LONDON (Reuters) - More than three years after Europe’s deadliest Islamist militant bombings, the good news is that police and intelligence agencies have managed to smash a succession of other cells bent on wreaking similar carnage.
The bad news is that the sheer volume of alleged plots — including in Britain, Denmark and Germany in just a few weeks this summer — suggests they are battling to keep pace with a threat that has grown and shifted since the 2004 Madrid attacks, for which 21 people were convicted in Spain on Wednesday.
“We still have a high threat level, it’s just that the security services are working well and we’ve been lucky,” said Claude Moniquet, head of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center in Brussels.
Nick Pratt, a former CIA official now at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany, said: “We’re seeing more of these (plots), they’re more brazen. The planning has not slowed down — as a matter of fact I think it’s increased, and Europe is the battleground.”
The Madrid investigation revealed an operation that was low-tech but lethal. It cost just 54,000 to 105,000 euros ($78,000 to $152,000), some of it raised by selling drugs, to detonate 10 bombs hidden in sports bags and left on commuter trains, with mobile phone alarms used as timers.
Subsequent plots have varied widely in their sophistication.
According to Pratt, the blueprints prepared by convicted al Qaeda operative Dhiren Barot for attacks in Britain and the United States were the work of “an absolute professional ... It was not unlike the target packages that I used to get handed to me from the Defence Intelligence Agency and the CIA.”
On the other hand, a failed car bombing in London and the ramming of a jeep filled with petrol canisters into a Glasgow airport terminal this summer were crude to the point of naivety.
The lack of a pattern — both in the modus operandi of attacks and in the profile of those who carry them out — is one of the factors that complicate the work of investigators.
At different times, the focus has shifted between foreign and ‘homegrown’ operatives, and between highly trained professionals and self-taught radicals who pick up their basic tradecraft on the Internet.
The Madrid conspiracy centered on mostly Moroccan militants living as immigrants in Spain. Some were common criminals, including drug dealers, who had been radicalized in prison. But although they subscribed to al Qaeda’s ideology, they appeared to act autonomously without relying on external orders from Osama bin Laden’s network.
In that key respect, the Madrid plot differs from a slew of more recent cases in which plotters received foreign training and direction from al Qaeda.
Two of the four suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London in 2005 had trained in Pakistan, as had several men convicted in British trials this year, as well as all three suspects arrested in a German bomb plot in September.
Western intelligence officials fear this trend may continue, given the success of what they call “core al Qaeda” in rebuilding its strength along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Pratt pointed to the recent German case, in which U.S. intelligence played a key role, as evidence that spy agencies are getting much better at sharing information across borders.
“The good news is that there’s much closer coordination and sharing, and it’s working,” he said.
“People are beginning to realize that you can’t do this alone. Unilateral intelligence production doesn’t work, the problem is too complex.”