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Do London Bombings Signal a New Course?

TWO WEEKS AFTER suicide bombers killed more than 50 commuters on the London subway and a bus, a near-identical attack struck that same transportation system, though the second round of bombs didn't go off as planned. The second attack seems to mark the first time that a group affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda has hit the same type of target twice within a few weeks.

That raises the question of whether the London pattern—which may even have included an intended third strike—represents a significant change of terrorist tactics.

To determine targeting patterns in major attacks, Security Management examined more than 30 major attempted and successful attacks committed by al Qaeda or a group said to be connected to al Qaeda from 1993 to today. These attacks were culled from various government documents, including the 9/11 Commission Report.

Until now, the same type of target or sector had never been hit twice in quick succession. The group's attacks on businesses, government and diplomatic facilities, and the commercial aviation system have been simultaneous or spread out, not sequential.

Before London, the shortest time between attacks on two similar targets occurred when a September 2004 bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, was followed by a December 2004 attack on the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. About five months separated an attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and a cluster of suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, three of which struck a hotel, a restaurant, and a Jewish community center.

If al Qaeda planned the July 7 and 21 attacks, as well as a third strike on the London transit system that was thwarted or aborted, then this does represent a shift in al Qaeda’s pattern of attacks, says Jeff Chapman, who has conducted hundreds of terrorist investigations. “We haven't seen this before outside of Iraq.”

Chapman adds that such sequential attacks might be leveled in the future at targets, such as transportation, that are virtually impossible to sufficiently harden. If so, it "shows that al Qaeda is learning, getting more sophisticated with its security apparatus and more ruthless, going after innocent people."

But many experts caution that there aren't enough datapoints yet to determine whether this signifies a shift in tactics. And Chapman and homeland security expert Joshua Sinai say it is dangerous to conclude categorically that al Qaeda will necessarily fall into any pattern of attacks. "In terrorism," says Sinai, "everything is possible and needs to be anticipated."