Fear Factor

7 minute read

Gema Perez and her boyfriend Oscar Martínez were sitting in her parents’ house watching the news at about 9 p.m. last Saturday night when they heard the massive explosion. “We were afraid and we cried,” Pérez says. “We immediately thought it was terrorism.” Looking out the window Pérez saw her neighbors in Leganés, a working-class suburb 12.5 km southwest of central Madrid, screaming and running away from the source of the blast. A block away from the Pérez’s red-brick house, a bomb had blown the front and back off a five-story apartment building. According to Spain’s Interior Minister Angel Acebes, the bomb went off as police stormed the building to arrest three men suspected of involvement in the March 11 Madrid train attacks. One eyewitness said shots were fired and the men shouted in Arabic before blowing themselves up, killing an antiterrorist police officer and wounding 11 others, some seriously. “We never thought something like this could happen here,” Pérez says.

But the grim reality Europeans faced last week was that terrorist strikes can happen anytime, anywhere. Since the Madrid bombing, talk of terror has gone mainstream. Parents warn their children about how to escape from trains, or not to take public transportation at all; senior politicians debate how inevitable an attack has become. In Britain, 700 police swooped down on 24 addresses around London last week, arresting nine men and discovering in a self-storage warehouse nearly 500 kg of ammonium nitrate fertilizer — up to twice the amount in the bomb that killed 200 in Bali in October 2002. There was relief in the Spanish and British capitals that the security services seemed to have their hands around at least part of the problem. But it was terrifying that, sprinkled through suburban neighborhoods, were people allegedly plotting to blow up their neighbors.

In Madrid, Acebes said the men who blew themselves up in Leganés were of North African origin. Pedro Blasquez, the manager of the building in which the suspects died, said two men had rented the flat about a week ago. They were in their twenties and nondescript but didn’t seem to have any furniture or luggage. “It was strange,” Blasquez says. “They didn’t move anything in.” Earlier in the week, Spanish investigators identified a Tunisian man, Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, as “leader and coordinator” of the operation that led to the Madrid train blasts. On Friday, a Spanish railway worker spotted what turned out to be a bomb containing about 12 kg of explosives alongside a high-speed rail line 60 km south of Madrid. Spanish officials said it contained the same type of explosive material as that used in the Madrid attacks.

The London terror suspects had kept a low profile, too. They blended in completely: mechanics and caterers, fans of cricket and Manchester United, three teenagers, most in their early twenties. An added source of worry is that most, possibly all, of their families came from Pakistan, which so far has not contributed many foot soldiers to al-Qaeda operations in Europe. Officials and experts take that as evidence that a new front in the terror war may be opening — and because approximately three-quarters of British Muslims have roots in Pakistan and its neighbors, it could be a big one. Security agencies had been monitoring this group for months, apparently alerted by some of its members’ contacts with Pakistan. Two are said to have attended training camps there run by Kashmiri militants. Authorities said they managed to infiltrate the gang, and though no al-Qaeda links have been proved, an official said, “the logic of previous attacks suggests a likelihood of overseas links.”

All over Europe, security forces were intensifying their campaign against terror. In Istanbul, police arrested 37 suspected members of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, a Marxist group on the U.S. and E.U. terror lists. Though it is not doctrinally close to al-Qaeda, experts think the group has been goaded into planning more grandiose attacks by al-Qaeda’s success. Sixteen other alleged members were caught in coordinated raids in Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. In Italy, police launched a nationwide “preventive” sweep late Friday, taking 90 mostly Moroccans into custody. And prosecutors talked publicly about a small but significant development in their anti-jihadist efforts: their first turncoat. Riadh Jelassi, 33, was sentenced to jail for 31/2 years, and wrote prosecutors last September saying he would sing to avoid deportation to his native Tunisia. In extensive interrogations, he has described plots to drive suicide truck bombs into the 404 Not Found

nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) Milan headquarters of the carabinieri, as well as the Milan airport and train station. “It’s a leak from inside that little by little can grow,” says Milan antiterror prosecutor Elio Ramondini.

On Dunstable Road, the heart of the vibrant Pakistani community in Luton, an industrial town 48 km north of London, the perplexities of finding a terrorist needle in the haystack of a long-settled, law-abiding group of immigrants are manifest. Nearby are four houses the police searched as part of their raids. Muslim elders are disgusted by terror. “Our younger generation is going astray,” says Anwar Khan, a retired university lecturer, “getting brainwashed” by the siren song of jihad. The causes are familiar: poor and segregated education, discrimination, youth unemployment (in Luton it stands at 22%, twice the national rate), teens’ yearning for belonging and purpose — and a belief shared by many of their parents that Muslims are being persecuted in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Palestine and Iraq. “A lot of young people I talk to say: If Blair and Bush can forget about international law in Iraq, why should we care about British law?” says Yasin Rehman, information secretary for the Luton Council of Mosques. “A lot of young people don’t have a sense that this is really their country.”

A few hundred meters away, Sayful Islam proves Rehman’s point. A year ago he was a government revenue officer; now, sporting a windbreaker with a “worldwide jihad” logo, he organizes full-time for al-Muhajiroun, a group that endorses the goals of Osama bin Laden. Well-spoken, highly intelligent, he says he doesn’t know the people arrested last week: “Maybe they have the same ideas as us, but every Muslim would.” He says it is contrary to the Koran for British Muslims to bomb in Britain, but foreigners may do so. “It’s allowed in Islam. Even if my own family was killed, I would say it’s the will of Allah.”

His is a tiny movement with a gift for self-promotion, but it has material to work with: a recent ICM poll found that 13% of British Muslims surveyed said further terror attacks on the U.S. would be justified. More moderate Muslims realize they’re in a fight for the soul of their religion, and whatever their frustrations with Blair and Bush, last week’s arrests caused them to shift up a gear. In Luton, where a letter from the Muslim Council of Britain to imams calling for cooperation with police was being widely discussed, one conservative young Muslim said he and his friends were talking to potential al-Muhajiroun recruits, trying to show them its understanding of Islam was false. And Anwar Khan is working to start a center for Muslim parents and children to come together to talk through hard questions, “to actually educate them, to repay this country by organizing ourselves to be loving people according to Islam.”

No doubt MI5 will have agents listening in at the meetings from time to time. But Khan is right that good intelligence is a stopgap, not a solution. “You can jail people who have already become terrorists, but there’s always a new generation. If we can fix the whole environment, one extremist won’t have any influence at all.”

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