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U.K. Terrorism Plot Mimics Tactics in Iraq

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U.K. Terrorism Plot Mimics Tactics in Iraq

Hear Terrorism Expert Bruce Hoffman

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The explosives-filled vehicle is a tactic often likened to terrorists attacks in Iraq. British authorities averted such terrorist attacks in Britain and Scotland over the weekend. Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, Georgetown University professor of security studies, talks about the ongoing U.K. investigation with Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Britain's new prime minister says the attack on the Glasgow Airport and two others thwarted earlier in central London were carried out by people associated with al-Qaida. Seven people are now in custody and an intensive investigation is underway. To recap, on Friday, police found two cars rigged with explosives in London's theater district. Both were diffused. On Saturday, two men drove a Jeep Cherokee into the main airport terminal in Glasgow. The vehicle shattered the glass doors and burst into flames. Today, Britain remains on the highest possible terror alert.

Joining us now is Bruce Hoffman, professor of security studies at Georgetown University. Good morning.

Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Security Studies, Georgetown University): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Do you think it's clear that these attacks are linked to al-Qaida, as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said over the weekend?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Well, as Peter Clarke, Britain's top counterterrorist cop, has said, this is a very fast-moving investigation and all the pieces aren't in place yet. However, it seems a logical working assumption that al-Qaida is involved given that almost every single major terrorist plot or attack in the United Kingdom since 2001 has had some form of al-Qaida involvement. And this total now is running to about 30 or more plots or attacks. So I think it's certainly a reasonable assumption to make.

MONTAGNE: Now, British officials have also suggested that the method of these attacks, the explosive-filled vehicle, is imported from Iraq. Do you think that's what's going on?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Well, on the one hand, this is not a new tactic. Going back to 1983, the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut involved a large vehicle with explosives, also with canisters of flammable gases. But at the same time, one has to say that something of a cult of the insurgents is emerging as a result of Iraq, where terrorists elsewhere seem to be inspired to imitate or at least to emulate some of the very successful tactics that have been used against U.S. coalition or Iraqi security forces and, indeed, Iraqi civilians. And I think what we see is just the proliferation of these tactics in Iraq is just inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.

MONTAGNE: Now, none of three attacks worked as intended, thankfully. Should we assume that these attacks are the work of less sophisticated terrorists, as some analysts have suggested?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Not necessarily. What didn't succeed in these attacks appears to be the detonation devices, which is enormously complex and tricky in any kind of circumstances. But also we should remember that at least in the past, for instance, two weeks after the July 7th, 2005 bombings, there was another attempt against London transit where four devices failed to explode. People initially wrote that off as rather amateurish, especially since it didn't succeed compared to the attacks on transit and bus two weeks before.

However, it's since emerged that the ringleader of that cell, of the July 21st plots and bombs, had trained in the same al-Qaida camps in Pakistan that at least two of the four July 7th bombers had. So the level of professionalism wasn't different, it was just the competency of the individual bomb maker.

MONTAGNE: Now, U.S. officials are responding to the attacks in Britain. And let's play some tape of Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary. He was speaking yesterday on Fox.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): We have taken some precautions. You'll see some additional security measures at airports and transit points during this holiday week, but that's really a matter of prudence as opposed to a response to a specific piece of intelligence.

MONTAGNE: Again, Secretary Chertoff. And Bruce Hoffman, why isn't the U.S. raising the threat level here? Obviously, he's suggesting there's no reason, but what do you think?

Prof. HOFFMAN: In some respects, I think the comparison between the U.K. and U.S. are apples and oranges. The U.K. has had more than 30 plots that they have disrupted. We haven't had nearly that number. The sophistication of many of the operatives in the U.K. has been of a different level than we encountered in the United States. And we know, for example, that in the 1990s something on the order of 3,000 British Muslims trained in Afghanistan with al-Qaida and then came back to the U.K. We have nothing like that problem here.

At the same time, at least two of the very serious plots that unfolded in the United Kingdom in the past three years had a significant American component. In other words, they were teamed with attacks in the United States. So I think it's prudent to assume that perhaps this could be the case in these particular incidents in London and Glasgow this weekend.

MONTAGNE: Thanks for joining us.

Prof. HOFFMAN: A pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Bruce Hoffman is professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

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