Britain's Burst of Terror

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Video image of a burning car which crashed into Glasgow Airport, June 30, 2007. Police said two people were arrested.

Two foiled car bombings in central London. A Jeep Cherokee slamming into the arrivals terminal at the Glasgow airport and bursting into flame. In two days, Britain has seen two cities darkened by terrorism. Glasgow police said last night that there were enough similarities between the Scottish attack and the London car bombs that the incidents had to be linked. If so, who might be behind them?

Two people are in custody in the Glasgow incident, both of whom jumped out of the burning jeep. One is in critical condition, suffering from severe burns. (He apparently had a "suspect" device on his body, the discovery of which then required a partial evacuation of the hospital where he had been taken to.) Britain remains on highest alert, with security forces vigilant for more potential attacks.

Though authorities are still tight-lipped on details as investigations into the Glasgow and London events pick up speed, their proximity in time and growing number may be indicative of one thing: the al-Qaeda-inspired fondness of jihadists to coordinate strikes in a short space of time to produce a siege mentality among the public. Nevertheless, the general consensus among security experts in Britain and Europe is that the technology involved is amateurish and the strategy ham-handed. "In a world with very efficient explosives and lots of recipes for home-made explosives available, using gas cans and nails would suggest a very modest degree of technical ability," notes one veteran French counter-terrorism official, referring to the 60 liters of gasoline, commercially-sold canisters of cooking gas, and large quantity of nails packed into the two Mercedes found by police in London before their deadly cargo could be detonated. He adds that store-bought gas cylinders used as charges packed within nails acting as shrapnel upon detonation was the technique favored during the 1995-96 bombing campaign in France by Algeria's radical Armed Islamic Group — the first time jihadist terror struck Europe. "Use of the nails and the size of the explosion that would have occurred makes it clear the intent was very definitely to kill and maim," the French official says. "But the method takes you all the way back to 1995. There have to be reasons for that."

One probable explanation, another European intelligence official offers, is that the plotters fit the profile of what is thought to be Europe's most rapidly proliferating kind of extremist: the individuals or small groups of ordinary, European-born and -raised Islamists whose sudden radicalization and embrace of jihadist violence takes place mostly online, without much or any contact or direction from established extremist organizations known to police. The insulated, surreptitious environment that evolution takes place in makes the so-called "home-grown jihadist" almost impossible for authorities to identify as a threat when they go into plot mode. Because this European intelligence official says he knows British counterparts "weren't anticipating or suspecting any impending terrorist activity, and were taken completely by surprise by this", he and other experts expect the foiled attack will be uncovered as the work of self-styled, home-grown extremists.

Indeed, there are echoes of a previous home-grown plot in this week's events in London. Last year, a British-born Muslim convert named Dhiren Barot was sentenced to 40 years in jail for plotting attacks on the U.K. A 39-page list of possible targets and methods that Barot prepared for his al-Qaeda contacts included a plot he dubbed the Gas Limos Project. This proposed using propane gas cylinders and fuel to turn stretch limos into mobile bombs that could then be left in parking lots underneath key buildings.

Despite their al Qaeda sympathies, such self-taught jihadists aren't getting the kind of hands-on training and direction in the techniques and planning of attacks that earlier generation of al-Qaeda affiliated radicals did. Consequently, their ability to procure powerful explosives and successfully execute massive strikes is far more limited. That's an additional reason some experts believe the London plotters were quite probably self-schooled, and relied on less sophisticated techniques identified from earlier, successful attacks. "Numerically speaking, the largest threat today comes from our home-grown radicals," says the European intelligence officer. "If you're talking about the gravest threat — the prospect of a very large, deadly attack being staged and successfully executed — then we're most worried about very skilled groups being transplanted here from elsewhere, notably north Africa. The London plot doesn't fit that kind of bill. It could have been terrible, but there's an amateurish feel to it." With reporting by Catherine Mayer/London