Twin Attacks Appear Timed to Deliver a Message

Times Staff Writer

The twin bombings Thursday in Istanbul sent a pointed message to the United States and a wide array of allies that a resurgent terrorist network retains the power to strike despite tight local security and an ongoing international crackdown.

By bombing the British Consulate and the headquarters of a Britain-based bank, the attackers served notice on Washington's chief ally in Iraq and other members of its coalition, as well as moderate Islamic countries, that cooperating with the Bush administration is risky -- and that the danger extends to the business as well as the diplomatic community.

By pulling off the attacks only five days after twin synagogue bombings in Istanbul, they also demonstrated an audacious tactical prowess. British and Turkish authorities said Thursday's attacks, designed to steal the limelight from President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London, appeared to be the work of Al Qaeda or its affiliates in an increasingly decentralized terror network.

"This is very much an attack designed to have maximum public relations impact," said Charles Heyman, a terrorism expert and editor of Jane's World Armies in Britain. "It happened just as Blair and Bush were having their press conference. The terrorists have managed to grab the headlines. They did it very cleverly. It shows they are very aware of media operations. It may have neutralized any positive press in the war on terror that Bush could have had during his visit."

Every Al Qaeda strike resonates with symbolism: target, timing, setting. Thursday's bombings revealed expert planning and multiple layers of meaning.

By hitting the consulate and local headquarters of the HSBC bank, the terrorists struck not only at Britain but at the international financial and diplomatic communities that spread Western influence in the world. Just two or three years ago, Britain seemed an unlikely Al Qaeda target because many Islamic extremists were based in London. However, that was before the Blair government became the United States' most important ally in the invasion of Iraq, analysts said.

"With the attack on Britain, one sees how Iraq now plays a central role in the mentality of terrorism," said Olivier Roy, a senior researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

The attackers appeared to be taunting the U.S. and anyone else who proclaims progress in Bush's declared war on terror.

The choice of cosmopolitan, westernized Istanbul drove home the message that an international terrorism campaign, which has escalated in the last two weeks with bombings in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, is closing in on Europe, experts said.

"They look for weak points," a Belgian investigator said. "It's more difficult to carry out an attack in London or Paris or Brussels than in Turkey. So they hit Europe in Turkey."

The two twin bombings in less than a week also hammered more directly at Turkey, a strategic NATO country that aspires to membership in the European Union. Reviled by extremists for its secularism and good relations with Israel, Turkey is high on the list of pro-Western Muslim regimes that Islamic terrorist networks have vowed to overthrow.

"Two attacks in such a short time in the same place, this is new," said a Spanish police official who has investigated Al Qaeda suspects operating in Turkey. "Either they are very confident or they are demonstrating a very strong capacity in Turkey. I think they are hitting wherever they can."

The precision and effectiveness of the attacks in Turkey surprised European investigators. They said Al Qaeda had once again displayed an ability to develop an infrastructure in a country with aggressive security forces that had managed to avoid such attacks. Turkish leaders blamed Saturday's synagogue bombings on Turkish extremists who were allegedly trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or Iran. In general, however, Turks have been notably scarce among Al Qaeda's broadly multiethnic ranks. But Turkey has become an increasingly active transit hub for Arab and North African terrorists.

Follow-up strikes are a perennial danger, and a British counter-terrorism official said British authorities believed that the threat persisted.

"We are concerned about more, about what else they might do in Turkey," the official said.

After twin suicide attacks killed 45 people, including the 12 bombers, in Casablanca in May, Moroccan police rounded up hundreds of extremists, dismantling a network that had stockpiled weapons and explosives and was planning more strikes.

In Turkey, police quickly identified the suicide bombers and made many arrests after Saturday's bombings. Nonetheless, Al Qaeda has decentralized its operations, using autonomous local cells that require little direct supervision from the network's fugitive leaders and are hard to detect, experts say.

"They are small groups that are difficult to penetrate and to detect preventively," said French expert Roy. "It's hard to say to what extent Al Qaeda's center directs such a campaign of attacks around the world. Clearly, the leaders give a general order. They function through intermediaries."

As Al Qaeda spread globally before the Sept. 11 attacks, Turkey's location as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East made it a hide-out and logistics base.

Arabs and Europeans flowed back and forth to the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya to fight the Russians, stopping in Turkey to obtain fraudulent papers or get hospital treatment for combat wounds, the Belgian investigator said. Turks also fought in Chechnya.

Foreign extremists have taken advantage of Turkey's long and porous borders, liberal visa policies and busy networks dedicated to smuggling immigrants into Europe, investigators say.

In the late 1990s, U.S. and Spanish investigators detected frequent travel to Turkey by Syrian-born leaders of a Madrid Al Qaeda cell who are charged as accomplices in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Police identified one of their associates as a Syrian operative based in Turkey who, posing as an exporter, shuttled between Europe and Afghanistan as a courier for Osama bin Laden, according to Spanish court documents. After the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan in late 2001, thousands of Al Qaeda fighters fled to Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, European police say.

Last year, operatives dispatched by Abu Musab Zarqawi -- an Al Qaeda chief who has moved between Iran and Iraq -- traveled through Turkey intent on launching attacks in Western Europe with primitive chemical and biological weapons, according to the British official.

"I'm not surprised by the attacks in Istanbul because Al Qaeda has had a presence in Turkey and they have taken advantage of it," the Spanish police official said. "But in all the cases we saw, there were no Turks. They were mostly Arabs living in Turkey or passing through."

Turkey has spawned several extremist groups, and European analysts say Turkish intelligence must find out quickly the extent to which Al Qaeda has infiltrated them.

"The Turks have lost the intelligence picture on this organization," British terrorism expert Heyman said. "The problem is you may have one or two well-trained terrorists who move into a local group and add value. It isn't easy to detect."

Thursday's message from the terrorists to the West is clear, according to Heyman.

"The message is: You can put 14,000 police around Bush and Blair, but we can still damage you," he said. "It's almost as if the drumbeat of the attacks is getting louder. I would suspect because the tempo is increasing that we might see something else somewhere in the world in the next couple of days."

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