July 07, 2005

Are al-Qaeda's Operational Capabilities Eroding?

If you had polled 100 guys on the Street yesterday along the lines that there will be a major series of coordinated terror bombings in London tomorrow, dozens of people will perish and hundreds will be wounded--so as to constitute the bloodiest day in London since WWII--how many of these Wall Street pros would have predicted the Dow would actually have gone up?

Not many, I'd wager. Maybe zero. Yes, part of the reason stocks rallied through the day (futures were relatively dismal pre-market open) was doubtless because of factors like those Mario Gabelli points out in the linked Bloomberg article (the underlying resilience of the earnings picture, for instance). But does one sense that the market might also, just maybe, be reacting to al-Qaeda's diminished capability to exact mass casualty terrorism on the scale of a 9/11 (at least, fingers crossed, to date)? Madrid was quite deadly, of course (193 fatalities if memory serves) but no 9/11. Ditto Bali. Now London, it appears, might turn out to have caused fewer than 50 dead (again, fingers crossed as we await final figures)--roughly on par with the Istanbul attacks.

This is still a tragedy of major proportions by any standard--dozens of civilian lives brutally snuffed out in a horrific mass murder in one of the world's great cities. But is it just me, or does one feel that the explosives used by al-Qaeda couldn't have been of the strength of those employed in Madrid? (Or perhaps today's attacks were the work of some less sophisticated spin-off, copy-cat outfit posing as the real al-Q? Which, if true, might go some way to debunking my thesis as a commenter points out, though I respond here). As anyone who has ridden in the London tube well knows, people are stuffed into the cars like sardines. Yet despite this, thank god, it appears there were many survivors indeed. How powerful could these explosives have been? There may also have been a lack of sophistication in this attack. Witness the double-decker bus. I am reading only two died, probably at least in part because the detonation was on the upper level of the bus--seemingly an error on the part of the terrorist--as one would surmise blowing up the bottom part of the bus would likely result in more killed (still, the toll may rise and the exact circumstances of the bus attack are yet to be determined). Regardless, don't you think that, for a Big Bang style attack in London--a major world and financial capital and home to the so hated Bush Poodle Tony--don't you think al-Qaeda would have put to use the very best explosives it had at its disposal? Given all the logistical effort involved in setting up a series of well sequenced attacks like this--wouldn't al-Qaeda have done, if it could, its very evil best to make sure the most potent explosives were available so as to kill hundreds, not dozens? I'm not a munitions or explosives expert, and I really put this out for comment rather than as anything close to some dispositive statement. And news reports are, of course, still quite sketchy. So consider this a speculative thought raised for debate.

But still, and these caveats aside, might not the markets' muted reaction be born at least partly of a sense that al-Qaeda, while not suffering due to the risible flypaper argument, might nevertheless be under immense pressure born of denial of a safe state sanctuary in Afghanistan (residual neo-Talibs and al-Qaeda there must constantly confront Seals and such, after all, rather than the occasional pin-prick cruise missile), better coordination of intelligence services and money flows between and among actors like the U.S. and, yes, Saudi and France, and even its greater isolation in the Arab world due to the nihilistic grotesqueries its Zarqawi affiliate visits daily on myriad Iraqis? What do commenters think?

P.S.: This is not to sound any triumphalist notes. Not even close. These attacks today were deadly, and sobering, and deeply tragic. And I fear that, in the future, an event that exceeds the horrific toll of 9/11 might just be inevitable (the reportedly narrowly avoided Amman chemical attacks, for instance, give me real fear on this score). But I do think it is silly to avoid analyzing whether al-Qaeda might not be a much weaker organization than it was on September 11th, 2001. It's at least a fair question. And if the evidence does suggest they are weaker (which it likely, all told, does)--this is due to the policies and strong action on the part of, er, certain governments--not just dumb sheer luck.

UPDATE: Fourteen updates (and counting)! Is that a record? More seriously, I think the concern expressed in said fourteenth update is arguably legitimate and worthy of some consideration. But I don't think "multiple smaller attacks" would be viewed by the UBL's of the world as more effective than massive 'spectaculars', all told, so that I would see a move towards more frequent and smaller attacks being born more out of necessity than volitional, freely exercised, strategic decision.

MORE: I certainly didn't mean to evoke a Brit Hume moment here. Apologies if it came off that way Dan.

Posted by Gregory at July 7, 2005 11:17 PM | TrackBack (58)

This attack also appears to have lacked the numerology component present in the 911 attack and the Madrid 311 attack. Possibly a personal UBL signature. Unless 7/7 has some meaning that I'm missing.

Posted by: Doppler at July 8, 2005 12:02 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well I certainly don't see any Palestinians in the street rejoicing in Jihad or any dictators (a la Hussein) celebrating either as they did after 9/11. Is that because they tire of pointless butchery or are they unimpressed by the spectacle?

Posted by: peterargus at July 8, 2005 12:03 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't think the attack or the market reaction support your thesis. Remember that Al Queda is now a franchising organization, providing funds, training and support to regional or otherwise collaborative terror groups. Slower sales at one McDonalds does not necessarily mean that the whole chain is suffering. Al Queda could be plotting one or more major devastating attacks on Western targets while it simultaneously supports smaller group attacks. I don't know. Others who more closely follow Al Queda can likely provide evidence that better supports or refutes your thesis, but the events in London only justify one conclusion, and that is that terrorism remains a real and potent threat.

So what explains the Dow reaction? My guess is that the early declines were anticipating much worse casualty rates than later reports indicated. As it became clear that this was not an attack anywhere near the scale of 9/11, the markets corrected and the rebound continued to push beyond the opening average. And, as always, other market factors may have spurred buying.

A stretch: There may be some recognition by the market that conventional bombings, as horrible as they are, have little strategic weight. Quite simply, they kill and injure some people and make lots of news but the human and economic impact is more akin to a bad day of traffic accidents than a global event. I'm skeptical the street is that sophisticated. But it is important for policymakers to distinguish between terrorism that is just murder and terrorism that is a national emergency.

Posted by: POTUS B at July 8, 2005 12:15 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

potus b: some fair points there but the fact that casualties were less than the market anticipated is linked to the issue of al Q's operational capabilities no? also, would al Q really have subcontracted out such a high profile London opp to a sub that couldn't do the job as well as they could if, say, the real al-Q had waited a bit longer? i doubt it. after all, only nyc beats london on a psychological level (save maybe L.A. as it's the 'other' Great Satan biggie on opposing coast) trumping the likes of istanbul, madrid, casablanca, bali. Best to land your best blows when you have a chance there, i'd think.

Posted by: greg at July 8, 2005 12:23 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

But still, and these caveats aside, might not the markets' muted reaction be born at least partly of a sense that al-Qaeda, while not suffering due to the risible flypaper argument, might nevertheless be under immense pressure born of denial of a safe state sanctuary in Afghanistan (residual neo-Talibs and al-Qaeda there must constantly confront Seals and such, after all, rather than the occasional pin-prick cruise missile), better coordination of intelligence services and money flows between and among actors like the U.S. and, yes, Saudi and France, and even its greater isolation in the Arab world due to the nihilistic grotesqueries its Zarqawi affiliate visits daily on myriad Iraqis? What do commenters think?

no, I don't think it had any impact on the markets today. I seriously doubt that people were thinking along those lines --- although some of the market rebound may have been attributable to the fact that the news, while still horrible by late afternoon, was not as bad as much of the initial reporting would have lead one to believe. But I consider you a smart guy, Greg.....and you weren't thinking in those terms until after the markets closed. I see no reason to assume that "the market" is smarter than you at this point :)

That being said, your points may have a longer term positive impact on the markets, especially if this is shown to be a genuine "al Qaeda" attack. (On the other hand, it could have a long term negative impact if it was done by people who were merely "al Qaeda sympathizers" by raising the level of uncertainty in the markets. )

Posted by: p.lukasiak at July 8, 2005 12:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It seems possible that the inferior explosives were not due to al Qaeda's capacity eroding, but to superior British security. Might be harder to smuggle or acquire good explosives in the UK. Maybe they did the best they could for a target that has clearly been in the sights for some time.

Posted by: Zena at July 8, 2005 01:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We don't know yet for sure which group was responsible for the attacks. Perhaps bin Laden ordered it and al-Qaeda or an al-Qaeda affiliate carried it out. If so I would agree with you, Greg, that it argues that GWOT is having a significant impact on al-Qaeda's ability to wage terror on the West. On the other hand, is it not just as possible that the attacks were carried out by some hitherto unknown, independent group nominally allied to al-Qaeda or the Jihadist agenda? Hopefully forensics and CCTV will shed some light on things in the very near future.

I hear a lot of the terror experts talking about how the attacks demonstrated a sophisticated organizational capability. To my admittedly non-expert eye, as somebody who rides the Metro in DC every day and is therefore directly interested in the question, it doesn't seem like it would be that hard at all to carry out these kinds of attacks. In fact, might not the relative weakness of the explosives employed and the light number of casualties argue for this being the work of an "amateur" terrorist group or cell?

The larger point I want to make is that the central question is not just about al-Qaeda, it's about Jihadism in general and what we can or cannot do to eliminate it. If this isn't the handiwork of al-Qaeda, it would seem that we are losing ground.

Posted by: Glenn Olsen at July 8, 2005 02:59 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We may have a better handle on this subject a few days from now. I had wondered early on about the small number of reported fatalities coupled with reports of large explosions. Possible factors could include the use of weaker explosives, or explosives inexpertly placed. They could also include the use of smaller bombs than the ones used in Madrid, required because of tighter surveillance in London. The timing of the bombings -- rather late in the rush hour -- construction of the subway cars and stations, and the amount of flammable material around the sites of the explosions would also influence how deadly these bombings could be.

I don't have a comment on al Qaeda's operational capabilities other than to note that this is the first large terrorist act our Islamist friends have been able to pull off in Britain. That suggests some new capability, though how large or durable it is may be doubted. On the other hand 37 people is rather light for a group known for its bloodlust, and I suppose it could be that the al Qaeda types who could have created a more deadly scenario are most of them dead, or in Cuba. Or tangled up in the rat's nest of Islamist politics in Pakistan, or trying to start a sectarian civil war in Iraq. In a week or so we may know enough to come to some tentative conclusions, whereas now we can only speculate.

Posted by: JEB at July 8, 2005 04:02 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The market is about optimism. The market fell more than 100 points as the first reports came in, but then rebounded and closed up 32. Was this because the market was optimistic that damage from the attack would be limited, or was the market responding to news that the price of crude oil had dropped for the second day and that supplies were up? My guess is that the price of oil, if it had spiked over $64 per barrel, would have driven the market to a greater loss than the few dead dozen bodies smoldering in London's subway system.

As to diminished capabilities, there is no reasonable method to determine this from the information available to us mere mortals. It might possibly be the case that Al Queda's capabilities have been severely diminished, but it might also be the case that we're on the leading edge of a tsunami of bombings. If I had to guess, I would say that the possibility of a pending wave of bombings is fairly remote, but I base this opinion on the fact that so little has been done to protect America's transportational and industrial infrastructure, and to seal our borders, that the powers running the show must know something we don't. Of course...one has to take note of the implied irony here.

Posted by: James Emerson at July 8, 2005 04:24 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

james the reason oil dipped was b/c the london attacks spurred fears of a global econ slowdown, ie less need for energy sources like oil, leading to supply fears being somewhat mitigated, leading to oil prices heading south. the point being that the rally was not caused by oil prices going down, in my view.

Posted by: greg at July 8, 2005 04:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Possibilities for fewer victims

1. luck

2. place architecture geometry

3. incompetence or bad planning

4. not strong explosives for some reason.

Posted by: lucklucky at July 8, 2005 04:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


You raise a good question. But there are really two variables here, not just one. The first is the ability of terrorists to employ particular weapons. The second is the capability of the weapons available to be employed. It is the latter that is worrisome. There may be a limit to what skilled terrorists can do with conventional explosives. But it would hardly matter if the perpetrators are relatively less skillful, if they are skillful enough to detonate a nuclear warhead or release a synthesized killer virus. The London tragedy underlines what could happen if perpetrators are able to obtain such weapons.

Posted by: David Billington at July 8, 2005 04:46 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg -- UK authorities several months ago broke up another terrorist ring that had put several TONS of ammonium nitrate in storage areas near Heathrow IIRC. So the Security Services have been aggressive as much as they can to act against potential terrorists.

However, several French judges who under their system hold police investigative powers have been critical of the Brits being unable to move decisively against folks acting around the periphery of terrorism but with no solid criminal evidence. Their view was the the French system was superior because they merely deported to home countries as terrorists those around radical Islamic circles and didn't care what happened to them when they got home. They would be ruthless in protecting France internally and had little concern for human rights activists who for various ideological reasons ignored their actions anyway (I assume suppression of press coverage is part of their strategy).

Note: several UK politicians had recently bemoaned the loss of civil liberties to combat terrorism in the UK, and the "Power of Nightmares" which is entered in Cannes has straight out denied that terrorism is even a problem.

So I would say internally in the UK there remains considerable debate about how far to go (or even to go anywhere at all) in combatting terrorism by surveillance, detention (several potential terrorists held indefinitely by Blair were released by agitation by human rights activists) or deportation. This is also a debate we will inevitably have in the US (we have according the FBI a dangerous terrorist ring in Lodi CA with Pakistani immigrants tied to Jihadists in Pakistan). I'm not sure that the lamentable loss of life will have any affect at all on the debate internally in the UK, which will of course in turn affect how capable terrorists are in the UK.

More to the point I would not discount the danger of Al Qaeda. This was timed to coincide with the G-8 summit, picked a target that was essentially stripped of security (which was moved north to Gleneagles and Edinborough), was calculated to happen in the early morning and max out news coverage, aimed at public opinion in the West, constructed to maximize casualties of innocent civilians, and most importantly of all, executed. The terrorists, whoever they are, felt they were able to go ahead with their assault and would not suffer on balance negatively for their various political goals.

[It is rumored, and not confirmed, that one terrorist had been released from Gitmo. If so, disastrous for our current "catch and release" policy akin to our handling of child molesters and serious criminals].

Al Qaeda is dangerous because the Islamic Community does not actively and openly condemn them. You have at best tepid words from folks like Galloway or Red Ken who act on the fringes of the Islamic Community but are not of it. No Imam and Islamic Organization came to the aid of the victims. They have complained instead of discrimination. Contrast to that of the Nisei who imprisoned WRONGFULLY in camps volunteered for action in WWII and were the most decorated US soldiers. SOMEONE knew that these folks were serious Islamists who were up to no good, and did nothing. They didn't just turn invisible.

Co-ordinated attacks, nearly simultaenously, in civilian areas that were lightly defended? The next attack is likely to be imaginative, even worse, and with all the hallmarks of Al Qaeda preparation, surprise, and horrific casualties. Recall the Cole was followed by 9/11.

How bad things get I would argue is how much latitude that Iran and Pakistan give Al Qaeda. Both countries seem to tolerate elements of the organization in their countries, as long as the profiles are low and there are no comebacks to regime elements. If that changes look out for some horrific events.

Posted by: Jim Rockford at July 8, 2005 05:35 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

There is one simple reason why the stock market ignored the attacks (after a brief nervous period): No new information, and markets only move on new information. There was nothing new about an attack on the London subway, such an attack was a likely scenario, and a question of when, not how. Whatever effect it will have on stocks (if any), it had been already priced in.


Posted by: apex at July 8, 2005 10:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

When it comes to conventional weapons, I don't think the size of the explosive is as important as how well the attack is planned to maximize secondary effect casualties. Consider that a massive conventional explosive failed to bring down the WTC in 1993 yet the weapons used in 9/11 were pretty low firepower -- boxcutters -- and achieved massive secondary effects. The London bombers chose a target that offered greater psychological potential (by attacking something so many Londoners use every day) but not great secondary damage. This is because the tube contains the explosive and is non-flammable.

Consider if the bombs were instead detonated inside or next to a complex with lots of wood and paper to burn, perhaps a bunch of fuel oil, and thousands of people trapped with few exits. A bad nightclub fire typically kills 200-300 people (remember Bali).

As to Greg's point, I do believe their is broader evidence that Al Queda is disrupted in some ways. I certainly hope so. But I still don't agree that this attack is evidence of such weakness. In a franchise approach, Al Queda can let a thousand attacks bloom and focus on the overall campaign.

Posted by: POTUS B at July 8, 2005 03:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think it's too easy to get hung up on the "size matters" approach as a means of judging success or failure. I can think of any number of disastrous terrorist attacks that would cause few or no direct fatalities at all. The fact is that this is the worst terrorist attack in London's and England's history - topped only by Lockerbie, which technically happened in Scotland. I think the timing was the significant point here - it totally overshadowed the G8 meeting. I think, Greg, you're too quick to make assumptions about how Al Qaeda measures its successes and failures - we don't actually have any data to make judgements on that, we just project.

The big point that is being missed is that this attack was a "hit-the-hole" operation - ie they deliberately targetted points peripheral to the City of London/West End that are more heavily surveilled. It seems like they exploited the holes caused by the Kings Cross refurbishment - and this suggests to me a dangerous level of counter-counter-terrorism savvy ( I think this was an extremely clever, sophisticated and worrying attack as it suggests that they intend to strike again ).

It also looks like these were not suicide bomb attacks, which suggests that there is an "active service unit" on the loose, plus a competent bomb-maker. I can't rule out the possibility that they are going to take a leaf out of the old IRA mainland campaign playbook, and won't have learnt some lessons from the Madrid aftermath - so don't assume it's over yet.

The explosives issue is moot - it's damned hard to obtain in the UK, so there's no comfort from that angle. Apparently the bombs used were quite small, which partly accounts for the lower level of casualties than one might have expected. But, if you wanted to do the mass casualty thing, anyone who lives in London could tell you where and when for a suicide bomber(s).

The fact that at least 13 people are now reported dead on the bus should not be downplayed - I'm afraid that reality, once again, trumps wishful thinking on that score.

Frankly, who cares if the stock market didn't fall - this is an echo of the Fox news presenter stroking his chin and seeing a buying opportunity; for most of us in London it ain't about that money thing. That said - it's not going to change our lives; but that was never the point of the attack.

As regards some of the earlier comments: the attack has been roundly condemned by a variety of Islamic institutions in the UK.

Posted by: dan at July 8, 2005 06:39 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Honey, that is good coffee... er analysis. Dan's take is world class analysis in my book. News reporters, take note. Also, I think it further undercuts Greg's theory that the attack is an indicator of weakness by Al Queda.

Posted by: POTUS B at July 8, 2005 08:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

there are likely folks on the loose - are they going to try another attack, make a run for it, or go to ground? Presumably UK security is looking for any conceivable suspects as we speak. Madrid resulted in AQ cells being rounded up, as did Casablanca. How much effort goes into the recruitment and training of a 10 or 12 man cell? Can they afford to spend them to kill 70 civilians?

They hit a hole - well yeah, so? The whole was placing small bombs, in the tube, and killing maybe 70. More folks died in Pennsylvania, on 9/11. London can take this indefinitely, and the West as a whole can take the level of attacks we've been seeing, indefinitely. Its hard to see how they win with this.

Posted by: liberalhawk at July 8, 2005 08:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Whilst any conceivable suspect is being chased up as I write - this was so out of left field for the security services here that we're into the pool of the completely unknown suspects on this one; I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that this was a pure clean-skin operation - there may even be dynamics at play that we've never encountered before or have forgotten about.

My guess is that this is not a traditional Al Qaeda cell - some kind of hybrid emerging - mostly UK based/UK native, but someone parachuted in from Europe possibly - they may well have morphed into a new form that will resist identification for a while. I hope I'm wrong.

Unlike Madrid and Casablanca - it doesn't look at this stage that they made any mistakes at all.

Sure, we can take it more or less indefinitely - but we'd rather not have to. The big problem is that it's not about "winning" or "losing".

Posted by: dan at July 8, 2005 09:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Gosh, Dan - How intractable. Thank god you were able to find something to give POTUS B hope.

You're right, of course: Sounds like we better start profiling for internment. Thanks for the recommendation.

Now where's all that heady Gitmo critique gone to? I'm having a hard time spotting it lately...

Posted by: Tommy G at July 9, 2005 01:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

No mistakes? Dan, I thought you were there. I understand that two devices that failed to explode were found. I suppose these could be clever plants intended to throw off the investigation, but that is the stuff of novels. There is a strong possibility that these will show the nature of the bombs, the kinds of explosives, may possibly lead to the source of the explosives, and might even have some fingerprints or other biological clues to the makers.

These were back pack bombs left on the trains and the bus. While the timing was coordinated, that is a matter of setting the detonators. I think that before we characterize this attack as highly sophisticated, we should see where the evidence leads. I have a lot of confidence in the people who investigate these matters. We shall see.


Posted by: Michael Pecherer at July 9, 2005 03:54 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


The additional bombs were rumored, and those rumors have been quashed.

And these weren't "backpack bombs", (the Madrid backpacks each contained about 22 lbs of explosives) but much smaller "package" bombs (10 lbs of explosives) that were apparently left on the subways.

Dan's theories appears to be correct at this point, at least according to the New York Times. And if that theory holds up, then the "this had little or nothing to do with Iraq" proposition looks even more tenuous than before.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at July 9, 2005 12:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I may be mistaken, but my recollection is that plastic explosives, which I assume were used here (reasonable, but not certain assumption) have the same density as sugar and hence 10 pounds would be about the size of a ten pound bag of sugar. I really wasn't thinking about the distinction between a backpack and a package, but was focusing on the portability of the device. Having ridden the tube lots of times, I recall that there are plenty of places under seats etc. where such a package could be left. I suppose that we should be grateful that the charge wasn't shaped as it could have been directed up and down the axis of the cars.

I have been following the news reasonably carefully and I didn't see that the "two unexploded devices" rumor had not materialized.
That having been said, it is often true that when a "package" of explosives is detonated, some portions do not go off as they are propelled away from the detonation by the force of the explosion. A considerable amount of this type of explosive is tagged so that the source, at least the manufacturer can be identified. So, with luck, there will be both residue and unexploded material. I think they will get the perpetrators or at least identify them.

Incidentally, I have been installing a high tech cabinet system and we use a lot of wingnuts. Quite passive and with no opinions. I appreciate the quality of recent dialogue.


Posted by: Michael Pecherer at July 9, 2005 07:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I just searched the web to determine the status of the "two unexploded device" issue and as of late yesterday, it was alive and well. Scotland Yard will neither confirm or deny the story. I work in the glass is half full world and certainly hope that the story is true.


Posted by: Michael Pecherer at July 9, 2005 07:33 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"The fact that at least 13 people are now reported dead on the bus should not be downplayed - I'm afraid that reality, once again, trumps wishful thinking on that score."

Unless, of course, the bus seats 80. In which case it doesn't seem like it was very full. Tres sophisticated, that one.


But hey, keep hope alive, brother.

Posted by: Tommy G at July 10, 2005 02:11 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I made the distinction between "backpack" bombs and "packages" because of the topic at hand, in which the specific methodology used by the terrorists in London (and whether it was identical to that in Spain) was a relevant consideration.

Re: the unexploded bombs.... The Spanish attack included three bombs that were found that had not exploded --- and those bombs were detonated under controlled conditions at the sight by Spanish authorities. There have been no reports of such "controlled denotations" in Britain.

Keep in mind that there was sustained reporting of seven bombs going off (not to mention the reports of a terrorist being shot at some "wharf" whose name escapes me.) In instances such as this, when there have been a multitude of inaccurate reports, it is (IMHO) best to rely on what has been established as fact --- and what one would expect to have been established by this time. Under that premise, I think that if there had been unexploded bombs found, we would have had that confirmed by this point.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at July 10, 2005 03:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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