Terror at Rush Hour; on the Trail: A Massive Worldwide Hunt Begins to Catch the London Killers

Article excerpt

Byline: Evan Thomas and Stryker McGuire (With Rod Nordland, Mary Acoymo, Ginanne Brownell, Emily Flynn, Rana Foroohar, Tara Pepper and William Underhill in London, Christopher Dickey and Eric Pape in Paris, John Barry, T. Trent Gegax, Mark Hosenball, Susannah Meadows and Richard Wolffe in Washington Graphic by Andrew Romano Graphic illustrations by Karl Gude)

During the Blitz, the London Underground was a refuge. Night after night, as the Luftwaffe rained bombs down on the city, whole families would descend deep into the subway system to wait for the "all clear." They would lie in bunk beds, or talk, or tell nursery rhymes, or sing songs, or even sleep. Then they would go back aboveground, return to their homes and businesses, clear up the rubble, and life would go on.

Last week, however, the London Underground was a scene of carnage, not shelter. Three terrorist bombs in the subways (a fourth blew up a bus) killed at least 49 people and wounded 700 more. In one deep tunnel, blocked by the mangled wreckage of a subway car and teeming with rats, rescuers had still not dug out all of the bodies two days after the attack. The message was clear enough to Londoners and the rest of the world: in the age of terror, there are no sanctuaries, no safe places to hide.

The July 7 bombings were the bloodiest day in England since World War II. Still, the toll of "7/7" was nothing compared with the Blitz, which claimed 20,000 civilians between 1940 and '41, as many as 1,500 in one night. "If London can survive the Blitz, it can survive four miserable events like this," said Sir Ian Blair, the London Metropolitan Police commissioner. From the early '70s to the mid-'90s, the British endured more than two decades of terrorist attacks from the Irish Republican Army (though the IRA, in contrast to Al Qaeda, usually called in a warning before setting off a bomb). After last week's attack, British pluck and phlegm were once more the order of the day. A charming child during World War II, Queen Elizabeth II, now dowdy, squat, but unmistakably regal, toured hospitals and declared: "Sadly, we in Britain have been all too familiar with acts of terror, and members of my generation... know that we have been here before. But those who perpetrate these brutal acts against innocent people should know that they will not change our way of life." Her message: Hitler tried to terrorize Londoners into submission, too, and, far from conquering Britain, he died a suicide's death in a bunker beneath Berlin.

For Americans, the echoes were more recent and less reassuring, especially when the news first broke. Maybe, many Americans were beginning to hope, the horror of 9/11 had been an aberration, radical Islam's grotesquely lucky shot in the dark, not a harbinger. There have, of course, been many terrorist bombings since 9/11, in places from Bali to Turkey to Kenya to Spain. But Americans feel a unique kinship with their British cousins, whose common heritage and language made their suffering seem close to home. After the London bombings, repressed fears surfaced, especially for city dwellers who ride subways and buses and wonder if their everyday morning commute will turn deadly.

The roots and execution of the London plot will tell us much about the nature of the terrorist threat we are facing four years after 9/11. The story of the rush-hour murders won't reveal everything, of course--by its nature terrorism is a shadowy, elusive danger, always threatening to confound our hopes and revive our fears--but the early signs suggest that Osama bin Laden's grand dreams of inflicting a colossal defeat on the West are, thankfully, far from coming true.

Intelligence and police officials in Britain and the United States were guessing last weekend that the London attack suggests a kind of low-grade metastasis of the Qaeda cancer. Al Qaeda is still out there, perhaps planning the big "spectacular"--a suitcase nuke, perhaps, or a germ attack--but the violence in London was smaller-bore, and indicates that the terrorists are finding it more difficult to duplicate the scope of the attacks of 9/11. …