Why is London al Qaeda's spiritual hub in the Western world?
With this morning's tragedy in London many experts have noted that if London, which has long faced the highly sophisticated terrorists of the IRA and numerous international terrorist organizations, can be struck by terror then every city is vulnerable. While Britain's domestic intelligence and counterterror capabilities are highly professional and have disrupted numerous terrorist plots, there have also been glaring deficiencies in Britain's strategies against Islamist terror.
Just over a month ago, France's leading antiterrorism judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere gave an interview to the BBC warning that the al Qaeda threat was growing. Bruguiere stated, "We have a lot of legal means you [the U.K.] don't have and these legal means allow us to control and possibly prevent terrorist activities." Specifically, he mentioned lack of compulsory ID cards, the inadmissibility of wiretap evidence in British courts, and the ease of travel between the continent and the Britain on false papers.
Judge Bruguiere's warnings should always be taken seriously. He is an investigating magistrate (the American and British systems have no equivalent), which means he is a member of the judiciary with some police powers; it is a role that has been highly effective for disrupting terrorist activity. Bruguiere has become a leading expert on Islamist terrorism and before 3/11 attempted to warn Spain that they might not merely be a staging ground for Islamist terrorism but a target. He also tried to warn the United States and Canada about the extent of the al Qaeda threat after Ahmed Ressam was caught on the Canadian border with explosives in December 1999. The January 2003 arrests of the ricin makers in Britain were also based on a tip from French intelligence.
These different Anglo-Gallic approaches to counterterrorism are decades old. In 1986 the Paris Metro was rocked by a series of bombings. Ultimately those bombings were tied to Iran and Hezbollah and were a (successful) attempt to change French policy towards Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Because French security was caught off guard by the bombings major changes were instituted, and when the Algerian civil war spilled over into France in the early 1990s, French security was better equipped to respond. France became a more difficult operating environment for Islamists, and Islamists began to shift to London. In his 2002 book Inside al Qaeda, terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna wrote, ". . . British attempts to neutralize the infrastructure of Al Qaeda and related groups have been gravely inadequate. Without a doubt, London was Al Qaeda's spiritual hub in the Western world."