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Rapid Analysis: Attempted London Car Bomb Attack (Updated)

[Editor's Note: Updates as more information becomes available are at the bottom of this post.]

Analyzing the initial information publicly available on the attempted car bomb attack outside a crowded night club in downtown London, fusing past and present data creates a picture of what appears to be a failed suicide attack. Consider information shared in the initial public reportage of today's terror incident where, inside the car crashed into trash cans outside the club, police "found petrol and gas contained in several large containers, and a large number of nails. They (also) discovered a means of detonating the gas and fuel."

One witness said that door staff at the nightclub Tiger, Tiger alerted police after the car was driven into bins last night and the driver ran off.

The witness said the large silver saloon car was being driven "erratically" before the minor crash. The driver was not stopped.

And this:

DAC Clarke described how the bomb was discovered by chance when an ambulance crew, who had been at the scene for a separate incident, had noticed smoke inside the abandoned Mercedes.

'The ambulance crew saw what they thought was smoke, but we need to find out if it was smoke or vapour,' he said.

Erratic driving followed by a minor crash, with little if any observable damage to the vehicle. Yet the driver ran away. Why?

The ambulance crew, not there for the minor crash, was drawn to the car by enough smoke or vapor in the car to catch their eye from a relative distance...at 2AM. Yet, it must have been gone by the time the police got there to inspect, because they (or at least the DAC giving the briefing) could not determine which it was. Something small smoldered for a brief time. Yet the gas canisters and gasoline did not detonate.

All of the 7/7 and 7/21 bombers from last summer's al-Qaeda attacks in London were (or, in the case of 7/21, intended to be) suicide bombers. And their identities were all revealed by surveillance cameras in public space. The terrorists are not stupid and are risk averse by nature. A live suspect being tracked and potentially captured is a security risk for the entire organization, especially the local cell(s). Yet, the driver ran from the car.

Putting past and present together, here's what initially shakes out as more than plausible:

ThreatsWatch: This was most probably an attempted suicide car bombing. In a highly surveilled London area, there is more risk than reward for the larger group and cells in 'other -than-martyrdom' operations. The driver was not simply parking the car for the bomb to later detonate. He would have driven with more care to escape relatively unnoticed. The bomb, described in reports as "huge," did not detonate when the driver expected outside the Tiger, Tiger night club. Instead, the detonator smoldered. Having already attracted the attention of multiple people on the street, the bomber needed to escape before the contents of his car were discovered in his presence. He could have driven the car off, but if the bomb was going to eventually perhaps detonate, it would then not be at its target. It is one thing to be in control of a suicide mission (psychologically speaking) and quite another to drive around without control or knowledge of when one's bomb will explode. Furthermore, if smoke was filling the car, visually obscuring and perhaps even noxious, driving might have been determined difficult at best. So, the bomber fled and left the device to hopefully eventually detonate at its intended target, even if off schedule.

Unfortunately for the terrorist cell involved, there is a live human being that can now be tracked down and most likely images for public description purposes from surveillance cameras notoriously throughout London. As for the car, it was almost certainly a stolen vehicle.

Time will tell. For instance, if/when the suspect is found and killed or captured, one tell-tale sign of suicide mission intent will be if he has recent body hair stubble on his chest, arms and back. Suicide bombers are often known to shave their bodies before their martyrdom attacks.

This is obviously speculative initial analysis. There are many ways to do the math, and many figures not yet publicly (or even internally) known. Take it for what it's worth, a simple exercise in logic, trend and lessons learned.

If this proves indeed a terrorist attack, as it overwhelmingly appears now, It will be interesting to observe going forward: Will Britain make the same mistake twice?

Update: See also - Counterterrorism Blog: London Car Bomb Found, Defused

This type of car bombing plot is typical of other British Jihadist car bomb plots in the past, including both the July 2005 bomb plots, and the Dhiren Barot Jihadist group bomb plots.
--- In July 2005, a number of bombs and components, some packed with nails to cause death and maximum injury, were recovered from a car parked by the July 7 bombers at Luton station.
--- British Jihadist Dhiren Barot pleaded guilty to plotting a series of attacks, including detailed plans to explode limousines packed with gas cylinders, explosives and nails after leaving them in underground London parking garages or hotels.

Update II: Consider another potential explanation for the crash:
ThreatsWatch: A bomber seeking out the Tiger, Tiger club on a suicide mission would likely want to drive the bomb into the building, not park outside on the street, for maximum casualties inside. Another possible explanation therefor may be that the bomb did not go haywire after hitting the trash cans near the club, but well before. This might explain the "erratic" driving and stopping just short of what we are assuming as the target.

If the bomb malfunctioned before reaching its target (which in this scenario could clearly be other than the Tiger, Tiger club) and the car began to fill with choking noxious smoke while driving, the visibility and breathing may have proved so difficult that the bomber simply could drive no further to his ultimate destination, forced to abandon his malfunctioning rigged vehicle. If surveillance video exists, it would be interesting to see how soon after impact the driver exited the vehicle and if smoke was already billowing out of the opened door.

Update III: From ABC News -

"the bomb was composed of tanks of propane, butane and 125 liters of gasoline (33 U.S. gallons), roofing nails and a fuse that initial reports indicated was constructed of simple light bulb or flashbulb filaments and designed to be triggered by a mobile telephone."

Update IV: Second car bomb found "in a Mercedes apparently towed into a car park pound beneath London's Park Lane after being found illegally parked in the West End of the city."

Update V: A suspect - this from ABC News -

British police have a "crystal clear" picture of the man who drove the bomb-rigged silver Mercedes outside a London nightclub, and officials tell the Blotter on ABCNews.com he bears "a close resemblance" to a man arrested by police in connection with another bomb plot but released for lack of evidence.
Officials say the suspect had been taken into custody in connection with the case of al Qaeda operative Dhiren Barot, who was convicted of orchestrating a vehicle bomb plot involving targets in London, New York, Newark, N.J. and Washington, D.C.


In one of the post links it was stated: "designed to be triggered by a mobile telephone.”

If such was the case then it was not a suicide mission----just a planned bombing fortunately gone awry.


It is probably safe to assume that Steve's early thought on the terrorist being part of a martyrdom operation was before that data came forward. He hasn't updated the post since the cell phone news became public - at least not to offer his analysis - but I'm sure he will.

Thanks as always.

"...just a planned bombing fortunately gone awry."

Perhaps, but don't be too quick. Suicide bombs, VBIEDs or vests, are known to have remote fall-back detonation capabilities in the past. The mission commander wants ultimate control in case his 'martyr' gets second thoughts at the moment of truth.

Second, I've been wrestling with the bomber "staggering out of the car." Two things: A premature gas leak (or intentionally gassing up the cabin for detonation on arrival) and detonation failure, thus staggered exit.

Or, it is also known in the past for suicide bombers to be allowed to take drugs before the mission, particularly for potentially painful ones. This may also be the case here.

We really don't know which - if any - is the case here. But they are things to keep in mind before settling on a conclusion prematurely.

I guarantee that the British police & Intel are very, very concerned that they have potentially a 'martyr' on the loose with a death wish looking for another way to quickly earn his trip to heaven.

That's one of the biggest immediate concerns at the moment.