This has to be really fast - just a quick thinking out loud, so to speak, after talking to someone on the phone forced me to articulate what I've been thinking. There's obviously a lot going on here, things that we don't yet know. It may be a mistake to attribute a strategic logic to "al-Qaeda" at this point, rather than to individual splinter groups which have "metastasized" after the destruction of the Afghan Base (similar to Spain). With all those caveats, here's the broad thrust of how I'm thinking about London:
Over the last six months or so, the radical jihadists have seemed to be on the political and intellectual defensive in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The escalating, horrifying bloodshed in Iraq was producing growing disenchantment - see al-Maqdassi's comments over the last few days, or statements by Qaradawi and Huwaydi, or hundreds of commentaries in the Arab press. The whole "Arab spring" moment, and the continuing mobilization in Egypt (especially), has shifted the focus to reform and demands for democracy. Ayman al-Zawahiri's tape broadcast on al-Jazeera is a good example here: he talked about reform, in an entirely defensive and reactive way, and the tape largely disappeared without a trace. The momentum in the mainstream of the Islamic world seemed to be in the direction of rejection radicalism, extremism, jihadism - the fatwas issues in Amman the other day are a good indicator of this.
The London attack can be seen as an attempt by al-Qaeda to impose itself on this internal argument among Islamists and Muslims in the way it knows best: a spectacular, violent attack. A throw of the dice - an attempt to turn the debate back to clashes of civilizations, of an inevitable conflict between the West and Islam, of war and mistrust and fear. To shut down any rapprochement between the West and moderate Islamism - the kind of rapprochement which threatens al-Qaeda and the radicals where it counts, among the Muslim umma. Like 9/11 itself, at least part of July 7 is about asserting the radical "argument" in its own distinctive language, of violence and extremism, in order to win adherents and admirers in the wider Muslim world.
I suspect - I hope - that al-Qaeda has miscalculated, if those were indeed its calculations. I expect to see widespread denunciations from across the Islamist spectrum - as have already begun to pour in. Of course, we saw the same thing after 9/11. What matters now is how everyone reacts... what happens next. Remember the epic season finale of the second season of Buffy? When the voiceover begins, in my inept paraphrase: "the big moments are going to come. You can't stop that. What matters is what happens next. How you repond. That's when you find out who you are." This could be a decisive moment, in the relations between Islam and the West and inside the Islamic world. Let's make sure that it is decided in the right way.