The MetroWest Daily News

Lessons learned from London

By Ilana Freedman / Local Columnist

Friday, July 15, 2005

They were the ultimate ‘sleepers’. At least two of them were British born and bred, home grown products of British schooling and culture. All were British citizens. They lived in British suburbia. They were well educated and middle class. They were all of Pakistani origin, although only one was born there. They all fit in and no one suspected them. At the time of this writing, three of them have been officially identified.

Twenty-two-year-old Shahzad Tanweer was an avid cricket buff. He played every week with his mates and his friend Azzy Mohammed called him “a sweet lad”.

Nineteen year old Hasib Hussain lived in the multicultural community of Holbeck, where he was known for his sense of humor, his pale blue contact lenses, and his penchant for flirting.

Thirty-year-old Mohammed Sidique Khan worked with disabled children in a youth center and was the father of an eight-month-old daughter. His wife, Hasina, was pregnant with their second child.

They came from the city of Leeds. They entered London’s King’s Cross station and were caught on closed circuit cameras laughing together only minutes before they separated and set out on the final leg of their deadly mission.

It is puzzling that in an event that was apparently carefully planned and designed to go like clockwork, only three bombs went off in the Underground (the British word for what we call the subway), while the fourth exploded on the upper deck of one of London’s famous double-decker buses, nearly an hour after the others. That was untidy. There is a terrible irony that survivors of the first blasts boarded that bus to get to the hospital for treatment, but I doubt that it was part of the plan.

I believe instead that all the bombs were intended to go off in the Underground. It seems likely that the bomb carried by Hasib Hussain malfunctioned and didn’t detonate. So he made the steep and dirty climb from the deep tunnels of the Underground and, along with other survivors, boarded the Number 30 bus. He was seen anxiously fiddling with the contents of his bag before it exploded.

It is doubtful that the four men worked alone. Terrorist cells generally work in teams with a leader to command the operation, experts to build the bombs and handle the logistics, and others to sacrifice themselves. Coordination is paramount. The sites are well vetted and the operation is carefully rehearsed. In this case, they used a military type of explosive known as RDX, a component of the explosives found in the Madrid bombing - not stuff used by amateurs.

Once again, life has come to challenge our closely held beliefs and shaken our confidence that ‘it can’t happen here.’ It has brought world events a little closer to home.

Can we learn anything from this deadly attack 5,000 miles and an ocean away? In fact, there is much we can learn.

We can first learn to acknowledge that we have a problem, that what happened in London could just as easily have happened here.

There is good reason to believe that it may. Experts tell us that it is only a matter of time before America is attacked again. They tell us that there are those living among us who want to do us harm. So we have a choice. We can listen to the warnings and take steps to prepare ourselves. Or we can ignore the warnings and continue to live in our sleepy bubble where endings are designed in Hollywood, in the hope that time will prove us right.

But in a battle in which the enemy’s view of long range planning encompasses eternity, time is not on our side, so our choice should be clear. We need to wake up. Now.

Can we learn anything from London? Yes, we can learn that in spite of our most fervent wishes to the contrary, this threat is not going away. A war has been declared on us, and its warriors are so determined to carry out its global vision that death is not an obstacle. We must call it by its proper name and recognize the danger that it represents.

We can learn that the target is the common man, that there are no innocent bystanders, that it is the bystander - the person who just happens to be there - who is the target.

We can learn that these attacks against the West are not spontaneous actions by desperate individuals, but well-planned operations by thoughtful, careful tacticians. The planners and perpetrators are visible - they move among us as they prepare themselves - long before they carry out the attack.

So we must learn to be watchful and observant. We can learn that the best way to protect ourselves is to learn what we must know - the signs of suspicious behavior and the willingness to call law enforcement when something is not right. While the police cannot be everywhere, the people can be and we can - and must - learn to be the eyes and ears of the first responders. With a little luck, we might be able to stop such an attack before it happens.

We can also learn from the courage of the British people who face this latest act of cowardly terrorism with a stalwart determination not to be cowed. We cannot live as a free people if we live in fear. On the contrary, we must show by the way we live our lives, that we will not deliver to the terrorists another victory by disrupting the freedoms we cherish. That is the greatest lesson of all.

(Ilana Freedman is a specialist in counter-terrorism and Managing Partner of Gerard Group International. She welcomes your comments and questions at