Intelligence chiefs were expecting Al-Qaeda spectacular
Michael Evans, Defence Editor | November 27, 2008
Western intelligence services have been expecting an al-Qaeda spectacular terrorist attack in this crucial period between the end of President George Bush’s administration and the succession of Barack Obama.
Signals intelligence “chatter” in recent weeks indicated that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organisation might be plotting an attack “to grab the headlines” before Mr Obama takes over in the White House on January 20.
British security and intelligence sources said there had been increasing concern, particularly in the United States, that a “terrorist spectacular” was on the cards.
The multiple attacks on Westerners in Bombay last night showed all the signs of an al-Qaeda strategy — picking on vulnerable Western “soft targets” but not in a country where there would be maximum security. The attacks on Western targets in Bali in 2002 when al-Qaeda-linked terrorists planted bombs in tourist-favoured restaurants and clubs was another example where the group switched its resources to achieve maximum impact.
Counter-terrorist experts last night said that India would have been selected for the latest spectacular “probably because that’s where al-Qaeda has sufficient resources to carry out an attack on this scale. They don’t choose for the sake of it, they look to see where they have the greatest capability and then order an attack,” a counter-terror expert told The Times.
The key to this latest attack was the search by the armed terrorists for American and British passport holders. With a reported 40 Britons held hostage, the terrorists have the upper hand. The counter-terrorist sources said targeting Bombay’s most luxurious hotels and a crowded railway station had all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation.
Bombay has been targeted before when 180 people died during a bomb attack on the railway station in 2006, but that incident was put down to militants, not al-Qaeda, and the Indian government suspected that the attackers had links to Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI.
This attack, however, involving the taking of Western hostages made it more likely that the operation’s masterminds were from the core leadership of al-Qaeda, which is based in the lawless tribal regions close to the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.
The Americans have been expecting an atrocity partly because of the recent CIA success in eliminating figures in al-Qaeda, using Predator unmanned drones, firing Hellfire missiles at hideouts in the tribal regions of Pakistan. About a dozen al-Qaeda figures have been killed this year.
Although an unknown group claimed responsibility last night, the taking of Western hostages and the deliberate seeking out of American and British citizens indicated a “typical al-Qaeda-style activity”, according to security sources.
Other sources said India was the home of a complicated network of terrorists and it might be too early to jump to the conclusion that it was an al-Qaeda operation. “It seems to be a highly opportunistic attack,” one source said.
However, this is traditionally the way al-Qaeda works. The leadership decides an attack should take place and leaves its franchise operators to decide how best to carry it out. Many of the gunmen appeared to be young but they also seemed confident, suggesting that they were well trained.
As the unprecedented scale of the attacks became clear last night, it looked to be the most co-ordinated terrorist operation since the targeting of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001.
Dozens of gunmen were involved in up to 19 different attacks, although the main focus seemed to be the taking of foreign hostages and detaining them in two of Bombay’s most prestigious hotels.
Judging by the apparent cockiness of at least one of the gunmen caught looking into television cameras, these terrorists were clearly prepared to die for their cause.
Al-Qaeda as an organisation has proved in the past that it has the capability to coordinate multiple attacks. Last night an organisation calling itself Deecan Mujahideen claimed responsibility but, as in the past when unknown groups came forward to admit involvement, the name was neither recognizable nor relevant. The sheer audacity of the terrorists are all familiar elements of al-Qaeda’.
1979 Militant Islamic students in Iran stormed the US embassy in Tehran, taking 90 hostages. They demanded the extradition of the Shah of Iran from the US, to stand trial in Iran. The hostages were freed in 1981, after 444 days
1993 A car bomb exploded under the World Trade Centre, killing six and injuring more than 1,000. The mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, had been trained in Afghanistan
1995 Sarin nerve gas attack in Tokyo subway kills 12 and injures about 6,000. Shoko Asahara, founder of Aum cult responsible, sentenced to death in 2004
2001 Two aeroplanes hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, a third crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Excluding the 19 hijackers, 2,974 people died in the attacks by al-Qaeda
2002 A terrorist attack on the island of Bali killed 202 people. Two bombs ripped through a nightclub area in Kuta district
2004 Ten bombs exploded on four commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 and leaving 1,800 injured. A group affiliated with al-Qaeda claimed responsibility
2005 Explosions on London’s transport system killed 52 and injured 700
(Source: Times archives)