTNIGHT after the four explosions that killed 56 people, Londoners’ reputation for “getting on with it" in spite of threats to their safety was put to the test again. On Thursday July 21st the city’s transport system was reported to have been hit by explosions at four points around midday—three almost simultaneous blasts on the London Underground and a fourth on a bus, the same as last time. However, police are also talking of devices having failed to explode at the scenes of some of the attacks.

What is clear is that the explosions were smaller this time and the results were far less devastating. The sight of bloodied commuters being brought out of Underground stations was mercifully absent. The reported blasts were on trains at Oval, Warren Street and Shepherd’s Bush Underground stations and on a number 26 bus in Hackney. Little is confirmed so far, though London’s police chief, Sir Ian Blair, said the blasts were being treated as a “very serious incident". Tony Blair, the prime minister, convened COBRA, the government’s emergency committee, and urged Londoners to carry on as usual.

So far, the only report of anyone being seriously hurt is that of a man involved in the incident at Warren Street, which is just north of Oxford Street, London’s principal shopping district. Some reports suggested the injured man might have been carrying a rucksack that exploded on the train. But television networks said armed police in body armour had entered the nearby University College Hospital, in pursuit of a man said to be carrying a bomb. Eye witnesses told of another suspected bomber seen running away from the blast at Oval. There was also an as-yet unexplained drama outside the prime minister’s office in Downing Street, broadcast live on television, in which police led away a man at gunpoint.

Unlike last time, central London’s public-transport system was not shut down, though there was considerable disruption, with Underground lines suspended (some had still not re-opened since the first round of bombings) and areas of the city cordoned off. Whereas the previous attacks came during the morning rush, the latest ones took place in the middle of the day when fewer people are using public transport. The Shepherd’s Bush explosion was on a section of the Underground that in fact runs above overground, which may have contributed to making it less devastating than those in deep Underground tunnels a fortnight before.

However, if initial reports prove correct, the most important factor contributing to the lack of heavy casualties was that the explosions were very small—perhaps because only the detonators went off, not the devices’ main explosive charge. If so, only sheer good fortune prevented great loss of life.

If the bombers this time were members of the same group of Islamists who carried out the previous attacks, the analysis of the unexploded material and any other bomb components recovered from the scenes of the blasts might help police discover more about who organised and supplied the attackers. Of course, another possibility is that the perpetrators were an unrelated group of copycats, inspired by the previous bombers but operating entirely independently.

The latest attacks came as the events of July 7th were still fresh in the minds of Londoners—shortly before them, a memorial service for its victims was held in Tavistock Square, close to the site of the bus bomb a fortnight ago and just a short walk from the drama that was about to unfold at Warren Street.

More details are still emerging about the four suicide bombers who struck on July 7th, three of whom were British-born Muslims of Pakistani origin and the fourth a Muslim convert born in Jamaica—all of them leading seemingly normal lives until they blew themselves up. After details emerged of visits by some of them to Pakistan, where they are thought to have had contact with Islamist militants possibly linked to al-Qaeda, the Pakistani security forces launched a crackdown against Islamist extremists. However, reports that they had arrested suspects wanted over the London bombings were later denied.

Since the previous attacks, there has been much discussion about how to stop the recruiting of young Muslims to carry out such attacks. Earlier this week, Muslim leaders were invited to 10 Downing St in an effort to find ways of identifying potential troublemakers before they come under the thrall of Islamist extremists and start acquiring explosives and training for attacks. But British Muslims are increasingly isolated from their self-appointed leaders and may not heed their words anyway.

The prime minister, after consulting with opposition leaders, has also proposed three new laws. A new offence of “acts preparatory to terrorism�? will cover those who try to get hold of explosives and other dangerous material. Showing others how to commit atrocities will also be outlawed. Another proposed law would ban indirect incitement to terrorism. And, in future, foreign clerics condoning terrorism are likely to be banned from visiting Britain. But stringent measures are already in place in Britain so it is unclear how much safer the public should feel.

Although the British capital seems likely to return to normal rapidly, as it did after the July 7th attacks and indeed after the IRA bombings of the 1970s-1990s, Londoners have once again been reminded just how vulnerable their transport system is. They will also realise that there is little they can do except to bear the risks with their customary fortitude.

See our last post on London.