- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006

MADRID — European intelligence networks have thrown a blanket of surveillance over a small but fiercely violent cast of Islamist militants, many homegrown with no direct links to al Qaeda, whose fingerprints they expect to find on the Continent’s next big terrorist attack.

Senior security officials across Europe warned that the relative ease and low cost of an attack, combined with the anger and isolation felt by Muslim populations, mean more bloodshed is almost inevitable.

The officials painted a picture of a diverse group of militants with competing agendas, vastly different social and educational backgrounds, and a litany of gripes that makes it difficult to predict their next move. While they may be motivated by Osama bin Laden’s call for worldwide jihad, most operate independently of al Qaeda’s leadership, the officials said.

“There is no profile; they come from everywhere,” said Manfred Murck, deputy director of the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which tracks extremist activity in the northern city of Hamburg, where three of the four September 11, 2001, suicide pilots spent time before their mission.

“You can’t concentrate on certain targets, you can’t concentrate on certain persons. Everything is possible, anything goes, and you just have to try and be as close as you can to the whole group.”

20/20 hindsight

The two deadliest recent attacks in Europe — the London bombings of July 7, 2005, and the Madrid blasts of March 11, 2004 — dramatically illustrate the problem.

Two of the London bombers showed up on the periphery of another terrorism investigation, but authorities did not deem them dangerous enough to require close surveillance.

Spanish authorities say they were also monitoring several of the bombers in the months before the Madrid attacks — and actually stopped a car carrying the group’s military planner in late February, unaware that he was leading a caravan of other terrorists transporting explosives. They thought they were dealing with drug traffickers and let them go.

Chastened by the lessons learned from those bombings, intelligence services throughout Europe are ramping up surveillance, even at the risk of provoking protests from civil liberties groups.

• In Spain, where 191 persons died in the bombing of four trains, authorities have tripled the number of agents concentrating on terrorism and are watching about 250 suspected radicals, according to a senior intelligence chief at the heart of the country’s counterterrorism operations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

• In London, where four suicide attackers killed 52 bus and subway passengers, senior police officers say they are concerned about 40 to 60 people living in Britain who received training in carrying out attacks. Another 400 are thought to be sympathizers.

• In Italy, authorities are watching 74 persons suspected of financing terrorism, said Gen. Pasquale Debidda of the financial police. In Hamburg, Mr. Murck of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution said some 170 potentially violent radicals are under surveillance there and are thought to have another 2,000 sympathizers.

The numbers look small, but the threat isn’t.

Some attacks foiled

In France, authorities have blocked at least a dozen attacks in the past decade, said Louis Caprioli, former assistant director of the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DST by its French initials), the country’s main counterintelligence agency. Tore Bjoergo, a terrorism specialist at the Norwegian Police University, put the number of thwarted attacks throughout Europe at 30 to 40 since September 11.

Officials and terrorism analysts say the main threat is from homegrown militants, deeply rooted in their adopted countries but still linked to networks in the Muslim world.

Most of the Madrid bombers were North African immigrants. The London bombings of last July were carried out by three British citizens of Pakistani descent and a fourth from Jamaica. The highly public killing of Dutch film director Theo van Gogh in 2004 was carried out by a Muslim of Moroccan background.

No link to al Qaeda has been established in any of these incidents, though British authorities are still looking into a trip two of the London bombers made to Pakistan the year before the bombings.

Germany’s domestic intelligence chief, Heinz Fromm, said: “One cannot talk today anymore of a central leadership role of al Qaeda.” Bin Laden’s group has become a “diffuse, amorphous organization” that provides inspiration for attacks, rather than a guiding hand, he said.

Threat increasing

Riots in heavily Muslim inner cities of France, and the global Islamist outburst over the publication of Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad have further heated the climate for terrorism.

“We have recorded a significant increase in the number of threats” because of the cartoons, said Lars Findsen, the intelligence chief in Denmark.

The Internet is replacing militant mosques as the main meeting site for potential terrorists, said Sybrand van Hulst, director of the AIVD, the Dutch equivalent of the CIA. It has also become a virtual manual for terrorists.

The Spanish intelligence chief said a search of the computers of the Madrid plotters showed they had often visited Global Islamic Media, a Web site linked to al Qaeda, before the attack and after, when they needed advice on making their getaway.

Internet is a factor

Authorities think they learned how to rig their cellular-phone bombs on the Web, and even used the same brand of phones — Mitsubishi Trium T110s — as the group behind the 2002 attacks in Bali.

Similarities between otherwise unrelated attacks were evidence of the Internet’s power to spread terrorist information. The suicide attacks in London last July and those in Casablanca on May 16, 2003, were carried out using the same peroxide-based explosives, which are easily made with common materials but are extremely powerful.

The official said the terrorists don’t know each other, but chat a lot online, sharing their lessons and tactics. “They have recipes [for how to carry out an attack]. It is the classic do-it-yourself handbook,” he said.

The cost of an attack has dropped sharply.

The September 11 attacks were complicated and expensive, involving international bank transfers and months of training. According to British Home Secretary John Reid, the London attacks cost a mere $15,000.

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