Monday, July 11, 2005

The London Attack: How They Did It

It was extremely well planned. The executions for the bombings were flawless. It was an inside job. It must be. Such a complex operation requires operatives living in London providing logistical support, finance, intelligence. The execution maybe done by outsiders but one cannot discount that the terrorists are Londoners. I my gut instinct is that it was Londoners.

The operation would take easily six months, maybe a year, to plan from the inception to completion. This terrorist operation, like all other terrorist operation went through seven distinctive phases which I will elaborate. The phases are explained from the terrorists perspective. As readers go through the phase, think of bank robberies. Successful bank robberies go through the same planning cycle.

Phase I: Broad Target Selection. At this stage, the terrorist have not chosen any target and there is no plan of any kind. At first the terrorist nominated their targets. Those initial nominations went beyond the four targets and beyond the mass transportation system. They may included tourist attractions such as museums, or governmental facility, or sporting events. Those targets were usually studied using open source information such internet, newspaper, and books. Local sympathizers or supporters are used to collect data on the targets. Several things are in consideration: symbolism, casualty rate, and vulnerability. Targets that are most vulnerable, most symbolic, and have high casualty potential are then chosen. The targets still encompass a much larger selection than four targets (perhaps 20 to 30 targets).

Phase II: Intelligence Gathering and Surveillance. The targets that were nominated in the first phase were then physically surveyed. Priorities are given to the more important ones. More in depth intelligence was conducted. This intelligence gathering and surveillance is not for execution purpose but for elimination purpose, narrowing down the most feasible targets. Items that interested the terrorists are procedure and routine of those targets. If they are government building, they include items such as delivery schedule, change of guard, opening and closing hours. If they are mass transit systems (which they eventually bombed), they would include schedules, routes, and peak hours. The next items were security measures of the nominated targets. This is critical to the terrorists’ final selection of targets. They would want to know what the normal security procedure for each location (if any), the presence of absence of guard force, the physical make-up of the location, what items are allowed to be brought in. And the most important of is the reaction to emergency from the first responders (time of respond, who will respond, how they respond).

Phase III: Specific Target Selection. After phase II, much of the harder targets such as government buildings would have been completely eliminated due to high security. The targets that are left with are the four targets that were attacked on July 7th. These targets were chosen because of the following reasons. What capacity do the terrorists have? The capacity of the terrorists had to match that of the targets. How vulnerable are the targets? If the terrorists did not intent to carry out a suicide attacks, the targets chosen must allow easy evasion and escaped post-operation.

The mass transportation systems were chosen for obvious reason. The terrorist probably did not have access to large amount of explosive material (each of the bomb was less than 10 lbs, all together less than 40 lbs of explosive). This limitation did not allow them to attack building and hard-structure which would requires more explosive. The targets are commuters who are much more vulnerable in the mass transits. The underground and buses security was accessible, allowing them to carry explosive device in backpacks undetected. And finally, the location of the attacks allowed the attackers to blend in with fleeing victims and escape.

Phase IV: Pre-Attack Surveillance and Planning. At this stage, if the actual attacks were done by outsiders, they would all arrived to London. Regardless of whether the operation itself was done by outsiders or Londoners, from that point forward, no amateurs were allowed to be involved. And operation security (secrecy) was tighten up. No one would know anything about the impending attacks except the intelligence collectors, the attackers, and perhaps the very top leadership of the terrorist’s organization.

Also at this stage, the level of expertise and commitment went up significantly. The intelligence gatherers were no longer local sympathizers but trusted and dedicated members; members that have passed the test of loyalty. The intelligence gathering was more extensive and detail than phase II. It included items such as how much time does it take for a person to walk from his seat to the exit of the underground at peak hours. How many second does the door stay open between stops? What if an attacker could not find a seat during the attack, where is the alternative place to leave his explosive laden backpack. This intelligence gathering process went all for at least several days, if not weeks, exploring all details and alternatives. The attacked team then did an intelligence assessment themselves to confirm the intelligence previously gathered by the intelligence team.

Next, experts on explosive came to build the four bombs that were used which used timing devices. The process to gather material for the bombs would be time consuming, particularly the explosive itself. If the explosive was manufactured, they need to find the all the ingredients and chemical. It must be done in manner that would not cause any suspicion. A cover story for why they purchase every ingredient must be created. If the explosive was military type, smuggling the explosive to London is an operation in itself and requires planning and execution.

After all intelligence was collected and the devices built, a detail preparatory plan was drawn for the attack such as who does what, when will the attack occur, how to communicate prior to the attack as well as after the attack. How to contact if the attack fails. A safe house was probably procured to house the attackers and the explosives, an escaped plan is studied including testing various escaped routes.

Phase V: Rehearsals: A dry run was then carried. The attackers carried a mock operation, using no explosive whatsoever. It would not be surprised to find out that prior the London attacks, there was a day where four backpacks were left by unknown people on the mass transit system. The backpacks probably contained innocent items and law enforcement probably did not think much of it

Sometime, the rehearsals were unsatisfactory. For example, their timing was off. Or the mock attack revealed problems that the team did not foresee. Then they would fine-tuned the attack. They may even went back to the drawing board and reworked their plan. They would keep doing mock attacks until they were happy with the result and were confident with the practice.

Phase VI: Action on Objectives: July 7th, 2005. Four attackers left their safe house with four backpacks for the London mass transit system. The first attacker entered the third carriage and found a seat. Before arriving at Aldgate Station, he set the timing device. At Aldgate station, he stood up, left behind his backpack, exited the train and the station.

The second attacker also left his backpack on the train and exited at King’s Cross Station. He did not find a seat, so the device was left near the door. He probably left it next to a person to create an illusion that the backpack belong to that passenger. The third attacker left his device behind at Edgware Road Station and exited.

At 0850 hours, three explosions went off. The explosions flushed all the survivors from the underground to the surface. All underground trains were out of service leaving only buses running. As people scramming to find transportation home, many scrambled on buses. The fourth attacker also entered a bus after the first three explosions. He placed his device on the floor, activated it and left at the next stop. The explosion went off at 0947, approximately 1 hour after the first three attacks. Cliff May at the Corner (via Instapundit) citing the New York Time believes that the last explosion was a mistake by the attacker.
“The bus bombing is also considered by investigators to be another clue of an amateurish attack. They say they are almost certain that the blast was a mistimed explosion caused when the bomber accidentally detonated the device as it was being taken to its intended target.”
I disagree with the New York Time and Cliff May’s assessment. The last explosion aimed at a bus filled with people who because of the discontinued service of the underground. If it was mistimed, it would have exploded before or concurrently to the first three, not an hour after. The bombs were small, less than 10 pounds. They could not be big because that they are not concealable and transportable. To compensate for the small sizes bombs, an enclosed locations (the first three) were pick to maximize the damage, and the last explosion was chosen to create a lingering effect of terror.

Phase VII: Escaped and Exploitation: Using the confusion of the attacks, the attackers melted in with other Londoners walking home. Since they no longer carried with them explosive, they were essentially free and clear. They would rallied at the safe house and broke off from there.

The last step was the leadership of the organization coming forward to claim responsibility. The statement was made in advance waiting for the successful operation. If the operation fails, which it did not, the organization would distant from the attack. In this case, the attack was successful, and an Al-Qaeda affiliation claimed responsibility. And there is every indication that it was an Al-Qaeda operation.


Blogger H2SO4 said...

Nice read, well thought out and articulate.. Quite enjoyable..

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Mixed Humor said...

Good analysis Minh...we added a link to this piece.

9:09 PM  
Blogger MaxedOutMama said...

Very logical, but highly disturbing. I have linked to it too.

Your explanation of the bus incident is the only credible one I have read.

4:43 AM  
Blogger Watcher said...

....Don't buy it Minh....
I think you are thinking too much like a professional. In the end the plan of attack in London did not have to conform to any norms of planning practice:

a./ There was no requirement to plan an extraction of the attacking force. Since all the attackers would die in the attack or be lost and clueless in the event of failure of the attack (e.g: British-born Omar Shariff; who appears to have suffered some kind of nervous collapse before being able to conduct his attack in Jerusalem and was dead at the hands of unknown assailants within twelve hours).
b./ The attack was to be conducted against soft targets in a peaceful city with an almost zero risk of interdiction by any defending force.

The only real professionalism required in this plan wa the abiltity to convince "the meat" that their sacrifice would be worthwhile and prevent them giving themselves away though poor tradecraft before the actual attack, and the abilty to construct the weapons actually used in the attack. These were of a pretty amateurish kind also. I suspect a more competent builder would have deployed fragmentation or even thermite-based weapons (all those lovely aluminium rail carriages with good forced ventilation) in the attack.

All of these factors make me suspect that in fact this was a short-planned attack. Doubtless a reasonably competent manager was in control, but I think that these attacks fall a long way short of the sophistication in planning and execution of September 11

11:56 AM  
Anonymous filipg said...

I agree with Minh, it is a good analysis. What some readers may be missing is that the supply of specialists is finite. Look to Iraq: the attacks on US forces are down and they've shifted to easier game: Iraqi population. They could not sustain the losses they had when attacking US troops. Terror is a tool, not an end in itself.

Of more worry, and getting little attention for reasons of political correctness, is that the terrorists (e.g., many of the 9/11 suiciders) were not the assume improverished and turned-to-kill by envy and hate. Instead, these were educated, relatively wealthy young men. I presume that London is relatively equipped with equally intelligent men - engineers - with a hole in their heart... What Minh presents could be functionally learned with just a read of his article by a group of such men and a similar end-result could be achievable. Local to me (NJ), a local mosque was raided not too long ago for paying for stingers for use in the US. I do not see why a terrorist-minded counterpart in London could not exploit his channels (ie. explosives, infastructure, financing) to employ such men - looking for a reason to be.

I wish wiser-that-I folks would analyze the drawing strenght that radical Islam presents. I presume it has to do with absolute rules[*]. I think the 'virgins' reward is a cheap distraction. There must be a deeper attraction, perhaps related to cultural/regional backgrounds of these men.

[*] I offer the news as of late that the Anglican church in England has been loosing its flock primarily BECAUSE it has become so accomodating and flexible. Hmmm. I buy that. Perhaps the inverse of Islam is its chief allure?

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