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Terror plot brings sense of déjà vu

By Henry Schuster
CNN
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Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.

LONDON, England (CNN) -- It is déjà vu all over again, to quote a famous line.

The police cordons are up. The forensics teams are combing through houses. Parents and neighbors are saying they can't understand -- that these young men allegedly involved in the airplane bombing plot are nice boys who would never do something like this.

The counterterrorism folks are pointing toward al Qaeda. The police say they are working with community leaders. Muslim community leaders are rightfully saying those arrested are innocent until proven guilty (and at this point, no one has even been charged).

Radical Muslims, pointing to a botched arrest that led to a shooting in another supposed terror case recently, are casting doubts on the legitimacy of the arrests, calling them another attack on British Muslims.

We've been here before, just thirteen months ago, after four young British-born Muslims killed 52 people and wounded hundreds of others in their suicide attacks on London's subway and bus system.

Commuters on London's Underground were stranded last time. This time it is chaos and meltdown at the airports.

But for all the sense of déjà vu, the dénouement was different.

This time, the press conferences by the politicians and policemen were to talk about arrests, not the aftermath of an atrocity as it was after the July 7th bombings last year.

This time, they say, they got there first.

Homegrown or not

The July 7 London subway bombers were British-born. That sent shivers through Britain -- homegrown terror, it was said, not the work of al Qaeda, but of sympathizers born and bred in the UK.

But the truth turns out to be more complicated. A recent video from al Qaeda reveals that two of the subway bombers not only went to Pakistan, but actually received explosives training and direction from al Qaeda's senior leaders.

Most, if not all, of those arrested in this alleged plot were also born in Britain.

But a Pakistani connection has also emerged in the alleged plane plot. Arrests were made in Pakistan and in at least one instance, there was a family tie - one brother picked up in Pakistan while the other was arrested in Britain.

Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation called Pakistan "the finishing school" for Islamic extremists plotting events in the United Kingdom.

Paul Cruickshank of the NYU Center for Law and Security said, "Pakistan is the new Afghanistan for al Qaeda. The crucial thing is that individuals involved with al Qaeda are now in Pakistan. That savoir faire, that knowledge is now in Pakistan. And it has been speculated now that the people involved in this current plot in London were also able to take advantage of that."

Terror experts say Pakistan is where al Qaeda's top leaders are believed to be and where their taped messages to the world originate, including the one by Osama bin Laden earlier this year warning of new attacks.

"They are in the planning stages. And you will see them in the heart of your land, as soon as planning is complete," bin Laden said in his latest tape.

The anger

Two months ago, a CNN crew went to a meeting of radical Muslim groups in Walthamstow - that's the neighborhood in east London that has seen the most arrests in the latest alleged plot.

The subject of the meeting was 7/7, and the rhetoric was heated.

"Muslims in this country are living under siege, and Muslims outside this country are living under siege," said one speaker.

Another speaker, a young man named Abu Ratif, who is an office manager by day, was blunt in attacking British and American foreign policy. "This war on terrorism is a crusader war. They used this pretext of a war on terror and launched against Iraq," he said.

When 9/11 was mentioned, members of the audience began to chant "Allahu Akbar," Arabic for "God is great."

The anger about foreign policy is something that these young men and their opponents within the British Muslim community agree on.

Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the former head of the Muslim Council of Britain, denounces the violence of those plotting and committing terrorist attacks and the rhetoric of these extremists.

But he agrees with them on one subject. "Where there is a concurrence of the views is the issues of injustices in terms of the foreign policy. When they talk about the invasion of Iraq, when they talk about the invasion of Afghanistan. The acts of repression against the Lebanese and the current invasion," Sacranie said.

The tipping point

The extremist Muslim movement in Britain may be the Petri dish where terror cells such as last year's London bombers flourish.

But there is a difference between a meeting in Walthamstow and a cell willing to carry out a bombing plot.

Dr. Marc Sageman, the author of "Understanding Terror Networks," has been tracking terror plots and looking for commonalities among their authors.

He said that any number of people get together at a given time and vent their anger and frustration, either in person or over the Internet. That doesn't necessarily or even usually lead to any action.

What seems to be a theme among various cells, he said, is that the young men engaged in some sort of other group activity, something like paintball or whitewater rafting (as in the case of the 7/7 bombers).

Once they get used to acting as a team, he said, there is less distance to be traveled towards becoming an operational group.

That's one of the things he will be looking at as he studies the latest alleged plot for instances of déjà vu.


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