The recent arrest of an al Qaeda terrorist in Pakistan provided some clues that terrorists were planning attacks on trains and buses, but there were no specific warnings of the bombings in London yesterday, U.S. officials said.
The lack of a specific warning highlights continuing U.S. intelligence shortcomings in spying on al Qaeda and related Islamist groups, which are suspected in the attacks.
“I’m not aware of any specific intelligence that suggested this was going to take place,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters after the bombings.
Officials said the bombings likely were carried out by a “pop-up” cell of Islamic militants loyal to, and perhaps supported by, al Qaeda, delivering a stark reminder of how difficult it is to penetrate terror plots by groups that Western intelligence services have not identified.
A U.S. intelligence official said Washington was not aware of the “Secret Organization Group of al Qaeda Jihad Organization in Europe,” which took responsibility for the four explosions in subways and a double-decker bus.
A government terrorism expert also said the attack is part of a revival of militant activity in Europe as radical clerics recruit jihadists to fight in Iraq against the U.S.-led coalition, of which Britain is a key member.
“This is a manifestation of a trend we’ve seen over the past 18 months of greatly heightened al Qaeda and pro-al Qaeda activity in Europe designed mainly to recruit for the battlefields in Iraq and, more lately, in Afghanistan,” said Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service.
Other intelligence officials said there have been few reports in recent months indicating possible attacks by Islamic terrorists in the United States or abroad. One U.S. security agency official said there had been some “extremely vague” intelligence reporting in the past several weeks indicating that al Qaeda was planning a “Madrid-style attack.”
Al Qaeda-linked terrorists were behind the attack in Spain’s capital on March 11, 2004, killing almost 200 people. The attacks involved 10 nearly simultaneous bombings of trains during rush hour, eerily similar to the London attacks.
The intelligence reports on possible train and bus bombings followed the May arrest in Pakistan of al Qaeda’s No. 3 leader, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who is now in U.S. custody, the official said.
“It was very generic stuff that mentioned that ‘we would like to do what we did in Madrid’ and target transportation systems,” the official said.
A second U.S. official said that although there were no specific intelligence reports of an attack, “it was no secret that al Qaeda and like-minded associates were impressed with what happened in Madrid.”
“That was an operation that didn’t take much planning and resources but had an impact,” the official said.
It is not known whether those responsible for yesterday’s bombings were Islamists from Britain or from outside the country, the U.S. official said.
A senior U.S. intelligence official, in a briefing last night, said that although “we don’t know who was responsible for the attacks,” the method of attack suggested Osama bin Laden-inspired terrorism.
“The attack methodology is consistent with what we know that al Qaeda has planned for in the past. We also see it as consistent with what happened in Madrid, which was carried out by an al Qaeda-inspired … group,” he said.
Britain’s Muslim community in the past has provided a base for extremists, the official said.
Recent terrorist activity has included the attempt by Richard C. Reid, a British citizen and Muslim convert, to blow up a U.S. airliner with a shoe bomb and the arrest of Abu Issa al-Hindi, who was taken into custody in August in London, the official said.
Al-Hindi was dispatched by al Qaeda in 2000 and 2001 to survey bombing targets in New York.
Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey said yesterday’s bombings show the difficulties of getting intelligence about a pending attack.
“I think it’s always going to be unlikely that we’re going to get specific tip-offs to specific times of specific attacks,” Mr. Woolsey said. “They are just very difficult to penetrate, compared to, say, the Soviet government.”
The attack underscores the advantages al Qaeda-affiliated groups have anywhere in the world. They can quickly form cells; plan attacks in basements, cafes or apartments; build rudimentary improvised explosive devices; and then execute mass killings without signaling their activities to intelligence services.
“There are fundamentalist groups out there who are bent on doing terrorist attacks, and they don’t have to be highly sophisticated, like the 9/11 plot, which was very sophisticated, years in planning, with security, hijackings, flying airplanes,” said the intelligence official, who asked not to be identified. “This may come down to a group of individuals who had backpacks on trains and buses and detonated themselves or were timed to go off.”
“You have groups that pop up and then go away,” the official added. “Some pop up and merge. It’s impossible to know how many al Qaeda-affiliated groups there are in the world. It’s an unknown factor.”
Mr. Katzman said al Qaeda “is trying to regroup. I’m not buying into some of the theses I see out there that it is immutably atomized into local groups, local commanders. I think bin Laden is a warrior trying to bring back some sort of central direction to it.”
Shaun Waterman of United Press International contributed to this report.