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Reporter's notebook: The London bombings

By Henry Schuster

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those

July 21 bombing
London police no longer believe the July 7 and July 21 bombings are directly linked.





Acts of terror

LONDON (CNN) -- In a month of covering the London bombings, perhaps the most extraordinary moment for me took place at a news conference.

We were in Birmingham, just hours after the arrest of Yasin Hassan Omar, one of the suspects in the July 21 bombings.

The police had called a news conference just across the road from where Omar had been captured, in the early hours of July 27. Not that they were going to tell us anything about the arrest or confirm Omar's name; that would come later, from Scotland Yard.

Instead, this was another exercise in community policing. In the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart, two local Muslim leaders were brought out to speak about how important it was to keep the community calm and that no one was being targeted.

Going off message

Only someone forgot to give Mohammad Naseem the script. Naseem, the chairman of Birmingham's Central Mosque, started out by talking about how important it was to remain united in the fight against terrorism.

Then Naseem, who was asked to speak because he's considered a moderate Muslim leader in England's second largest city, went off message. He attacked British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a "liar" for waging war in Iraq and said Muslims were being targeted.

"Muslim bashing seems to be more earnest than the need for national unity and harmony. Terrorists can be anybody -- we will have to see (whether the bombers are Muslims). The process is not open. The process is not transparent. The process is not independent. I do not have faith in the system as it stands."

He didn't stop there. As a stone-faced police superintendent stood behind him, Naseem also told us that he considered the police and security services "unreliable" and doubted the existence of al Qaeda.

It was for me a striking example of the gulf between the Muslim community and the rest of the British population This divide has led to a lot of soul-searching, at least in the editorial pages of national newspapers. But what has been absent is any sense of responsibility within the Muslim community for the culture that enabled the attacks take place.

What we know

The London police no longer think the attacks on July 7 and 21 were linked.

But the idea that the attacks on July 21 were a copycat or an echo, inspired by the bombings two weeks earlier, may be a scarier prospect than if they were linked by some sort of mastermind.

Consider this statement by Crispin Black, who used to prepare intelligence briefings for Britain's prime minister: "I think most people would accept (that it is) better to have two cells that are connected in some way, because then you've unraveled the whole plot -- rather than two possibly completely different groups of people both emerging with the same fiendish techniques, both at the same sort of time.

"That would suggest there are other groups gestating, if you like, somewhere in our society."

And while there are a number of people, in addition to the suspected bombers, charged with involvement in the July 21 plot, no one has been charged with helping the four young men who killed 52 people on the morning of July 7.

Nerves on edge

It was a bus fire. It was only a bus fire. But when the first reports of smoke coming from a bus near Kings Cross station began to appear on London airwaves, we all raced out the door and headed there, fearing the worst.

The worst seemed to be a bad gearbox and a case of nerves. It was a relief when the news came over the police radio that it was nothing more. We were only too glad to pack up and go back to the office with nothing more than a "London on edge" story.

Not that it was the first false alarm or the last.

A few nights before, just 24 hours after police swooped in and arrested some of the July 21 suspects in dramatic fashion, I was dozing off.

Then I heard two very loud bangs. Explosions. As I was stumbling to the window and firing off an e-mail to the CNN London assignment desk, I was listening for the inevitable sirens. Instead, there was just quiet.

Two more explosions. Quiet. Then, the unmistakable sound of firecrackers. It was Saturday night in London, and there was a street festival just south of the river in Greenwich.

Normal life.

Ask the right question

No matter how many questions you ask, you are always going to leave out an important one.

I do. A while back, one of my colleagues told me that at the end of every interview, I should ask the person I'm talking to if there is anything I should be asking them.

It has yielded a few surprising responses over the years, and the day of those arrests was one of them.

I had moved from the site of a police raid in the upscale Notting Hill neighborhood to a public housing project about a mile away, where two of the suspected bombers were in a standoff with police.

The first man I interviewed told me how police had escorted him away from the scene when he came out of his apartment. He described what it was like as the standoff was unfolding.

Thinking I had got all the information from him that I could, I threw in that last question - what haven't I asked you?

He looked at me for about five seconds, smiled and said in a cheery voice, "Well, you haven't asked me about the explosions. There were four of them, then some shouting, then four more. That very nice policeman told me the first ones were controlled explosions."

It turned out the first explosions were the sounds of the door to the apartment being blown off; the second round came as tear gas was fired in through the windows.

And I was once again reminded of the lesson that you don't know what you don't know, until you ask.

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