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A Look at Al Qaeda's Strength, Structure


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, remembering a time when people in London went to The Underground for safety.

But first, British authorities have yet to authenticate claims that the attacks on London were committed by a group calling itself the Secret Organization of al-Qaeda in Europe, but it is broadly supposed that al-Qaeda's likely to be connected to the bombings. Magnus Ranstorp directs the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He joins us today from Copenhagen.

Mr. Ranstorp, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MAGNUS RANSTORP (Director, Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence): My pleasure.

SIMON: Have you ever heard of this group?

Mr. RANSTORP: Well, there have been groups that have had similar names circled in Europe previously, but it's likely that it is an adopted name that represents an al-Qaeda-associated group.

SIMON: Now I realize we're asking you to make an assessment obviously from a difference and on a basis of incomplete reports in the press which are both early, can be premature and fragmentary, but I'm just wondering if we might ask you this week what your thinking is on the likelihood that the perpetrators of the bombing were people coming from outside the United Kingdom or people inside the United Kingdom.

Mr. RANSTORP: Well, I think that the assessment by the British anti-terrorism branch before the attack was that it would be some homegrown element's at least part of the operation. I know that one line of inquiry that they are pursuing is a Moroccan individual who had sought asylum for 16 years and who were connected to the Casablanca bombing and also connected possibly to the Madrid bombing. So that is one line that they are definitely pursuing with the help of European agencies, but also I think that British authorities are concerned that there may be either second- or third-generation of homegrown support that may have assisted in this as well.

SIMON: The reputation of British intelligence is quite high, and over I guess the past couple of years, they have announced that they have successfully been able to interrupt a couple of terrorist plots. Of course, it's often pointed out it doesn't matter if they're right a thousand times; it's the one time that something misses that obviously causes a lot of grief. But I'm wondering what kind of powers of investigation British intelligence has that might be useful now.

Mr. RANSTORP: Well, I mean, they have an integrated system that has been the beacon of European counterterrorism efforts. They have the strongest cohesive body. One of those bodies is the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center that is integrating all the information from all the agencies inside the UK and also from MI6 and also from the global war on terrorism from friendly allies from abroad. So they have that power, and they also have, of course, judicial power to be able to detain suspects for a substantial period of time and to hold some with review over an indefinite period. So they have certainly some advantages.

SIMON: Mr. Ranstorp, the group claiming responsibility for the attacks has warned that more attacks could take place, in fact, in Denmark where you are now and in Italy. Those two targets were mentioned specifically. Recognizing again that these attacks on Thursday might have just been carried out by a few people and the amount of planning is obviously to be determined, what do we know about the capacity of the larger al-Qaeda network in Europe to conduct these kinds of operations?

Mr. RANSTORP: Well, there are different assessments, but I think that if intelligence sources are claiming that there were at least 20 different networks across Europe, some are connected to the Zarqawi network, some are connected--and there's a great concern within Europe that the Iraqi conflict may have a blow-back effect, that individuals from Europe may travel down there, get the requisite expertise and then come back and may launch attacks. And they are also around 60 different radical groups that have a presence in Europe. Germany, for example, had at least 50,000 individuals that have been linked to be a foreign extremists, not necessarily terrorists but sympathizing. So there's a substantial sort of presence of al-Qaeda.

And, of course, in the investigations in Pakistan and other places, we continue to see transnational connections back into Europe. So certainly there is a capacity to undertake terrorist operations.

SIMON: Magnus Ranstorp in Copenhagen, thank you very much.

Mr. RANSTORP: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.