- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 2, 2007

MADRID — Bombs left on commuter trains in a busy station in Germany, a plot to blow up tunnels and flood New York City’s financial district, another to bring down packed commuter airliners flying out of London.

Islamic militants had no shortage of murderous ideas in 2006, but for the first time since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the year closed without a major attack in the West.

In a wide-ranging analysis, security and intelligence leaders around the world told the Associated Press that their success was a result of more than just luck.

Far greater human and technological resources, tougher counterterrorism laws, a deeper understanding of the homegrown nature of the threat and the hard lessons learned from past failures — all these have all helped avert catastrophe, they said.

But they also cautioned against complacency, saying another attack is inevitable. A senior Spanish intelligence official who recently stepped down as head of a national counterterrorism unit warned that the absence of deadly attacks in 2006 does not mean the world should expect similar results in 2007.

Reinforcing the reality that high-casualty terrorism is still a threat, not only in the West, a bomb attack on trains in Bombay in July killed more than 200 people. India suspects Islamic organizations both at home and in neighboring Pakistan of being behind the bombings.

Muslim militants were not blamed for a Saturday car bombing at Madrid International Airport, which left 26 persons injured and two missing. The attack was thought to be the work of the Basque terrorist group ETA.

Anger among many Muslims is still high over the war in Iraq, the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Israel’s war against Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and remarks by Pope Benedict XVI that many Muslims considered insulting despite his explanation to the contrary.

“The fact that these threats have not materialized [in 2006] is not for a lack of trying by terror organizations,” the Spanish official said. “It is because the counterterrorism fight in Europe and North America has been effective in detecting these aspiring terror groups early,” before they could strike.

In Britain, an official familiar with the country’s anti-terror policies said the July 7, 2005, bombings of London subways and a bus were a wake-up call, and that intelligence and security protections put in place since those attacks had helped thwart several new plots, including a foiled August scheme to target U.S.-bound jetliners with liquid explosives.

While authorities have said little about how they stopped the carnage, they have acknowledged that some of the suspects were under surveillance for months, both in Britain and Pakistan.

“The extra resources we’ve devoted since the 7/7 attacks have helped us stop plans that had been in the works for years,” said the government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity owing to the sensitive nature of his work. “Our database is growing. We have more people on the ground. We are a lot more aware now.”

MI5, the British domestic spy agency, has added hundreds of staff members in recent years, and Government Communications Headquarters, once home to World War II code breakers, has doubled its corps of analysts to 5,000 — becoming Britain’s largest intelligence agency.

Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, has said her agency had foiled five major plots since the 2005 bombings, and that her agents were tracking almost 30 terrorist plots involving 1,600 suspects.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College, said the absence of attacks on European soil in 2006 reflects a better understanding of how the terror networks operate — and a little bit of luck.

“Authorities have started to organize much, much better now, and that is starting to show results,” Mr. Ranstorp said. “We have much better insight into the networks now, because we have focused our resources on the right problems. I think the security agencies have this under better control than you might think, and know the lay of the land rather well.”

Analysts and intelligence officials say the nature of the threat has changed dramatically since September 11, 2001, with concern largely focused on homegrown groups driven by local grievances, rather than professional terrorists trained by al Qaeda and with direct links to Osama bin Laden.

While these groups have the advantage of being small, they are often less sophisticated and easier to catch. Thousands of suspected radicals are under surveillance across Europe, making it harder for plots to emerge.

The closest call in 2006 may have come in Cologne, Germany, when two crude bombs on trains failed to detonate. The biggest threat was the London airliner plot. Lesser defined schemes against the Jewish Quarter in Prague, a church in Bologna, Italy, and the Milan, Italy, subway also failed.

In the United States and Canada, authorities uncovered plots — some seemingly little more than fantasies — to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago, flood Lower Manhattan by blowing up tunnels under the Hudson River, and attack public buildings in Ontario.

Authorities in Morocco arrested at least 56 persons, among them soldiers, police and the wives of Royal Air Maroc pilots, over a purported plot to blow up foreign targets. Indonesia, one of the countries most frequently hit by Islamic radicals, enjoyed its first attack-free year since 1999.

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