Who guided the London bombers?
This is how the youngest bomber spent his last hour:

When three explosions shut down the subway system before Hasib Hussain reached his target on the Northern Line, the 18-year-old wandered in a seeming daze. He ate at a McDonald's. He went into a pharmacy. He repeatedly called his dead coconspirators' cellphones. Finally, he boarded a double-decker bus and blew it up as police sirens approached.

In the eight months since Hussain and three other suicide bombers killed 52 people on the transport system here July 7, police have reconstructed parts of the plot in minute detail. They have found that the multiple attack was cheap as well as simple. It cost less than $5,000, said Det. Supt. Peter Wickstead, the chief of an anti-terrorism finance investigation unit, at a recent conference here.

But anti-terrorism officials say the investigations of the bombings and failed follow-up attacks on July 21 have been slow and difficult. Not only are extremist networks murky and fragmented, but investigators also have run into resistance and radicalization on the street: In a recent poll of British Muslims, almost a quarter of respondents said they felt some sympathy with the motives of the subway bombers.

"The absence of hard data on 7/7 is striking," Shamit Saggar, a political science professor at the University of Sussex, said at the conference at the Royal United Services Institute think tank. "The only way we can explain that is as a significant circle of tacit support existing in that community."

Three of the four dead bombers were middle-class Britons of Pakistani origin from the northern region of Yorkshire. Investigators suspect that they got help and training from an Al Qaeda network in Pakistan that had targeted Britain before. In contrast, the imprisoned would-be bombers who on July 21 tried to blow up three trains and a bus were East African refugees and ex-convicts based in London.

Despite the timing and similarities, police have found no concrete links between the two groups, anti-terrorism officials said.

"July 7 and July 21 seem not to be related," said a British counter-terrorism official, who, like others interviewed, requested anonymity because the cases remained open. "The picture of July 21 is much fuzzier as far as travel, training and network links."

Nonetheless, a July 21 suspect did travel to Pakistan months before the attacks, British and Italian officials said. That increases the likelihood of a link because three July 7 plotters also traveled to Pakistan and are suspected of contact with a terrorism network there. Few details are available about the trip by the July 21 suspect, which was reported last week by the Sunday Times of London.

Because of laws limiting discussion of ongoing court cases, the security forces are reluctant to reveal what they know. But in recent interviews, officials did say investigators had accumulated considerable information about the dead bombers and living suspects and their activities in Britain. The problem has been determining the role of possible masterminds, trainers and other figures, officials said.

The same difficulty has beset cases such as the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, where questions persist about whether Al Qaeda figures outside Spain gave orders to several dozen suspects who are jailed or dead. Home-grown jihadis usually need some outside direction and expertise. In London as in Madrid, however, the possibility exists that there may not be much more to the attacks than meets the eye.

The assault on London's subways culminated a transformation in extremism in recent years: Operatives with British roots replaced foreigners, predominantly North Africans and Gulf Arabs, as the foremost threat here. Police were forced to "change completely our concept of operations," Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke of Scotland Yard said in a speech at the two-day conference on politics and terrorism.

Clarke is Britain's top anti-terrorism investigator. During the frenzy ignited by the July attacks, he became the public face of the police response: a bespectacled, low-key detective exuding both determination and restraint. Last week, his assessment of the enduring threat was gloomy. He said the Al Qaeda terrorist network had a 50-year strategy in its war on the West.

"We have achieved a lot in terms of our understanding what we are dealing with," Clarke said. "I think that five to 10 years to get a grip on it is hopelessly optimistic. I don't think we are anywhere near it. It's an evolving threat. It's a changing threat. It's incredibly resilient."

Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the July 7 bombings in a video featuring its second in command, Ayman Zawahiri, who is thought to be hiding in the Pakistani-Afghan borderlands. Images of Zawahiri appeared in a previous video with the defiant "martyrdom message" of Mohamed Sidique Khan, the 30-year-old former primary school teacher who led the cell.

It has been "clearly established" that Khan got training in Pakistan, which he visited in 2004 and 2005, the counterterrorism official who requested anonymity said. Bombers Shahzad Tanweer and Hussain also visited Pakistan, their families' country of origin. They allegedly were recruited by a Pakistani network that had been involved in a foiled bomb attack in London by Pakistani Britons in 2004.

In fact, Khan became known to security forces during the 2004 case, identified only as Ibrahim, a figure on the edge of the foiled plot, a British security official said. Investigators decided he was not significant enough to keep under surveillance, officials said.

The self-contained nature of Islamic terrorism cells makes it possible that the bombers themselves, most likely Khan, chose the targets and prepared the homemade explosives in an apartment bomb factory.

But questions remain: Why did they leave behind hoards of explosives in a bathtub at the safe house and in the trunk of the car they left parked north of London? Were others, perhaps an expert bomb maker, involved?

"The degree of the training Khan received is questionable," the security official said. "They left a great deal of explosive mixture, and it was so volatile. We don't know whether they had the capacity to make that. Khan was certainly the recruiter: bright, articulate, a good talker."

Whether for technical direction or mere inspiration, the bombers were in contact with Pakistan and elsewhere by phone in the final months. Police must still untangle an Al Qaeda web — one involved in previous plots against Britain — based in Pakistan, not an easy country for Western agencies to decipher. Moreover, investigators are still examining a trip that Khan made to Israel, possibly a reconnaissance mission, shortly before two Pakistani Britons carried out a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightclub in 2003.

In the July 21 subway attack in London, police have the great advantage that the five accused would-be bombers are alive and behind bars: the four whose backpack bombs failed to ignite fully and a Ghanaian who allegedly aborted his attempt. Seventeen suspects have been charged, mostly friends and relatives accused of sheltering the fugitives during a manhunt.

But nothing made public substantially alters the account in the confession of Hamdi Issac, an Ethiopian-born suspect captured in Rome and extradited to London. During his interrogation in Rome, Issac described an improvised, low-tech plot in which his group decided to pay tribute to the July 7 bombers and put together their plan and bombs in two weeks, Italian anti-terrorism officials said. Issac named an Eritrean-born exconvict, Muktar Said Ibrahim, as the recruiter and bomb maker, Italian officials said.

There are serious doubts about aspects of the story, particularly the claim that the backpacks contained a nonlethal mix intended to frighten, not kill. Although officials say they have not connected the two plots, that does not necessarily mean the cells weren't directed from afar by the same network.

The trip to Pakistan by one July 21 suspect, whose name has not been revealed, suggests that he could have received orders and instruction there. In the past, Al Qaeda has dispatched selected operatives to lead terrorist cells whose members knew little about contact with the network.

The case "is still very difficult," a former top security official said. "Was it really just emulation?"

A significant development was the arrest in December of Adel Yahya, 23, a North London man captured as he stepped off a plane from his native Ethiopia. Police charged him with conspiring with the five would-be bombers, suggesting a front-line role.

At first, it appeared that the accused bombers, four of whom came from Ethiopia, Somalia or Eritrea as youths, were products of a radical, multiethnic mosque scene in London that has little relation to Islamic networks in their war-torn homelands. Now investigators are reexamining their activities and potential ties to others.

In at least two incidents during the last year, suspected East African militants have been detected conducting reconnaissance of Western embassies in Malaysia, which is not their typical area of operation, the British counter-terrorism official who was interviewed said.

The details may remain secret until after the trial on the July 21 attacks, which could start by September.

As in Madrid, where police have named suspected leaders in court documents but not charged them, some experts believe the July 7 plot, in particular, involved skilled Al Qaeda operatives who traveled to Britain or called shots from abroad.

"I call them mystery men," said Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, which monitors terrorism. "They set up the cell, they facilitate, preparing bombs, they do everything. Then they disappear."

But British officials cautioned against the idea that they had their sights on a fugitive mastermind.

"It's dangerous to credit the plot with too much intellectual rigor," the British security official said. "The [subway] was a natural target, we knew that…. And suicide bombers don't need a lot of training."
Posted by: Dan Darling 2006-03-08