By Stanley Reed
Ever since bombs on three London Underground trains and a bus killed 56 people including the four suspected bombers on July 7, Britain has been on an emotional roller coaster. No sooner had the police identified the suspects in those attacks than four more would-be bombers struck on July 21.
Fortunately, that wave fizzled when the bombs proved duds. The police moved remarkably quickly to corral the suspects in the new case, arresting four alleged bomb carriers on July 29, including one nabbed by the Italian authorities in Rome.
Despite this "best day ever" for Britain's security services, unease still lingers in the nation's capital. The arrests, which continue on an almost daily basis, still leave many questions that need to be answered before anyone can pronounce this particular run of horror over.
For instance, were the two attacks linked and thus part of a wider conspiracy that may include other cells? According to press reports, Hamdi Isaac (also known as Hussain Osman), the suspect held in Rome, has told the Italian authorities that his group, composed of refugees from the troubled Horn of Africa, had no ties to the July 7 group, which consisted of three British-born men of Pakistani descent and one man of Jamaican origin.
But Osman, who said the July 21 attempts were intended merely to protest British policy in Iraq rather than to kill, may not have been made privy to the ties between the groups, or to the wider world of Islamic radicalism. If those dead and in jail represent mere pawns in the game of veteran masterminds, then Britain and perhaps all of Europe could be in for a long siege.
What the attacks have revealed or perhaps underlined again is that there exists in Britain and elsewhere in Europe a pool of young Muslims sufficiently alienated to make them easy prey for the recruiters of radical groups who lurk in Muslim communities. The reasons for the alienation vary. According to national statistics, British Muslims, who mostly come from the Asian subcontinent, fall at the bottom of society in measures such as unemployment and educational qualifications.
"THE ISLAMIC THING."
Joblessness among British Muslims, for instance, hovers at 15% to 22% for youths, vs. around 5% for the overall population. Many of those who do work are stuck in low-level jobs. "The number in catering is just staggering," says Steven Vertovec, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University. "We are not seeing much intergenerational social mobility."
Many of those born in Britain often grow up in inner-city ghettos, where they attend schools populated by people mostly like themselves. Members of the Muslim community say that some youths have difficulty coping with the clash between the traditional mores of Pakistan or Bangladesh and Britain's liberal sexual attitudes.
"I feel sorry for the youngsters," says Amjad Pervez, 47, who owns a food-services business in Bradford, a small city near Leeds, the home of three of the July 7 suspects. Pervez, who emigrated from Pakistan in 1969, says, "I think it's a grind children are going through -- they've got cultural baggage, they've got the Islamic thing. In every aspect of their lives they see conflict, conflict, conflict. Some of the youngsters can't take it."
"CHALLENGER TO AMERICA."
Yet economic and social alienation are far from enough to lead young men to bomb commuter trains. The latest wave of bombings should be seen as the response of a small but lethal minority of Muslims in Britain and elsewhere to what they consider the humiliation of the world Muslim community by the West and its surrogates in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinian areas, and elsewhere. Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader, serves as a role model that these young men admire.
As Saad al-Fagih, a London-based Saudi dissident and expert on radical Islamic groups, explains: "An angry Muslim does not know how to translate his anger into sophisticated action with a strategy. All he knows is a man called bin Laden is acknowledged as the real challenger to America.
"Only a person with this [bin Laden's] group can satisfy his ambitions and let him feel he had done something for the umma [community] of Islam. He looks for some means to contact this group. At the same time, the group has its own recruitment people who can reach him. Once they meet, it's all over. They will tell him what to do -- a plan with a specific action, with a specific place, and a specific time."
HOW MANY MORE?
Al Fagih thinks a senior figure in Al Qaeda gave the order for the London attacks, though the details were left up to the cells. Al Qaeda-linked groups have taken responsibility, but the authenticity of the Web messages cannot be verified.
What's certain is that no matter how direct their connection to the attacks, bin Laden and al Qaeda provided the inspiration for these two groups of young Muslims. It is hard to think that there aren't others like them thinking along similar lines.
Reed is BusinessWeek's London bureau chief
Edited by Patricia O'Connell