News this week seemed to answer an on-going question since the terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005 that killed 52 people in London: according to the story, 7-7 was the late Osama bin Laden’s last successful attack. This judgement was gleaned from documents captured in the raid on the compound in Abbotobad, Pakistan, in which bin Laden was killed.
That’s it then. A definitive conclusion.
Well, not quite. Look closer at the story: “Some of the confidence the US officials expressed about Bin Laden's involvement in the attacks is based on analytical judgment rather than ironclad proof. Two of the officials said there was no ‘smoking gun.’” The main evidence was that Al Qa'eda had produced the martyrdom videos of two of the attackers --- the leader Mohammad Sidique Khan and his second-in-command, Shehzad Tanweer --- and that Khan and Tanweer probably attended Al Qaeda training camps. All in all, this new “revelation” appears to be overblown.
Amidst the continuing lack of certainty, the role of Al Qa'eda in the 7-7 attacks remains of vital importance. The broader significance of the attacks turns on whether the 7/7 bombers were Al Qa'eda- inspired, which almost everyone agrees that they were, Al Qa'eda-supported, Al Qa'eda-directed, Al Qa'eda-recruited and -directed, or a combination of these)? The nature of the terrorism threat, as represented by 7-7, takes on new meaning as a shift in strategy by Al Qa'eda --- not just moving from operations on a grand scale like 9-11 to smaller scale, more "practical" attacks, but also the deliberate use of citizens of the country being attacked.
There is no clear answer to this question. In 2006, the Intelligence and Security Committee report into the attacks said that the “extent of Al Qaida involvement is unclear. Khan and Tanweer may have met Al Qaida figures during visits to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” That committee’s 2009 report said that British intelligence agencies assess (i.e. they do not know for certain, but judge it is likely) that the bombers were directed in some way by elements of Al-Qa'eda based overseas.”
Various rumours and accounts have speculated about the degree of Al Qa'eda involvement in the attacks. Some have an Al Qa'eda mastermind, inside or outside the UK, directing the attacks. Another has Mohammad Sidique Khan himself as an al-Qaeda recruiter. Andy Hayman, the head of counter-terrorism with the Metropolitan Police in 2005, definitely states in his autobiography that 7/7 was an Al Qa'eda operation. He quotes the current head of the Security Service as disputing that the terrorist organization has within the UK a “semi-autonomous structured hierarchy.” Instead, “the strategic intent of the Al Qa'eda core in Pakistan is to use British nationals or residents to deliver the attacks.” Journalist Peter Bergen, both in person and in his book The Longest War, and the New America Foundation also express no doubt that 7-7 was an Al Qa'eda operation.
The answer to the question of the role of Al Qa'eda in 7/7 may ultimately lie somewhere in between the extremes of Al Qa'eda-inspired versus Al Qa'eda-recruited, -supported, and -directed. This could have involved the ideologically-committed Khan and Tanweer, desiring to do something for the cause, coming into contact with Al Qa'eda while in Pakistan, receiving training and being asked to carry out martyrdom attacks within in the UK. Indeed, the model for other plots in the UK is constructed between self-radicalised and independent versus directed by others with "tight cells of Jihadi activists swimming in a sea of like-minded individuals".
Steve Hewitt is Senior Lecturer in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham and author of Snitch: A History of the Modern Intelligence Informer and The British War on Terror: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism on the Home Front since 9/11.