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Monday, July 11, 2005

With No Leads, British Consult Allies on Blasts - New York Times

With No Leads, British Consult Allies on Blasts - New York Timesuly 11, 2005
With No Leads, British Consult Allies on Blasts
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
and DON VAN NATTA Jr.

LONDON, July 10 - British intelligence officials, frustrated by their failure to quickly crack the worst terrorist attack here since World War II, have sought help from counterparts in the United States and two dozen European allies to develop possible leads, European counterterrorism officials said Sunday.

The contacts included an extraordinary, private meeting in London on Saturday, convened by Scotland Yard and MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence agency, that brought together senior law enforcement and intelligence officials from the United States and the two dozen European countries, three participants and several others with knowledge of the session said.

European participants said they were struck by how little was known about the attacks, which hit three trains in the London Underground and a double-decker bus on Thursday.

The investigation into the coordinated bombings, which left at least 49 people dead and more than 700 wounded, is now the largest criminal inquiry in British history.

The call for help was unusual coming from Britain, which is regarded by other European countries as often having access to more and better quality intelligence because it is part of a long-established, Anglophone intelligence-sharing agreement with the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

But the two-hour session also indicated that the British officials running the complex inquiry were frustrated because they had few breaks, few leads and no suspects in the 48 hours after the attack, the most important investigative period after a terrorist bombing.

The participants said it was a kind of counterterrorism investigators' summit meeting that is almost never seen in Europe, especially just 48 hours after a terrorist attack in one country. They spoke on condition that they not be identified by name or country because of the delicacy of the investigation.

Top officials exchanged information, intelligence and expertise in an attempt to help Britain find the bombers, the participants said.

The meeting was also considered extraordinary because European countries do not often work together on complex terrorism investigations. Cooperation is complicated by differences in each country's intelligence agencies and counterterrorism police, and often-sharp differences among crime-fighting and judicial approaches. Tracking terrorism suspects also is difficult because they move freely across Europe's open borders, and finger-pointing among countries has followed terrorist strikes.

But the London meeting was a sign that most countries in Europe believe that solving the London bombings and thwarting the next attack are responsibilities shared by everyone.

"We're all under the threat of attack, and we all must work together to stop the next one," said a Europe-based senior intelligence official, whose deputy attended the meeting. "The next attack could happen outside my window."

British investigators and senior government officials, including British Home Secretary Charles Clarke, said this weekend that they were very concerned that the cell of terrorists responsible for the attacks might strike again in London. Concern also is increasing among a number of intelligence and law enforcement officials that the longer there is no progress in the inquiry, the greater the chance that another attack will occur in another European country. "A copycat attack is a big worry," one senior investigator said.

A number of European countries, including France, Belgium, Britain and Germany, are now dealing with a new wave of participants in the insurgency in Iraq, in addition to the older wave of veterans who fought in Afghanistan. Some of these young recruits return to their home countries as heroes and recruit young men to participate in attacks at home.

"Sad to say, we have known the effects of terrorism longer than others in Europe," said a senior French law enforcement official with responsibility for terrorist investigations. "London was particularly shocking because it's so close to us. We are not at all sure this is the end."

On the same day as the London attacks, the French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, said that although France did not receive a specific terrorist threat, the country still felt threatened. "A certain number of cells have been arrested lately that leads us to think that France like the other countries - no more but no less - could be threatened," Mr. Sarkozy said in an interview with France 2 television.

Investigators have still not determined whether the cell of bombers was a homegrown group of Britons who had planned the attacks in Britain, or a group of foreigners who entered Britain to carry out the attacks. Investigators have also not ruled out the possibility that the bombers were dispatched from Iraq.

British officials have been working on a separate track with Spanish explosives specialists and law enforcement and intelligence officials to determine the extent of similarities to the bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004, that killed 191 people.

After the Madrid attacks, Britain and Spain began several joint investigative initiatives - with spies on the ground, simulated exercises and intelligence-sharing, said former and current Spanish and British intelligence officials.

Spanish and British officials plan to convene another meeting on Monday to share intelligence and tactical information. "There's nothing concrete, but we're sharing hypotheses and procedures we learned from March 11," said one participant in the meeting on Saturday. "We're even looking for what hypotheses we may not yet have thought of."

Britain and its allies are working from the hypothesis that the explosives were detonated with electrical timers, investigators said. The bombs were probably not detonated with telephone calls because the depth of the Underground makes cellphone reception almost impossible. One leader of a European domestic intelligence service who attended the meeting said that the timers might have been similar to those used by demolition crews at construction sites.

While the London and Madrid bombers hit commuter trains in morning rush hour with bombs that exploded nearly simultaneously, there is one big difference: Spanish investigators got breaks that their London counterparts have not had.

Within hours of the Madrid attacks, the police discovered a van apparently used by the bombers with detonators and cassette tape recordings of the Koran. Hours later, Madrid police officers at the bombed Atocha station discovered a cellphone ringing in a sports duffel bag, attached to an unexploded bomb. The phone's alarm function, the detonating mechanism, had failed.

Through the cellphone and its chip, investigators made the first arrests only two days after the bombings. In addition, a copper-wire detonator found on the unexploded bomb matched seven copper-wire detonators found in the van.

In an interview at the time, Ignacio Astarloa, then the secretary of state for security in Spain's Interior Ministry, said the discovery of the sports bag was "a blessing." "It is the only bag planted by the terrorists that allows us to investigate something that isn't just ashes," he said.

The meeting on Saturday included considerable discussion of the frustrations in the inquiry. "They briefed us first on what they know and don't know," said a participant, the leader of a European domestic intelligence service. "We were asked to help them answer every question they have. The clear message was that there are a lot of hypotheses, some ideas, for the moment no actual concrete piece of evidence, no formal element to guide you."

For that reason, he said, "Every country is looking at every element that could have a link with Great Britain." There has been considerable discussion in European capitals and among intelligence and law enforcement services of the possible ethnic origin of the bombers.

Two participants in the meeting on Saturday said the bombers might have been North African Arabs, particularly Moroccans, as was the case in Madrid. But there was also speculation that the bombers could have tried to make the attacks resemble the Madrid bombings to throw off the investigation. "Every police and analytical service is taking that into consideration," one participant said.

Another theory held that an isolated cell with no foreign involvement but external inspiration may have been responsible. A group of Pakistanis arrested in Britain last year on suspicion of planning a terrorist act seemed to be autonomous, for example, which is a worrying trend, a participant in the meeting said.

That participant also said European services were scrutinizing the Iraqi connection to any possible culprits - who could be veterans of the insurgency who have returned to a number of European countries.

Souad Mekhennet contributed reporting for this article.

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