By all accounts, Friday’s two attempted car bombings in London and the aborted attack at Glasgow’s airport were designed to cause massive casualties and loss of life. The failure of the London bombs to explode (one man left a Mercedes “stumbling,” possibly overcome by petrol fumes) and the Glasgow car to do more than catch fire suggests participants whose madness is superceded only by their incompetence. Repeated calls to trigger the bombs in both London cars failed.
Unlike many Al Qaeda-inspired attacks around the world, the London bombs were set up to go off by remote control, though the Glasgow attack did involve the suicidal attempt of at least one individual who set himself alight and apparently shouted “Allah” at the crowds and police who restrained him (he is now in critical condition at a nearby hospital under armed guard). Through increased surveillance – both by police and by Muslims still jittery after 7/7 – the franchise has downgraded to a relatively large number of amateurs who are resorting to softer targets, smaller networks, and cruder, less effective weapons.
Until the Glasgow attack, it may have been easy to characterise the dumb luck of intelligence services in gathering the London forensic evidence (initially without suspects) as near conspiratorial. Arresting the two involved in Glasgow’s attack (one well charred) and parsing CCTV and other information to make subsequent arrests has changed all that. Only a few of the suspects may have been among the 1000 or so being watched (but not arrested) for potential terrorist activity, illustrating the difficulty of catching “clean skins” until a terrorism attempt was made. But it’s the “homegrown” vs. “foreign” aspect of these events that may be the focus of further attention.
Despite early reports that nearly all of those detained by Monday were recent arrivals of Middle Eastern – not British – descent, newspapers referred often to the reported “Asian” appearances of the suspects and raids in “Asian” areas of the UK, references not lost to communities implicated in the 7/7 bombings nearly 2 years ago (3 of the 4 in that attack were Britons of South Asian descent). For many of them, the rush to judgement is no surprise.
What is a surprise is that at least five of those arrested came to the UK to work as doctors in Scottish and other NHS hospitals – a far cry from the socio-economic conditions that are often cited as a key factor for alienation among Muslim youth. One of the suspects was arrested far away in Brisbane, Australia.
Although there is still a chance of domestic involvement, police did seek to calm tensions within Muslim communities. “The people we have in custody came to Scotland a short while ago to seek work,” remarked Chief Constable John Neilson at a public meeting in a Glasgow mosque. “Other than that, I can’t tell you – but I’m sure the community in Glasgow in particular will be reassured. These are not your young people.”
As a result, the focus of the response – outside of a thorough vetting of the network and infrastructure behind the London and Glasgow attacks – may eventually shift to immigration rather than homegrown radicalism. In the wake of the attempted bombings, Muslim organisations were left to issue (rather obvious) exhortations for Muslims to provide information to police where possible. The real pain, however, will be adding to the tensions about homegrown radicalisation increased pressure to curtail immigration from Muslim countries, affecting everyone from students to professionals to imported spouses (maybe not such a bad thing, that).
While this would undoubtedly be unfortunate for the thousands who want to come to the UK and other Western countries legally to contribute positively to society as countless others have, the willingness of so many immigrant doctors to be involved in these attempts will require more than simple platitudes to address. For the already troubled immigration debate, deep soul searching on all sides may be necessary.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.