The Times of London reported yesterday that senior British Counter-Terrorism officials believe a Mumbai style terrorist attack on London, may occur in early 2010. As one senior British official apparently put it, 'Mumbai is coming to London'. This suggestion of an impending attack, is at a first look, obviously a concerning one. However, when we consider the details of the report, the picture becomes a little more blurry.
Firstly, The Times suggests that the intelligence on which the British threat reporting is based, is rooted primarily on postings on an Islamist extremist Internet forum. Strike orientated terrorist cells are highly unlikely to use open Internet forums for developed attack planning. At a basic level, these forums are heavily monitored not only by Western intelligence agencies in Britain and the United States, but also, by non-governmental research groups such as SITE. Terrorists know this. Thus, when they communicate via online forums, not only are these individuals expecting to be heard by Western observers, in many cases, they are actually intending to be heard. While these forums provide an avenue for 'ideas' and strategy, they do so at a limited level and are primarily utilized for the transmission of propaganda. Certainly any postings like those mentioned by The Times, must be given attention by intelligence/law enforcement agencies. However, we should not rush to panic based judgments simply on the count of posted messages.Terrorist attacks take much more than a click of a mouse button. In the run up to last year's US presidential election, similar threats were posted online. These threats garnered significant media attention and yet ultimately, yielded no physical manifestation.Our analysis cannot stop here though.
Critically, it is worth noting that a Mumbai style attack in London would yield obvious results for a group such as Al Qa'ida. Such an attack, while likely causing only low to mid range casualties, would serve the broader and greater effect of spreading panic through central London. Thus the attack (Al Qa'ida would hope) would purvey an image of impotence on the part of the British Government, specifically, in terms of its new, inability to protect the British people. While the UK's police and military response forces are exceptionally well trained (especially in the case of British Military Counter-Terrorism forces), it would likely take a prolonged period of time for these groups to equip, deploy and ultimately lock down and destroy Al Qa'ida skirmish forces.
As a final point of analysis, it would imprudent to rule out the possibility of a Mumbai style attack in London, on the grounds that the complexity inherent in any UK operation (maintaining cover, accessing weapons etc) would be too great. Al Qa'ida's significant base of support in elements of the UK's Pakistani community, means that while a Mumbai style attack would unquestionably be extremely challenging to successfully carry out, such an attack would not by any means, be impossible.
In the end, if The Times report has any truth to it, the UK's Counter-Terrorism forces will assess the threat and any response that may or may not be needed. The British people should not spend an excess of time worrying. After all, exaggerated fear allows terrorists to achieve a measure of success without even launching attacks, the fear of an attack serves to perpetuate fear in itself