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London Bombings: OPSEC Errors or Intelligence Failure?

The good people at Stratfor has just provided another insightful analysis. This one by Fred Burton asking the question whether Al Qaeda is sloppy with its operational security (OPSEC) or used unwitting bomb-carriers in the attacks.

The reason why you could ask that question is that a number of details have made the detective work easier. All the bombers were seen on one CCTV shot and all the bombers carried ID cards on them when they blew up. This made it easier to identify them.

I generally like the analysis, as I have wondered about just that earlier. But I have my own observations that might suggest a third possibility, namely that the group was only very loosely affiliated to Al Qaeda and that they therefor were 'inventing' most of the operation themselves.

Fred Burton's first thesis is that the bombers didn't know what they were about to do.

"Speaking from the standpoint of a professional who has trained operatives in the past, it makes perfect sense to me for all four bombers to be seen traveling together if they believed their purpose was to conduct a training run. For a handler, it's just easier to keep the group together in tow.

Of course, we must speculate here, but suppose the handler -- who might have been Mohammed Saddique Khan, the elder statesman of the four-man cell, or a shadowy fifth operative who may or may not have visited Britain prior to the attacks -- had called the group together under the guise of testing them."

But there is a glitch here: the bomb on Bus no. 30.

If the leader had already exploded himself, would his follower then follow, if he had gone along on a 'training tour'? Here is what AP reports about Hasib Hussain after he got on the bus:

"This young guy kept diving into this bag or whatever he had in front of his feet, and it was like he was taking a couple of grapes off a bunch of grapes, both hands were in the bag," said Richard Jones, 61, of Bracknell, west of London. "He must have done that at least every minute if not every 30 seconds."

At least that means he must have been aware of what was in the bag at that time, whether he was arming or trying to disarm it. A possibility to uphold the thesis is that Hussain was the actual leader, having seen his plot to an end. Unlikely, but this is what the Guardian says about the famed CCTV photo:

"What do we see? At first glance, the man on the left, Hasib Hussain, seems to be the leader - first to stride into the ticket office, his face the clearest. Just 18 years old, Hussain went on to explode his bomb on the number 30 bus. "

The second scenario is that Al Qaeda is just sloppy around its operational security. More likely in my opinion. This would explain the Bus as either a malfunctioning device or Hussain being ushered out of the tube before he could set his bomb off.

There are prior examples of bad traits of OPSEC, from Stratfor:

"Consider Ahmed Ressam, whose behavior as he crossed the border from Canada was so suspicious that he attracted the attention of authorities and the Millennium Plot was unearthed. Ahmad Ajaj, traveling in the company of Yousef, was stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1992 carrying a suitcase full of manuals on bomb-making techniques. The Madrid bombers all boarded the trains they blew up from the same station. Mohammed Atta left pocket litter and documents detailing the 9/11 plot behind in a rental car. And Zacarias Moussaoui applied to a training school to learn how to fly -- but not land -- airplanes. The list goes on."

But earlier Burton has underscored that Al Qaeda is very risk adverse as an organisation. And they should be even more so when mounting operations on British soil. This points to a third possibility.

What if the bombers were making things up as they went along? They would probably have needed some help to make the explosives.

"Detectives who searched el-Nashar's flat found signs that quantities of a compound called TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, had been converted into a powerful explosive, the Times of London reported."

But it would explain the faulty OPSEC. Furthermore it would fit with the current impression of Al Qaeda's modus operandi - where Bin Laden and the top echelons don't really have so much control over actual operations.

An entire fourth scenario could be that they just didn't care. This however would compromise whoever they might have been in contact with.


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