London Car Bomb Plot Foiled UPDATE: 2nd Found

There’s too little public information to draw many conclusions about the car bomb plot that was foiled early this morning. Given the propensity of the British authorities and/or media to cry “Wolf” about plots that often tend to turn out to be much less developed than the initial hype led us to believe, it’s best to keep one’s powder dry.

TIME’s Catherine Mayer report strikes me as having the right tone:

London Car Bomb Plot Foiled PhotoA plot to bomb central London was foiled in the early hours of this morning, not by Scotland Yard or by the security services but by one of the world’s most effective counter-terrorism agents: luck. Ambulance attendants called to treat someone taken ill in the nightspot Tiger Tiger noticed that a silver-colored Mercedes parked just outside the club had filled with smoke. They went to investigate, assuming this must be a vehicle fire.

[…]

The bomb was made safe and its constituent parts taken away for forensic analysis, but for now the facts of the case remain enveloped in a smog of speculation and confusion. Early reports that the driver had crashed the car into a trash can outside Tiger Tiger, then abandoned the vehicle, have not been confirmed by officials. Scotland Yard’s Clarke said it was too early to say who might be behind the attack, but agreed that it “resonated with previous plots.”

[…]

The British media have quoted unnamed police sources saying that the bomb could have caused “carnage” if it had detonated, but it’s still far from clear how effective it would, in fact, have been. In 2002, bombers in Bali killed 200 night-clubbers and wounded hundreds more by detonating two separate devices, one to draw curious onlookers and a second that exploded in the midst of the assembled crowd. Dr. Peter Neumann, the director of the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College, London, told TIME that, based on the limited information available about this morning’s car bomb, he didn’t think it could have brought down a building, not least because the device would have been too small. “In the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, there you had a huge truck loaded with explosives parked under the World Trade Center, so much better placed, and a much better load. And it still didn’t bring down the World Trade Center.”

Neumann is also skeptical of speculation that the bomb was the work of al-Qaeda. “You would expect them to use far more sophisticated devices,” such as the peroxide-based bombs deployed in the Madrid and London bombings and across North Africa, “which require some skill to put together.”

Time will tell, of course.

UPDATE: Then again . . . they’ve now found a second car bomb.

The first car bomb, found near Piccadilly Circus, was powerful enough to have caused “significant injury or loss of life” at a time when hundreds were in the area, British anti-terror police chief Peter Clarke said. British anti-terror police chief Peter Clarke said Friday evening that the second car was originally parked in same area, but had been towed to an impound lot. “The vehicle was found to contain very similar materials to those that had been found in the first car,” he said. “There was a considerable amount of fuel and gas canisters. As in the first vehicle, there was also a quantity of nails. This like the first device was potentially viable.”

The discoveries came just ahead of the second anniversary of the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings that killed 52 people on three London subways and a bus.

“We are currently facing the most serious and sustained threat to our security from international terrorism,” Britain’s new home secretary, Jacqui Smith, said after an emergency meeting of top officials.

Stay tuned. You may recall that, in the story of the “Little Boy Who Cried Wolf,” there ultimately was a wolf. . . .

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. In WWII, Germany’s vengeance weapons weren’t really capable of being all that destructive, but the terror they inflicted on the population was quite real and further led to changes in the allied march on to Berlin. A car bomb doesn’t have to bring down a building or kill as many people as in the terrorist attack in Bali to have the desired effect. The apparent emphasis in this article on minimizing the impact of this incident because it wasn’t potentially as big or as deadly as other terrorist bombs is bizarre.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I think it goes without saying that averting even small terrorist attacks — even if by sheer accident — is a good thing. There is some value, however, in perspective.

  3. Anthony C says:

    The reality is that most Londoners got used to this sort of thing with the Irish. I think the attitude of most people, based on intuition and speaking to friends currently in London, will be “wake me up when we get nuked or they fly a plane into the Houses of Parliament”. It’ll be pretty much business as usual. Car bombs we can handle, unless the baddies can sustain an Iraq-style optempo, which there’s no evidence they can.

    Might raise a few more questions about Iraq, but I don’t think the overall impact will be huge, unless this sort of thing becomes very regular.

  4. Michael says:

    The apparent emphasis in this article on minimizing the impact of this incident because it wasn’t potentially as big or as deadly as other terrorist bombs is bizarre.

    I didn’t read it as minimizing the incident, just noting that it doesn’t fit Al Qaeda’s profile.

  5. DC Loser says:

    Why doesn’t it fit the AQ profile? Remember that AQ is now recruiting via the internet and its cells are independently run and recruited. Therefore the level of sophistication of each cell is highly variable. The earlier cases having better explosive training and technology may be more having to do with the head start they had over their less sophisticated comrades. From where I sit, this has all the earmarks of an independent homegrown AQ cell written all over it. Remember the Heathrow plotters were supposedly using ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The authorities are now watching who is buying these substances carefully. It’s almost impossible to track bulk purchases of fuel oil, gas cylinders and nails.

  6. Michael says:

    DC Loser, I didn’t say it couldn’t be Al Qaeda. I didn’t say Al Qaeda couldn’t be changing tactics. I’m saying it doesn’t have the similarities that would have been expected if it were an Al Qaeda bomb. Again, there are very few details and nobody claiming responsibility.

  7. G.A.Phillips says:

    Well they just found another and are saying it now smeels like al qaeda.

  8. Michael says:

    Well they just found another and are saying it now smeels like al qaeda.

    Could be. If so, it means something has caused Al Qaeda to change their bomb designs, and that in itself deserves closer examination.

  9. kenny says:

    “given the propensity of the British authorities and/or media to cry “Wolf” about plots”

    Or to be more precise , given the propensity of these ‘terror plots” to be uncovered immediately after bad news for the labour government.

    So yesterday it breaks that blair has interviewed again by the police, and lo and behold yet another terror plot emerges.

    Last time blair was interviewed (and after lord levy was arrested) it was the “AQ wants to behead british soldier” plot that was suddenly uncovered.

    And then there was the ‘liquid plot’ which erupted just as the labour government was being roundly attacked from all sides over the poor support for UK troops in afghanistan.

    After a while you just assume that labour are trying to hide something.

  10. Tim says:

    kenny, take your meds man!

  11. kenny says:

    “kenny, take your meds man!”

    Why ?

    After all this is the same labour goverment that had one of its top press officers send out an email on the 11th september 2001 saying “It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury”.

    From there it’s a very small step to conjuring up news to try and hide or obscure news which “we want to bury” and of course “TERROR” plots are very easy to rustle up. All you need is evidence is some guy said “you know what we should do?”, and bingo the front pages are full.

    In the pub last night , we were talking about blair finally leaving no 10. When the topic turned to him being interviewed by the police again, my friend commented that if blair had still been in No 10 we would have a new terror plot on the news the next day. I guess brown is either just following habit or it was purely an instinctive response by the labour press machine.

  12. G.A.Phillips says:

    Kenny,

    Or to be more precise , given the propensity of these ‘terror plots” to be uncovered immediately after bad news for the labour government.

    They found this one cause they got lucky. bcause the noob terrorist was not a good driver or he was high on his gas bomb fumes.

  13. Anthony C says:

    Kenny, this is daft. Even if this is the sort of thing that Labour spin doctors would dream up – and frankly I think it’s over-egging the pudding to suggest that it is – it’s ALSO exactly the sort of timing that a terrorist group would choose. Frankly, even were I inclined to believe Brown would pull a trick like that (and I’m not – and I hasten to note that I wouldn’t vote for him) Occam’s Razor indicates that the is almost certainly exactly what it says on the tin. Apart from anything else, Blair being interviewed by the police wasn’t even leading in the news, it was the equivalent of a paragraph on page 4. On top of that, any terror attack is as likely to wreck the government as lift it up, as it guarentees negative coverage on Iraq and brings it right back into the spotlight.

    Anyway…

    It’s too early to come up with anything concrete, but it increasingly looks like this was a real Keystone Kops outfit. It looks probable that the detonator on the first car bomb malfunctioned and that the driver pulled over wildly and ran off because he thought it was about to blow up. The second car was left parked illegally and when the chaps came to tow it away, it reeked of leaking petrol. Furthermore, while they bear some superficial resemblance to the sort of things being deployed in Iraq, they are very, very crude in comparison and the terrorists appear neither to have been able to get hold of explosives nor to mix up a batch of their own, a la the 7/7 bombers. Unless further details emerge -and of course they might – it frankly doesn’t look very impressive, though it was obviously planned with a degree of political sophistication.

  14. kenny says:

    They found this one cause they got lucky. bcause the noob terrorist was not a good driver or he was high on his gas bomb fumes.

    Oh, i’m not saying this isn’t a genuine incident. I was just observing , in light of jame’s comment , about how often these things seem to occur at a moment that is politically convenient for the government.

    And of course there is a track record of the UK government having agent provocateurs inside terrorist organisations(although to be fair, even with my distaste for the current labour party & government, that’s probably going too far)

  15. John Burgess says:

    Yes, I think it’s ‘probably going too far’. Kenny’s argument would be more persuasive if he were to make a note of a Labour crisis and predict a terrorist incident (or incident discovery) rather than connecting the dots ex post facto. Labour doesn’t seem to be in much of a crisis just now. Brown’s certainly within his ‘honeymoon window’ of popularity.

    This incident, with the discovery of a second bomb, has some of the hallmarks of an AQ exercise. Multiple bombs in popular locations, while not absolute proof of AQ hands, is very suggestive.

    The choice of targets seems to have been more for show than actual effect. Haymarket is a busy place, but far less so at 0230 than at 2200, when all the plays are letting out, people are going to restaurants and clubs or looking for taxis. Real destruction could have been much greater on busy streets at earlier hours; in malls or mall parking lots; at Wembley, Arsenal, or Chelsea stadiums before or after a match; at Wimbledon that’s just getting cranked up.

    That the bombs seem to have been half-assed also fits with the ‘decentralization of AQ’ theories, pointing to home-grown bombers rather than imported bomb-making talent. So, it could be an AQ clone or wannabe.

    But those two Mercedes are going to be interesting evidence. Unless they were both stolen, they’re going to point somewhere. Even if they are stolen, the places they were stolen from could be interesting, if only pointing to a particular city. There’s likely to be forensic evidence galore in those vehicles as the ‘devices’ seem to have been hastily compiled.

    And London, the city of the watchful eye, will have those cars–and likely their drivers–on more than one camera. That’s not a ‘slam dunk’ for finding the perps, but it’s a big help.

    BTW, when the IRA set bombs, they always informed the authorities in advance of the time of detonation so that the areas could be cleared. (With a few exceptions, of course… Brighton, the Real-IRA’s bombing in Omagh, etc.) AQ hasn’t adopted that tactic anywhere yet. Were they to do so, it’d help their own PR, but that’s another matter.

  16. just me says:

    It’s too early to come up with anything concrete, but it increasingly looks like this was a real Keystone Kops outfit.

    I think this is very true, but it doesn’t make the possibilities any less dangerous or daunting.

    The reality is that this time, they got lucky, but because nothing bad happened, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bad thing. Two car bombs indicate that they intended to probably do the “first bomb to get the crowd, second bomb to kill a lot of people” method.

    Lucky for the Brits the guys who were doing the bombing weren’t so good, and the right people happened to be in the right places at the right time. Next time, they may not be so careless-and that is the real concern.

  17. Anthony C says:

    “BTW, when the IRA set bombs, they always informed the authorities in advance of the time of detonation so that the areas could be cleared.”

    Usually, rather than always. While there’s no doubt that – unlike AQ – mass casualties for mass casualties’ sake was never part of the IRA’s bombing MO, it was far from uncommon for bombs to be planted in areas where it was impractical for them to be cleared on short notice or for the call to come moments before the bomb went off. It’s an open question whether the calls were more to do with saving lives or providing a civilised front when it came to matters such as international fundraising.

    “The choice of targets seems to have been more for show than actual effect. Haymarket is a busy place, but far less so at 0230 than at 2200, when all the plays are letting out, people are going to restaurants and clubs or looking for taxis. Real destruction could have been much greater on busy streets at earlier hours”

    I think this is a fair point. However, does it not rest on a critical and possibly mistaken assumption – namely that we are assuming that the first car was meant to be detonated at or almost immediately after the moment that the driver crashed to a halt outside the nightclub?

    It seems to me that at this point, while it’s clearly a possibility, there’s actually no conclusive proof that this was the case. It seems unlikely that it was a suicide mission. Add to that the fact that it seems possible that the driver stopped the way he did and legged it because a part of the bomb malfunctioned and started spurting smoke and it seems to me that both the intended final destination and the time for detonation are actually open to question.

    Or I could be wrong – I admit I’ve taken my eye off the press coverage since this evening.

  18. John Burgess says:

    Anthony C: Sure, all of those alternatives are certainly possible. The perps could have been attempting to leave vehicles overnight, exploding them sometime during the day, though Saturdays aren’t the most packed days to find people or traffic on Haymarket.

    Perhaps it was intended for the people attending the Saturday matinée performance at the Haymarket Theatre Royal: it’s running a play based on some Vatican intrigue right now.

    There aren’t (or weren’t when I was there last) all that many clubs on Haymarket, though there are some up- and down-market restaurants, a cinema multiplex, and the theatre, of course.

    If mass casualties were the intent, then Trafalgar Sq., Leicester Sq., or Piccadilly Circus would all have been better targets. If sinners were the target, then Soho’s just a few blocks away.

  19. DC Loser says:

    I’ve been waiting for AQ to go after us in a similar way with car bombs or suicide bombers in malls or other crowded places. It’s not a question of “if” but “when.” I’m just surprised it hasn’t already happened.