London Bombing and the Usefulness of Terrorist Watch Lists

According to the London Times:

Security sources confirmed that none of the bombers was on any MI5 file, although one had links to a person investigated by police.

Posted on July 15, 2005 at 10:33 AM • 23 Comments

Comments

Davi OttenheimerJuly 15, 2005 11:17 AM

Good one. It just seems obvious that if you are recruiting bombers that need to be invisible, you need to prey upon the most impressionable people with little/no record so you can get a quick turnaround.

That of course creates an interesting dilemma, since you end up essentially saying the profile you are looking for is someone who has virtually nothing to profile other than contact with an extremist.

Several years ago I was passing though a country and someone pointed to an orphanage and said "That's where we believe Al Qaeda soldiers come from. We once said it was a wonderful place for taking care of all the orphans, but we became suspicious when they went away [to Afghanistan] and never came back."

I like the part of the article that states:

"The Government would also look urgently at how to strengthen the process for deporting the hardline priests who incite hatred. He said this would involve opening up dialogue with Muslim leaders both at home and abroad to mobilise the 'moderate and true voice of Islam'. He added: 'I think we all know that security measures alone are not going to deal with this.'"

That was the point I was trying to make here:

http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2005/07/...

"When considering the situation in terms of security measures and deterrence, don't forget that "suicide" is the operative word here and the bomber is often led to believe that they are actually better off dead. It is not clear to me that security has the right approach or tools to deter these people from fanatacism."

Bruce SchneierJuly 15, 2005 12:04 PM

"Granted, but subverting the watch lists has got to have an impact on their capabilities."

Of course. But that's the wrong way to look at it. Lots of things have an impact on their capabilities. We need to do those partrticular things that are worth the trade0-offs, and not do those things that aren't.

Filip MauritsJuly 15, 2005 1:02 PM

It's probably easy enough to check whether someone is on a terrorist watchlist: let potential bombers travel around and watch how the security people react.

What I didn't hear much about yet: on the day of the bombings Tony Blair said: “We will not allow violence to change our society and values��?; now, only days later, the UK government is abusing the bombings to push the (for reasons of privacy, security, cost, etc.) very controversial European internet data retention law proposal...

Andre LePlumeJuly 15, 2005 1:08 PM

Although these particular bad guys were not known to MI5, there was an ongoing investigation of potential targets on British soil, and a key source of information had "flipped" and was ratting on his terrorist colleagues. This all ended when the Bush administration revealed the name of the informant. to the chagrin of British intelligence.

See http://americablog.blogspot.com/2005/07/...

Dan NordquistJuly 15, 2005 1:48 PM

Hmm. Okay, assume the bombers were on a terrorist watch list. What difference does it make? When they're added to the watch list, do we prevent them from buying backpacks / getting on the bus? We don't? So it wouldn't have mattered.

Watching Them, Watching UsJuly 15, 2005 2:38 PM

If terrorist watchlists, based on the anglicised misspellings of foreign names are so useful, then why did the US authorities prevent the leading moderate Islamic cleric in Britain, Dr. Zaki Badawi from entering the USA on Wednesday ?

"On Sunday, Badawi joined other British religious leaders in condemning the bus and subway bombings. He appeared with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, Free Churches Moderator David Coffey and Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks."

"Badawi was given an honorary knighthood and in 2003 he was among the guests of Queen Elizabeth II at a state banquet for U.S. President George W. Bush."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/...

Davi OttenheimerJuly 15, 2005 4:09 PM

@Watching Them

Thanks for the link. At a time when radical extremism is the percieved threat, it would seem to be a serious miscalculation to deny a moderate from entering the US to join the dialogue.

The article paints an almost Kafka-esque picture of the TSA:

"'The people I was speaking to were very junior people, and they are just executing things they were told,' [Badawi] said. 'They were very, very embarrassed, and I felt sorry for them.'"

Felix_the_MacJuly 15, 2005 5:26 PM

NewScientist 15-07-2005:

"Metropolitan Police chief commissioner Ian Blair described the four bombers as mere “foot soldiers��? in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, and confirmed that officers were searching for a chemist in connection with the attacks. A known Al-Qaida operative entered the country two weeks before the blasts, and left just hours before the explosions. But Blair said that, as yet, there was nothing to link this person directly with the attacks."

http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?...

Ari HeikkinenJuly 16, 2005 2:59 PM

I hate to say this, but most of the security countermeasures I've seen the allies announce in the name of counterterrorism and their response to attacks have been plain silly. They announced it's a war, try to fight it with weapons, desperately try to secure last targets, think technology could pick terrorists from crowd, those terrorist watchlists, etc. (I could continue all day). Did I mention ID cards?

They obviously can't use the media either. Terrorists watch news just as anyone else as they want to know how effecient their last attack was and how their "enemy" is responding to it in order to optimize their tactics for their next attack.

A much effective strategy would be to actually go after them. How about putting lots of undercover agents out there as recruiters and recruits and then announce to the media there's thousands of undercover agents out there already infiltrating to terrorist networks worldwide ready to catch any recruiters and potential recruits. I mean, planting distrust and paranoia works both ways.

But instead, they're wasting billions on things such as trying to secure targets that were attacked last week or even years ago and deploying "new technology" they think can pick terrorists from crowd (and don't even get me started on those databases with lists of names they're gonna match on your name to see if you're a terrorist).

JRJuly 17, 2005 12:11 AM

Were the people carrying the bombs actually avere that they were carrying bombs?

Were they awere that those bombs were going to explode?

Picture of delivering a package for a friend comes to mind.
There was also a short film starring Ornella Muti as a flight attendant which gets a goodbye gift.

RG3July 17, 2005 1:04 PM

I'm not sure what relevance the fact that one of the bombers had links to a person investigated by the police has. If you're going to extend a watch list to everyone who has a criminal record, that would include my father who kicked in a headlamp of a car that was (illegally) parked in an awkward place.

But, quite frankly, the way terror networks are set up and resourced, the terrorists are in a much better position to stay off the watch lists than your average citizen. Such a system is just asking for false positives.

Davi OttenheimerJuly 18, 2005 1:11 AM

"I'm not sure what relevance the fact that one of the bombers had links to a person investigated by the police has."

If the person investigated by police is an extremist with violent tendencies, then the relevance should be clear.

Take for example that Timothy McVeigh's only official affiliations seem to be as a registered Republican when he lived in New York and a member of the National Rifle Association while in the Army.

Beyond that however he clearly spent a good portion of his time in 1993 travelling between Arizona, Michigan and western New York where he interfaced with extremist anti-Americans. In fact, while it was said he was quiet about most things he aparently was very outspoken about an impending military struggle to overcome economic disparity and to fight communism.

Those "links" were probably far more revealing that the fact that he was known to keep a "very large" gun collection, or even that he highly recommended "nationalist" literature such as the "Turner Diaries" (a rascist and anti-semitic novel by former American Nazi Party official William L. Pierce) to people he met.

McVeigh (like Osama bin Laden) said that he wanted to use the very destabilization tactics that the US Army taught him during war to turn around and fight the US government. His interview on 60 minutes in 2000 indicated how his time in Iraq actually turned him against the US: "I went over there hyped up, just like everyone else. What I experienced, though, was an entirely different ball game. And being face-to-face, close with these people in personal contact, you realize they're just people like you."

When asked if violence and terror are acceptable against the US, he replied:

"If government is the teacher, violence would be an acceptable option. What did we do to Sudan? What did we do to Aghanistan? Belgrade? What are we doing with the death penalty? It appears they use violence as an option all the time."

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2000/03/13/...

I hope you can see where I am going with this...where did he learn the doctrine from and how did his sense of ethics evolve? What shaped his anger and his resolve? The watch list should clearly extend to cover extremists that advocate "terrorist" practices against civilians. McVeigh was not exactly *quick* about his conversion to one of these extremists, nor was he a suicide bomber (some say he tried to use nationalist connections to help him disappear after the bombing), but it seems that his ongoing links to extremists should have made him stand out long before the tragedy in Oklahoma City.

DarkFireJuly 18, 2005 5:53 AM

A few comments on the approach being taken in the "war on terror"

1) Probability of 1st. Armoured Corps successfully taking out terrorist targets = very low.

2) Probability of some non-person with a pistol at a bus stop somewhere in Karachi successfully taking out terrorist targets = probably high.

Conventional military tactics are wholely unsuited to the current terrorist threat. Unfortunately to increase effctiveness one must think and regretably sometimes act in a way that could be construed as terrorist.

In this battle the most committed wins and while it's all very well for politicians to make bland comment regarding civil liberties, in most cases this will merely aid the terrorists. They are more than happy to make use of our civil systems and aid structures to help them and denying this to them could be one of the most effective means of combatting the sort of "clean skin" terrorists that committed the atrocities in London last week.

Secondly, the report regarding the IED technology being implemented by the terrorist insurgents in Iraq is very worrying. Perhaps we should wonder how they got hold of the technical expertise for encrypted radio links?

DarkFireJuly 18, 2005 6:19 AM

Hmm.. I feel I must qualify the comment I recently posted:

1) When I referred to denial of social security benefits to certain individuals I was referring to those preachers identified as advocating what we would define as terrorist actions and / or extremism.

Applying such a drastic measure to an entire section of the community is too horrifying an idea to contemplate. My post was bady written in this respect.

2) This is a danger that could play directly in to the hands of the extremists - once a prticular people are identified with a particular problem, you are on the road that leads to the evil of Auschwitz. That must NEVER be allowed to happen again. This potential dissociation of the community is exactly what the xenophobic extremists want to happen.

3) Everyone speaks of anti-terrorism "defence". Defence is at best passive in nature, and at worst reactive (planning to fight the last war). What we need is active offence.

jayhJuly 18, 2005 9:51 AM

Davi Ottenheimer :

>>Beyond that however he clearly spent a good portion of his time in 1993 travelling between Arizona, Michigan and western New York where he interfaced with extremist anti-Americans. In fact, while it was said he was quiet about most things he aparently was very outspoken about an impending military struggle to overcome economic disparity and to fight communism.

Those "links" were probably far more revealing that the fact that he was known to keep a "very large" gun collection, or even that he highly recommended "nationalist" literature such as the "Turner Diaries" (a rascist and anti-semitic novel by former American Nazi Party official William L. Pierce) to people he met.

And why would law enforcement even be aware of that if he were breaking no laws? Are the movements, speech and reading habits of private citizens to be monitored to see if any develop 'suspicious' patterns?

Davi OttenheimerJuly 18, 2005 10:35 AM

@jayh

Yes, that is precisely the dilemma. Law enforcement is asked to walk a fine line by monitoring for signs of imminent danger to civilians, without impinging on civil rights. There is an old engineering saying "things are broken after they have broken", which suggests that monitoring is a natural phenomena/reaction for anyone concerned with prevention. The rub is really who gets to store, share and pass judgement on the information related to monitoring.

NickJuly 18, 2005 8:07 PM


@DarkFire

"2) This is a danger that could play directly in to the hands of the extremists - once a prticular people are identified with a particular problem, you are on the road that leads to the evil of Auschwitz. That must NEVER be allowed to happen again. This potential dissociation of the community is exactly what the xenophobic extremists want to happen."

And yet, America keeps doing it. Whether it's HUAC, the Japanese Internment, or trying to justify the Guantanamo detainees, it's easier to lump 'em all in a group and demonize a group. Oddly enough, I've actually seen a Washington Times columnist bemoan multiculturalism and essentially suggest we MUST adopt an us-vs-them mentality.

"3) Everyone speaks of anti-terrorism "defence". Defence is at best passive in nature, and at worst reactive (planning to fight the last war). What we need is active offence."

I disagree. You lament the exclusionary thought process as the path to Auschwitz, but then go on to recommend 'active offence' - which has its own risks. Consider that urban gang warfare is based on the same principle - whack them before they whack us. What does that get the community? A lot of dead kids.

DarkFireJuly 19, 2005 5:22 AM

@Nick

“And yet, America keeps doing it. Whether it's HUAC, the Japanese Internment, or trying to justify the Guantanamo detainees, it's easier to lump 'em all in a group and demonize a group. Oddly enough, I've actually seen a Washington Times columnist bemoan multiculturalism and essentially suggest we MUST adopt an us-vs-them mentality.��?

I can see why adopting this mentality might be advocated. I just posted a lengthy note on it in the Suicide bombings thread. If this is done it must be done very, very carefully and surgically. We really can’t demonise an entire section of the community. For example, stating “all Muslims are fanatical would-be terrorists��? is utterly wrong not to mention morally repugnant. However, stating “Fundamentalist Wahhabi preachers are encouraging suicide attacks and should be dealt with��? is probably fairly accurate.


“I disagree. You lament the exclusionary thought process as the path to Auschwitz, but then go on to recommend 'active offence' - which has its own risks. Consider that urban gang warfare is based on the same principle - whack them before they whack us. What does that get the community? A lot of dead kids.��?

Hmm. You raise an excellent point here. I think the difference here though is that in the case of the gang warfare there exists a neutral 3rd party who not only have the will to intervene, but do so impartially (theoretically at least). In this case the 3rd party are the Police. However, in the case of the war on terrorism there really isn’t a neutral 3rd party who can assume this impartial peacekeeping role. This has been tried with Poland and Japan sending soldiers to various places. Unfortunately when one faction in a conflict starts to think mythologically they assume the world-view that NO ONE is even capable of being impartial – with us or against us. This lead to attacks on Polish and Japanese forces as readily as it led to attacks on US and British forces. The same thing happened in 1983 when US and British forces were stationed in the Lebanon.

Nick DangerJuly 21, 2005 4:26 PM

You Brits are to be commended for the well-reasoned comments on this thread. Your sense of fair play and restraint of the natural human desire to lash out is remarkable, and stands in stark contrast to that demostrated in similar discussions here in the U.S.

But...

You're all playing the wrong game. Sure, you're playing more fairly and more rationally than we Yanks, but you're still playing entirely the wrong game.

If you want to know how four youths could be motivated to commit such heinous crimes? You Brits appear to be are just as myopic as we Americans when it comes to seeing the fruits of your own crimes. Britain has a long an bloody history in Iraq, from its creation of the Iraqi state in 1921, to British rule through a League of Nations mandate until 1932 (including a brutal put-down of rebellions by British forces in 1919, 1920-21, and 1924, and the extraction of a 75-year concession of all Iraq's oil to the UK-US controlled Iraqi Petroleum Company), and British rule through a puppet through the mid-1950's. For decades, both the US and Britain have been more than willing to shed Iraqi civilian lives when it suited their interests, and in the eyes of the Muslim world, that sordid history continues in an unbroken line through today. Ask yourselves this question: how many Iraqi civilians have died at the hands of Allied forces since the start of the invasion? The answer is, something on the order of 10,000 at the lowest end, to 100,000 (per the recent Lancet article) and you get some idea of the toll this war has taken on Iraqi society. (I'm not even counting the 15,000 to 30,000 or so Iraqi military --mostly conscripts--who died defending their homeland from invasion) And remember, that's after 10 years of Us-UK-backed sanctions caused anywhere between 500,000 deaths (estimate by UNICEF) and 1.7 million deaths (estimate by Iraqi govt.)--of CHILDREN. The human carnage inflicted by the UK and US on Iraq over this period is unthinkable, yet rarely reported even in your estimable press.

Most of you have probably already ceased paying attention because, of course, all that history cannot possibly justify killing 50+ innocent civilians. I wholeheartedly agree. But I didn't set out to justify it. I set out to EXPLAIN it. These terrorists are not brain-washed nutcases. Their minds haven't been taken over by nefarious mullahs skilled at mind-control. There are legitimate reasons for muslim anger and hatred towards the West, esp. the UK and US. Once one recognizes this, it no longer seems unthinkable that a few of the most angry would act out in horribly criminal fashion. Rather than seeing this sort of terrorism as unthinkable and psychotic , we should see terrorism as the inevitable result of our own actions against the muslim world. Then perhaps we can get past the reflexive refusal to look at muslim grievances for fear of justifying terrorism. The terrorism cannot be justified. But the grievances of the terrorists against us are shared, in many cases legitimately, by millions of muslims who are not terrorists. It is they whom we may legitimately address, and by doing so, we may also end the motivation for terrorism.

The problem of anti-Western muslim terror will not be resolved as long as we in the West continue to deny the blood on our hands.

former recruitApril 11, 2006 4:11 AM

this may come as a shock to some you and do not judge me by what you will first hear.

i used to be part of a terrorist organisation, which i left inspite of family isues.

i decided what i was doing was wrong even though yes, america did "mistreat" me in my earlier years. i decided to move countries so my former group, which shall remain nameless, didnt hunt me down and kill me.

i know first had what terrorists think and feel, how and why they plan their attacks.

you will never beat these terrorists unless you get new tactics.

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