LONDON — From the moment that emergency workers spotted the bomb-laden car a week ago in London's crowded West End, it was clear that for the fourth straight year — and third straight summer — this city was being readied for a major terrorist attack.
Yet England isn't the Great Satan to al Qaida extremists. Terrorism experts all agree that for al Qaida operatives and sympathizers, the preferred villain is the United States.
So why do attacks keep happening here? And why, since the horror of 9-11, has America avoided another assault?
Karl-Heinz Kamp, the security policy coordinator at Germany's prestigious Konrad Adenauer research center, said it was easy to understand why.
"The U.S. has a historical advantage; America is still the land of opportunity to the whole world. The people moving there believe the American dream of social mobility," he said. "In Europe, we've historically treated our immigrants as hired help, and waited for them to finish the work they arrived for and go home."
Bob Ayers, a security and terrorism expert with London's Chatham House, a foreign-policy research center, thinks that immigrants to the U.S. actually become Americans, giving the United States a huge advantage in avoiding homegrown al Qaida terrorists. Europeans encourage immigrants to retain their native cultures, causing them to be ostracized more readily.
"The Islamic population in the United States is better assimilated into the general population, whereas here, in Germany, in France, they're very much on the outside looking in," he said. "When people get disaffected, sadly, there's not much loyalty to country in that sort of situation."
Experts, noting that success against terrorism can be very temporary, agree that there are other reasons.
The United States is geographically more separate from the Middle East, the home of Islamic fundamentalism. Beyond that, especially since 9-11, the U.S. has cracked down on both travel and new-resident visas, making it hard for terrorists from outside to get into the country.
Magnus Ranstorp, the chief scientist at the Swedish Defense College, said that U.S. efforts to track down everything involved in terrorism, particularly funding, had made it very difficult to operate in America.
"The United States is so difficult to crack, they have to have established operatives living inside the country to be effective," he said. "To date, they haven't shown themselves. The truth is, while it's not the al Qaida Great Satan, Europe is a much easier place to move around."
Yet experts agree that British security services are very professional, and, as Ayers noted, "getting better and better at what they do with all the practice they've had since July 2005," when suicide bombers hit London's transit system.
The list of thwarted attacks in England is impressive.
Last month, British police admitted to spot-checking gasoline and chemical tanker trucks entering London as part of a continuing "day-to-day effort to disrupt, deter and prevent terrorism." And on Friday, a Bolton man was sentenced to nine years for keeping a "terror library" on his computer, much of it downloaded from a password-protected al Qaida Web site.
The major conspiracies in England, however, began with a fertilizer-bomb plot uncovered in spring 2004 to detonate low-tech bombs at a shopping center, sports venue and nightclub, among other places. Five men were sentenced to life in prison two months ago.
On July 7, 2005, four suicide bombers — three on subway trains and one on a double-decker bus — killed 52 commuters in the deadliest terrorist attack in British history. Two weeks later, an attack by five others failed when their backpack bombs didn't detonate. A London jury is deliberating the suspects' fates.
Last summer, security forces said they'd uncovered a plan to build bombs from liquids taken onto planes in order to blow up trans-Atlantic jetliners. Fifteen people have been charged with terrorist offenses in that case.
And, of course, the attacks last weekend, in which police found and deactivated two car bombs before two men in a flaming Jeep Cherokee loaded with gas and gasoline canisters smashed into the airport check-in area in Glasgow, Scotland.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007