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July 4, 2007

Lucky, but for How Much Longer?


Charles Peña

After a failed attempt on then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's life in October 1984, the Irish Republican Army issued this statement: "Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always." Those words are no less true in the wake of British authorities discovering two would-be car bombs in London and a Jeep Cherokee set ablaze crashing into the main terminal building at Glasgow International Airport in Scotland.

Indeed, Lady Luck intervened to prevent the car bomb attacks in London. An ambulance driver passing by happened to notice smoke inside a parked Mercedes and alerted authorities, who discovered a bomb fashioned together from gasoline, propane canisters, and nails. A second Mercedes was ticketed and towed about an hour after the first car was discovered. Several hours later, after news of the first car bomb, workers at the parking garage notified police that the towed car reeked of gasoline. The British were doubly lucky that neither of the car bombs detonated – which could have killed or injured perhaps several hundred people – because, according to British authorities, there were no prior intelligence reports warning of any imminent terrorist attacks.

The British were a little less lucky – but lucky nonetheless – at Glasgow Airport. Two would-be suicide car bombers drove a Jeep Cherokee into the doorway of the terminal, but they were unable to get inside the building (according to witnesses, the Jeep's wheels were spinning furiously in an attempt to get through the doorway). Although the Jeep was a fireball, fortunately there was no explosion (according to one news report, one of the two men was wearing a bomb belt, and the Jeep contained propane canisters).

But it is simply not possible to be lucky all of the time. No matter how vigilant authorities and the public are and how many security barriers are erected, luck will eventually run out and terrorists will succeed.

Consider that British authorities say some 2,000 people in the United Kingdom are suspected radicals and thus potential terrorists. Yet knowing about those people did not help them uncover the two potential car bombs in London. In the case of Glasgow, British authorities were apparently on the trail of the airport bombers but still could not prevent the attack.

London and Glasgow also illustrate the unpredictable nature of the terrorist threat. Because the July 2007 London tube and bus bombings were perpetrated by so-called homegrown terrorists, that phenomenon has been a large focus of subsequent counterterrorism and intelligence efforts. Yet only one of the eight suspects arrested so far in connection with London and Glasgow is a British citizen (naturalized, not born in the United Kingdom). Also, one of the suspects is a 27-year-old woman, which is highly unusual and would be unprecedented for an Islamic terrorist attack against a Western target (although Muslim women have been part of terrorist operations in non-Western countries).

Also highly unusual is the fact that several of the suspects are doctors: Bilal Abdulla, an Iraqi Kurd who worked at the Glasgow Hospital; Mohammed Asha, who is of Palestinian descent with a Jordanian passport; another man identified as a 26-year-old doctor from India, who worked at Halton Hospital in Cheshire, northern England; and the most recent suspect arrested in Australia, a 27-year old man who completed his medical internship in India and worked at a Queensland state hospital. So much for fitting the "poorly educated" profile of the July 2005 London bombers (Mohammed Siddique Khan had a degree in business studies, but with low marks; Tanweer Hussain studied sports science at college but never completed his degree; Hasib Hussain had a community college education; and Jermaine Lindsay quit school in 2002 to work as a salesman).

The July 2005 London bombings (and the 2004 Madrid bombings) were carried out using backpack bombs, whereas the failed London attacks and the Glasgow attack were with car bombs. Although there is no evidence linking the attacks to Iraq, it is worth noting that car bombs are de rigueur in Iraq, and, according to a previous CIA report, Iraq has become a more potent training ground for Islamic terrorists than Afghanistan was in the 1980s. The good news is that London and Glasgow car bombs were amateurish, which is some confirmation that perpetrators were probably not products of the insurgency in Iraq. It also tends to discredit newly minted British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's claim that "we are dealing, in general terms, with people who are associated with al-Qaeda," because the hallmarks of al-Qaeda attacks are operational sophistication resulting in devastating success.

With the driver and passenger of the flaming Jeep Cherokee, as well as other suspects, in custody, it is highly likely that British authorities will unravel the details about the planning and operation of the Glasgow and attempted London attacks (it is now believed that they are linked by the two men in the Jeep). But if the nature of terrorism is to be unpredictable, the next attempted terrorist attack (or attacks) will be different. And the question is whether Lady Luck will smile on authorities in time for them to thwart it.

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  • Photo - George Cole

    Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
    Policy Institute
    , an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. He has also appeared on CNN, Fox News, NBC Nightly News, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and The McLaughlin Group, as well as international television and radio. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda, and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.


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    His articles have been published by Reason; The American Conservative; The National Interest; Mediterranean Quarterly; Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, & Public Policy; Journal of Law & Social Change (University of San Francisco); Nexus (Chapman University); and Issues in Science & Technology (National Academy of Sciences).

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