LONDON (Reuters) - Radical Islamists may be behind a London car bomb packed with petrol, nails and gas canisters that police defused on Friday, but it is too early to point the finger for certain, security sources and analysts said.
Some said the nature of the device and the details to emerge so far — including reports that witnesses had seen the car driven ‘erratically’ — were at odds with al Qaeda’s usual mode of operation, which involves disciplined operatives staging multiple, simultaneous attacks.
“Numerically speaking, al Qaeda is a strong possibility,” one security source said, in a reference to the estimated 1,600 Islamist militants in Britain whom MI5 says it is tracking.
“But it just is too early to attribute (responsibility) specifically,” the source told Reuters. “It would be wrong and short-sighted to rule out domestic options as well. Obviously there are various extremist groups out there too.”
Dissident Northern Irish republicans might fall into that category, but security analysts saw these as less likely suspects.
“I have very serious doubts it could be the IRA or even a splinter group of the IRA because the IRA’s been successful in negotiating power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Why revert back to a bombing campaign? It’s counter-productive,” said Bob Ayers of the Chatham House think-tank.
A police source told Reuters the bomb did not bear the hallmarks of al Qaeda, but that its involvement was certainly not ruled out.
Scotland Yard said the alarm was raised by an ambulance crew, attending an incident in a nearby nightclub, who thought they saw smoke inside the car. Experts said this could indicate the device had been abandoned after becoming unstable.
Peter Neumann of King’s College said if Islamists were responsible, they may turn out to be self-taught individuals rather than highly trained al Qaeda cadres.
“If this is some sort of al Qaeda-related thing, it looks very basic, to be honest,” he said. “It doesn’t look like the sort of quite sophisticated device they would be using. It looks more like 1970s IRA to me.”
He added: “If it turns out to be an Islamist-inspired attack, I would probably guess it has been carried out by so-called ‘self-starters’.”
Britain’s terrorism threat level has been set at severe since last August, meaning “an attack is highly likely”. Four young British Muslim men blew themselves up, killing 52 people, in an attack on London’s transport network on July 7, 2005.
David Claridge, managing director of consultancy Janusian Security Risk Management, said authorities’ chief worry now would be the possibility of more bombs to come.
“The primary concern at this stage is that it’s the start of a campaign, or it’s intended to be one of a number of devices,” he said. “It would be somewhat surprising, if we go with the al Qaeda-connected hypothesis, if this was the only device.”
Police said they were deploying extra patrols in key areas across London in response to the bomb, discovered only hours after new prime minister, Gordon Brown, unveiled his cabinet line-up.
Security is likely to be tightened for events like the Wimbledon tennis championship, now under way, and a big Live Earth concert in the capital on July 7.
Police and security sources said they had had no advance intelligence.
“This probably comes as a great shock to them. They discovered this by accident,” Neumann said. “This shows there are people they have no idea about, and they are coming from nowhere.”
Additional reporting by Michael Holden