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Timers Used in Blasts, Police Say; Parallels to Madrid Are Found

New York Times | July 8 2005

Investigators searching for clues in the attacks here said Thursday that the three bombs used in the subway apparently were detonated by timers, not suicide bombers, and that a fourth device may have been intended for a target other than the city bus that it destroyed.

Senior police officials said they had not received a message claiming responsibility for the attacks from any group, and had made no arrests. But officials immediately drew parallels between the London bombings and the ones that struck commuter trains in Madrid 16 months ago, which were carried out by a Qaeda-inspired cell.

By Thursday night, there were far more questions than answers confronting Scotland Yard. One official said none of the scores of suspected terrorists being watched closely in England appeared to be involved.

Police and intelligence officials acknowledged that they were taken completely by surprise by the coordinated bombings, even though they had been anticipating a terrorist attack for years.

The officials said there was no warning or even a hint that an attack was imminent among the blizzard of intelligence accumulated in recent days by the Metropolitan Police and by MI5, the domestic intelligence services.

"There was no intelligence in our possession that these attacks were going to take place today," said Brian Paddick, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. "We were given no warning from any organization that this was going to happen."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, senior police officials have warned that a large-scale terror attack in Britain was not a matter of if but when, a prediction repeated by a senior police official late last month.

The Joint Terrorist Analysis Center even reduced the threat level of a terrorist attack from "severe-general" to "substantial" early last month. There are seven levels to the security scale, with severe-general the third most severe and substantial the fourth.

The threat levels are not made public, but they reflect the intelligence on potential attacks and help officials to make decisions about staff levels. The alert level was not raised to coincide with the opening of the Group of 8 summit meeting in Scotland, officials said.

Mr. Paddick and other police officials denied that the lower ranking affected the level of the emergency response to the bombings on Thursday. He also rejected the suggestion that the ranking reflected a conclusion that the terrorist threat had eased here.

"We felt it was appropriate, bearing in mind all the intelligence that we were in possession of," he said. "We are content that the security system was appropriate, notwithstanding the G-8 summit that was happening in Scotland."

Michael Mates, a senior member of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, said, "There was certainly a heightened awareness this week, although it's likely that resources were a bit more focused on the G-8 summit."

Upon his return to London on Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed that the authorities would mount "the most intense police and security investigation to bring those responsible to justice."

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the explosions bore "the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda-related attack," but police officials stopped short of assigning any blame to a particular group.

A group calling itself the Secret Organization of Al Qaeda in Europe announced on a Web site that it was responsible for the bombings. The announcement also threatened Italy and Denmark, which have provided troops to the American-led coalition fighting in Iraq.

The authenticity of the message could not be confirmed, and several experts said they strongly doubted that it was authentic.

American intelligence officials said they had begun a detailed review of data gathered in recent weeks to search for possible clues. "Everybody's going back and looking over their reporting to see if we overlooked anything or failed to share it," one senior intelligence official said.

Counterterrorism officials in London said they were still trying to determine the type of explosives that were used. One official speculated that the No. 30 bus whose roof was blown off at 9:47 a.m. in Bloomsbury was demolished accidentally by a suicide bomber. But another theory gaining momentum was that the bomb exploded prematurely as a bomber was carrying it to an intended target, several American and British counterterrorism officials said.

The officials said that the three subway bombs appeared to have been detonated by timers, not cellphones or other remote triggers. The bombs on the trains were believed to be package bombs and are believed to have been left by the attackers who fled before they went off.

Officials refused to confirm or deny reports that two unexploded package bombs were recovered from trains. A senior American intelligence official said the British had conducted "at least one controlled explosion" of a suspicious package found after the attacks, but he said he could not confirm that the package was another bomb.

The bombings in Madrid and London were separated by 16 months, and the ones in Madrid were set off by cell phones. But the attacks bear eerie similarities and grim lessons for counterterrorism officials.

"Madrid carried terror to the heart of Europe, but we never believed we would be a lonely, unique case," Jorge Dezcallar, who was the head of Spain's foreign intelligence service at the time of the Madrid attacks, said in a telephone interview. "We just had the bad luck of being chosen as the first target, but not the last. London, like Madrid, proves how vulnerable we are."

Like Madrid, the attacks on London were aimed not at symbols of power like Big Ben or Westminster Abbey but at the mundane: ordinary workers making their way to work at the busiest time of the day. In Madrid, 191 people were killed by the 10 bombs that ripped through four commuter trains during the morning rush hour.

The effect in both cities was to paralyze the ordinary workings of the city. British authorities announced that every inch of every subway train in London would be examined to insure that no more explosives had been planted, just as the Spanish authorities examined every commuter train.

"The explosions were designed to elicit panic among the people," Gen. Hamidou Laanigri, Morocco's chief of security, said in a telephone interview. "That is always the logic of terrorism: to get the maximum attention and impact."

Another similarity is that politics may have played a role in the timing. Thursday was the first day of the Group of 8 talks, led by Mr. Blair at Gleneagles, near Edinburgh. The bombings in Madrid came three days ahead of a close national election.

Both Spain and Britain sent troops to aid the American-led war in Iraq and the military attack in Afghanistan, although it is not known whether support for American foreign policies played a role in the London attack.

British and Spanish intelligence services are operating on the assumption that a network with allegiance to Al Qaeda, either Arabs or one of the emerging Pakistani groups in Europe, was responsible for the London attacks, several intelligence officials said.

"It is still too early to definitively say who carried out these attacks," said Matt Levitt, a former F.B.I. agent and now a senior fellow and director of terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But as the investigation into the London bombings proceeds, authorities should not be surprised if the evidence reveals a more critical link to the Madrid attacks."

Senior counterterrorism officials say Al Qaeda had evolved from a structured, hierarchical group to a decentralized organization that relies on small independent groups to carry out "Al Qaeda-inspired attacks."

"There have been a lot of attempts" in London, said Baltasar Garzón, a Spanish judge who has investigated Al Qaeda for years. "And in this case, they finally hit some of the easiest targets with these trains. Their only real obstacle to this kind of action is getting the explosives. Once they have them, it's very easy to attack targets like Sunday trains."

Mr. Mates, of the Intelligence and Security Committee, said it had been only a matter of time before a coordinated attack struck London. He said the authorities had thwarted at least three coordinated attacks in London since 9/11. "We've caught and prevented those who were trying to get through and stopped them," he said.

Britain has considerable experience investigating bombs and identifying those responsible, based on years of attacks in London and in Northern Ireland by the Irish Republican Army.

Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Osama bin Laden and other groups have threatened to attack Britain in retaliation for its support of the United States. Last April, Mr. bin Laden demanded that Britain and other American allies pull out of Iraq by July 15, 2004. The deadline passed without incident.

Counterterrorism officials have said they worried that the prime target was the 142-year-old Underground, the world's busiest subway system, which ferries three million people each day. The subway and most public streets are monitored by a vast network of closed-circuit television cameras, whose images were being reviewed Thursday by investigators.

Officials said they were confident that the forensic investigation collected at the four sites would yield clues that might help them identify and arrest those responsible for the attacks. They also hoped to recover DNA samples from bombs and body fragments. All those arrested in Britain must provide DNA samples even if they do not face criminal charges.

Don Van Natta Jr. reported from London for this article and Elaine Sciolino from Paris. Reporting was contributed by David Johnston, David E. Sanger and Scott Shane from Washington, Stephen Grey from London, Tim Golden from New York and Souad Mekhennetfrom Frankfurt.

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