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NewScientist.com news service July 8, 2005

Massive investigation operation follows London attack

By Will Knight

Forensics and intelligence evidence will underpin efforts to find those responsible for London's worst ever terror attack.

Bombs exploded during morning rush hour on three London Underground trains and one double-decker on 7 July, killing at least 50 people and leaving hundreds more injured.

Police have begun painstakingly analysing evidence and the UK's intelligence agencies have begun searching for clues that could help trace those responsible for the attacks.

Forensic officers will search the scene of each blast for valuable evidence including traces of explosive and DNA samples. Identifying the explosives used could help investigators link the attacks to other terrorist acts and DNA could perhaps be linked to known terror suspects. Scene-of-crime investigators typically recover and preserve every piece of material before reconstructing the scene in an aircraft hanger for further analysis.

Sheer scale

Murder squad detectives, drafted in to assist Anti-Terrorist Squad officers analyse evidence, will help examine hours of CCTV footage in an effort to spot passengers carrying bags on to trains before leaving a station without their luggage. And police will also try to gather information from eye witnesses involved in each event.

But the forensic inquiry is likely to be complicated and time consuming. There are several different scenes to investigate and at least one of these scenes - the tunnel between Kings Cross and Russell Square - may be structurally unsound.

"The investigation of offences perpetrated by terrorists is invariably complex and protracted," adds Jim Fraser, president of UK's Forensic Science Society. "The sheer scale and complexity of terrorist offences frequently requires additional resources particularly if this involves multiple incidents."

Fraser adds that: "Such offences are often the outcome of long term planning by determined individuals or groups that use sophisticated methods to avoid detection and identification."

Intelligence networks

A day after the attacks, UK home secretary Charles Clarke defended the recent decision to downgrade the terror threat in London, but admitted that intelligence had failed to pick up any hint of an imminent strike.

"It certainly was a failure of intelligence in the sense that we didn't know this was coming," he said. "But by definition when you're looking for needles in haystacks you can miss the needles and the tragedy of yesterday is that we did miss the needles."

Intelligence agencies will, however, continue to follow every possible lead in an ongoing effort to locate the protagonists, or their associates, says John Pike, director of the US think tank GlobalSecurity.org.

"There are people who monitor phone calls and emails for a living and they will be going back through their records using automated tools," Pike told New Scientist. He adds more traditional intelligence sources, such as operatives working in the UK and abroad, would also be tapped for new facts.

An important clue could be the similarity between this attack and the bombings carried out by al-Qaeda in Madrid, 2004, in which 191 people were killed. In the Spanish attacks, morning rush hour trains were also targeted in a coordinated manner, but it is not yet clear whether similar explosives and trigger devices were used in this latest attack.

Unverified claim

Spanish security services have previously warned Scotland Yard that the North African wing of al-Qaeda blamed for the Madrid attacks could have links in London. And Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, who is thought to have masterminded the Madrid bombings, lived in London during the 1990s, when he might have established so-called "sleeper cells" primed to carry out future terror strikes.

Shortly after the London travel network was struck, a previously unknown Islamic group, calling itself the Group of al-Qaeda of Jihad Organisation in Europe, posted a statement to a website claiming responsibility. The claim has not been verified but investigators are taking them seriously. If the boast proves to be genuine, then tracking down those responsible for posting could provide another valuable strand to the investigation.

Even if the London bombings prove to be the work of al-Qaeda, Pike warns that, since the attacks of 11 September 2001, the organisation has become more fragmented, decentralised and potentially elusive. "It's hard to know who 'they' are any more," he says.


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