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Time, of course, works to the terrorists' advantage. The other lesson underscored by the London bombings is that despite losing their command-and-control structures, the terrorists have adjusted. After Richard Reid's foiled attempt to detonate the bomb in his shoe on an American Airlines flight in December 2001, jihadists have mostly avoided hard targets such as planes and government buildings. Instead they attack nightclubs, hotels--and commuter rails. The newer terrorist network has found that even in a war zone like Afghanistan, spending a little on motorcycles and satellite phones can make killing infidels that much easier.
Bin Laden, who is incommunicado anyway, isn't required to authorize such comparatively minor maleficence but merely to inspire it. "The Old Guard is all gone," says a German security official. "We are no longer dealing with the generation [that trained in Afghanistan], a close group of activists who knew each other. We are now dealing with a generation which has kept a low profile." A French official adds that this generation is "learning without leaving"--training to become jihadists right at home, through videos and the Internet. Some radical propaganda videos are now even shot or subtitled in English so Western Muslims who don't speak Arabic can understand them.
Supervising all this is a far more informal network of radical Islamists who facilitate contacts clandestinely from Europe to the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan. "Previously, the rule always was networks were run by several jihad-hardened veterans of Bosnia, Afghanistan or Chechnya," says Denécé, a former officer in French military intelligence. "Today officials are finding groups with no foreign-trained members, and only one or two external contacts with deeper al-Qaeda roots." Cells from England to Somalia manage their own ops. Consequently, says a European-based U.S. official, "their chances are low of taking over a plane again ... But they can obviously get down into the subway system. If you make yourself a harder target, you push them to softer targets."
It's inevitable that in the wake of the London attacks, authorities in major cities will step up security measures to guard against subway bombings. But it's just as inevitable that the terrorists will shift tactics in response. There is plenty of evidence, for instance, that al-Qaeda cells are interested in getting their hands on a small amount of biological, chemical or radiological weaponry, with the intent of producing a giant death toll from a soft target. Imagine if the London bombs were filled with anthrax or sarin.
LOOK BEYOND IRAQ