By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent
57 minutes ago
LONDON (Reuters) – The bombers who spread death and chaos across London’s transport network slipped under the radar of police and intelligence services who said there was no advance warning of the capital’s worst militant attack.
Security analysts said it was far too early to apportion blame to the intelligence community over an operation that some suspected was the work of a small, autonomous group of local militants inspired by al Qaeda.
Home Secretary Charles Clarke confirmed media reports that intelligence chiefs had reduced the threat level from al Qaeda from «severe – general» to «substantial» as recently as last month following Britain’s general election.
But he said even if the alert level had been higher, it was unlikely the bombers could have been stopped.
«At the end of the day we are looking for needles in a very large haystack, the city of London,» Clarke said.
«We’re obviously looking very, very carefully at all our intelligence to see whether anything was missed, but in fact we don’t believe anything was missed and it simply came out of the blue.»
But Anthony Glees, an intelligence specialist at Brunel University, said questions would be asked as to why the threat level was reduced shortly before Britain was due to host a Group of Eight summit of the world’s most powerful leaders.
«They did downgrade the threat even though it was objectively quite clearly a time of heightened political interest. I think questions will be asked about it,» he said.
At least 37 people were killed as explosions ripped apart three underground trains and a bus on Thursday morning, just as G8 leaders were getting down to summit business in Scotland.
Britain has reformed its security structures to wage the war on terrorism, creating a new body — the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center — to bring together the domestic, foreign and military intelligence services, the GCHQ communications interception center and the police. Spain and Australia are among countries that have adopted similar models.
In common with other European nations, British officials have been expressing increasing concern about the threat from home-grown militants, acting autonomously and without traceable links to known suspects.
Home Office Minister Hazel Blears told a conference earlier this year that the previous focus on a threat from foreign nationals had given way to awareness of a «growing engagement in terrorism from British citizens as well.»
Small cells that do not rely on financial or technical support or orders from outside are harder to intercept using the kinds of measures that authorities have emphasized since the Sept. 11 attacks, such as closer scrutiny of money transfers and tighter immigration and border controls.
«If you have people who are very prudent about contact, who communicate little, who avoid traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan, who avoid frequenting mosques which are too closely watched, those kind of people have every chance of slipping through the net,» said security analyst Claude Moniquet.
He said the type of operation carried out in London required local knowledge: «This is not something that could be done by someone who arrived from abroad a month ago. It’s clearly an attack prepared quite some time ago by people on the spot.»
It was the third recent occasion that European intelligence services had been caught by surprise, following last year’s Madrid bombings and the murder of a Dutch film-maker by a suspected Islamic radical last November.
Although most of the Madrid suspects were foreign nationals, especially from Morocco, they were living in Spain and apparently did not rely significantly on logistical support, cash or instructions from abroad.
In the Netherlands, the accused killer of film-maker Theo van Gogh was linked to a radical Islamist group, again of mainly Moroccan descent. But the cell appeared to operate as a self-contained unit, not part of a Europe-wide militant network.
«To combat the groups you either need to turn a member, which is time consuming and difficult, or penetrate the group,» said Eric Denece, head of the French Intelligence Research Center.
«The people we’re confronting have time on their side. They will try 20 times, 30 times, in 99 percent of the cases we’ll succeed in preventing their operations. But there will always be one that slips through the net.»
(Additional reporting by Jon Boyle in Paris)
By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent