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Darius Rejali Headshot

The Lesson of July 21

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Modern terrorism has marked another date with blood: Mumbei 7/11 joins New York 9/11 and London 7/7. But democracies everywhere might do better to remember another date as its anniversary approaches - London 7/21 - for the lesson it teaches in how to fight modern terrorism.

On July 21, 2005, two weeks after the devastating 7 July bombing of the London subways, five men planted bombs on London buses and trains. Fortunately, their bombs failed to explode and the bombers ran away. What is really important is that the police nabbed all five suspects in ten days. One of them was Mukhtar Said-Ibrahim. His parents, Mohammed and Esha, turned him in after seeing his picture on surveillance tapes.

And that is the lesson: research has shown that public cooperation is the key to solving crimes --and the public must be confident in the police to come forward with good information. No parent would hand over his child knowing he would be tortured.

Cracking a terror cell is not unlike infiltrating organized crime. The trick is to cultivate informers in communities where terrorists operate. Technology is no substitute for this. Nor is torture. Torturing for information destroys bonds of loyalty that keep information flowing, causing remaining sources of information to dry up.

On their own, police are relatively helpless against criminals and terrorists. Since the 1970s, researchers have shown again and again that unless the public specifically identifies suspects to the police, the chances that a crime will be solved falls to about 10 percent. Contrary to popular evening police television shows, only a small percentage of crimes are solved with fingerprinting, forensics and DNA sampling. In England, this constitutes as little as 5% of all detections.

Police captured the 21 July bombers using accurate public information. Tanya Wright, Ibrahim's neighbor, helped the police locate Ibrahim and a second suspect, Yasin Hassan Omar, on July 22. Police then traced Omar to Birmingham where he was arrested six days later. Police arrested a third bomb suspect, Ramsi Muhammad, in the same flat as Omar. Three commuters had followed Muhammad through London until they lost him. Police identified Hussein Osman, the fourth bomber, by releasing video surveillance. They tapped his brother in law's phone and Italian authorities arrested him.

Police captured their suspects without torture or an American-style Patriot Act. The Parliament passed no new laws and gave the police no new special powers. They did not have to arrest thousands, set up a network of secret prisons worldwide, or send prisoners to countries that torture for interrogation. In the full sweep, police arrested only 44 people, including the four alleged bombers and 13 others who they suspect harbored them. They released most others in 24 hours or less. Their only misstep came when police identified a suspect acting on their own suspicions and, tragically, ended up killing an illegal Brazilian immigrant with no connection to the bombings.

There was also a feared fifth bomber who had a live bomb packed with explosives, nails and bolts, as clear a ticking time bomb case in recent history as anyone can remember. Police found the bomb on July 25 searching the bushes near where other arrests had been made. Five days later, police arrested the fifth bomb suspect, Manfo Kwaku Asiedu.

Would the police have been anywhere near that bomb without the help of parents, commuters and neighbors? The answer clearly is no.

Police in long-term dictatorships like China and the Soviet Union knows the lessons of 21 July all too well. Although these states use torture for intimidation and false confessions, they are aware that when it comes to useful information, good intelligence requires humans willing to go to the government and work with it. During World War II, the Soviets completely shutdown German counterintelligence with a dense network of informants, including 2 million military informers and 1.4 million civilian "resident agents."

The French won the real Battle of Algiers with deadly informers called the blues, not through torture. The blues tracked down "Mourad" and "Kamel" (the FLN bomb squad chief and his military deputy), cornered Yacef Saadi (the mastermind of the bombing plans), identified the last FLN refuge of Ali la Pointe, and snared the last FLN leader at large, Ben Hamida. Two of the deadliest were a betrayed wife of a FLN militant ("Ourhia the Brown") and a former FLN chief of east Algiers ("Safy the Pure"), who joined voluntarily. But no one has heard of them; they don't have big parts in the famous movie, The Battle of Algiers.

Even terrorists know the importance of public co-operation and informers for intelligence. The Iraqi insurgency is deadly because many eyes tell it where soldiers normally go. As an internal US government report said in 2004, their "strategic and operational intelligence has proven to be quite good" because the Iraqi police force "is rife with sympathy for the insurgents."

Democracies cannot completely stop terrorism. Weapons are cheap and our societies are too trusting. But if absolute victory will always be beyond our reach, justice is not. Democracies can capture the terrorists and disrupt their plots if they apply the lessons of July 21. Those that cultivate public cooperation with professional policing will succeed. Those who want to watch movies on torture inherit the wind.