On 11th May 2006 the British government published its two principal investigative reports on the London bombings, the first by the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), and the second being the government’s own “official account” of the bombings.
The first problem with the official account is that it’s not objective. Written entirely by an anonymous civil servant, based on unspecified official intelligence sources, and edited by the government before final release, there was little prospect that it might contain serious criticism of government policy, even if there were good grounds for such criticism.
The ISC report is similar. All members of the ISC are appointed by the Prime Minister, to whom they report directly, and who had the power to censor its contents on security grounds. Hence, its contents were subject to high-level government approval, and unlikely to offer a critical analysis of government policy.
These reports are fundamentally politicized — that is, written in the context of obvious political constraints, which limit their scope and shape their conclusions.
Even allowing for these constraints, the reports are guilty of a litany of omissions and factual inaccuracies. Read against what we know about the attacks from other sources, it is difficult to see how these reports offer anything at all of value. Virtually no new information was offered, and much of the material purportedly based on intelligence sources has already been widely reported in the media.
The central thesis supported by the reports is as follows: This was an attack by a cell of four home-grown terrorists. There is no evidence that they were connected to a wider network, no firm evidence that they were radicalized by anybody else, no evidence of any al-Qaeda connection. These people were, we are told, most probably self-radicalized. The attacks were planned in isolation and the method of the attacks was relatively unsophisticated.
This account of the London bombings emphasises evidence that appears to support these claims, and suppresses evidence that contradicts them . In my view, a more impartial examination of the evidence in the public record reveals many ambiguities in official statements, some minor, some more fundamental, but all of which tend to undermine elements of the government’s account.
Broadly speaking, there are three categories of anomaly. The first pertains to the technical and logistical aspects of the bombings. The second concerns the social and ideological background of the four bombers. The third concerns the intelligence surveillance of them and the networks they associated with. I’ll discuss categories 2 and 3 together.
I’ll very briefly discuss some of these anomalies. On the first category, we have anomalies about the types of explosives used in the attacks, the nature of the explosions, and even about the chronology of the movements of the bombers on the day, as well as other issues. There’s no time of course to review these in detail. But it’s worth mentioning a few examples here.
Many of us will be aware that Home Secretary John Reid has now admitted in parliament that the government’s narrative of the attacks was incorrect on one point, the chronology. He admitted that the narrative states wrongly that Mohammad Sidique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer, Hasib Hussain and Germaine Lindsay left Luton station at 7.40am on 7th July last year to arrive in time to be photographed by CCTV in Kings Cross at 8:26AM. In my book, I point out that in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, police officials issued two mutually inconsistent stories to the media, both purporting to be based on material evidence. The first was that the four had taken the 7:40am train. The second story was that they had taken the 7:48am train. Police cited CCTV and eyewitness evidence as the basis for both findings. The government uncritically repeated the 7:40am account. Both accounts are false. As we’ve all experienced, trains in Britain rarely stick to their assigned schedules. So it is not too surprising that in reality, the 7:48 am train on 7th July 2005 was delayed and reached Kings Cross well after 8:26AM. The 7:40AM train was cancelled. As Reid now concedes, they could only have taken one earlier train from Luton which departed at 7:25AM and arrived in Kings Cross at 8:23AM.
To his credit, Reid admitted that the error "may be of concern". He subsequently ordered a report from police into how this sort of inaccuracy was perpetuated for more than a year. But clearly, the problem goes deeper than this. As noted by Grahame Russell, whose son Philip died on 7th July, this inaccuracy on something as seemingly trivial as train times, raises serious concerns about the accuracy of the rest of the report.
The same sort of bizarre anomalies arise again in relation to accounts about the explosives. The government’s narrative states that the bombings were relatively unsophisticated requiring “little expertise”. The reports claim the attacks were “self-financed” with a relatively small amount of funds, and executed using easily available household ingredients in home-made bombs. The house of commons intelligence committee report says that the bombs were made from acetone peroxide also known as TATP.
But it seems that just under a year after the attacks, the government is still not a hundred percent clear about the composition of the bombs. The official account saysthat “it appears” the bombs were homemade from cheap, household commodities, rather than confirming the matter decisively. The report notes that forensic analysis of the bombs continues, implying that the current conclusion about their composition could change. Forensic science, however, tends to provide unambiguous answers within a matter of hours and days. The forensic examiners have surely found out all they can by now. Why does forensic analysis continue?
Indeed, the official account fails to acknowledge and does not explain why in the first week after the 77 terrorist attacks, intelligence officials, police officers and forensic scientists independently said that forensic examination had found “traces of military-grade C4 plastic explosive at the London Underground blast sites”. Some of these sources suggest that the C4 most likely originated from jihadist networks in the Balkans. The Balkans connection, if true, raises further awkward questions regarding the international dimension of the plot. But after that week, the police said they found TATP in a bathtub in a Leeds flat linked to the bombers. Suddenly, the C4 finding was forgotten, and sources told the press that the explosives used on the London Underground and bus bombings were solely TATP. When I scrutinized the relevant reports I was dissatisfied. For instance, Janes Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, when reporting the TATP finding as late as 22nd July (about a week after the finding) said that forensic tests “had still to confirm whether TATP had indeed been found”, and that further testing was still needed to get a decisive result. Meanwhile, the rest of the media was saying that TATP had definitely been found.
Perhaps it had. But why the inexplicable vagueness? And how can we make sense of this inexplicable shift in official statements? Are the government’s forensic scientists horrendously incompetent? Or is the government being economical with the truth? We may never know without an independent public inquiry.
These sorts of legitimate questions extend to other central issues. In mid-May, for instance, the Sunday Times reported that: “MI5 had secret tape recordings of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the gang leader, talking about how to build the device and then leave the country because there would be a lot of police activity.” (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-2179602,00.html) The article raises significant questions. It suggests firstly that Khan was monitored quite closely by British intelligence, and secondly that he may not have intended to kill himself in the attack, but had instead contemplated leaving the country afterwards. It is of course possible that after the MI5 recording, Khan changed his mind and decided to become a martyr. On the other hand, given the unfortunate lack of clarity in terms of detail here, at face value the Times report suggests the possibility that the bombers were not necessarily aware of all aspects of the terrorist plot. This would, again, imply the involvement of a wider veteran terrorist network.
I could go on and on detailing many other technical inconsistencies pertaining to other dimensions of the official account. The government has a duty to resolve these inconsistencies for the public, and to provide a more coherent and reliable account. But in the absence of an independent public inquiry empowered to review the evidence available to police and intelligence services about the attacks, this may never happen. Will we have to wait another year, or 2 years, or 3 years or more for the government to concede and rectify these other sorts of anomalies? Such a situation is simply not satisfactory.
I’ll now briefly look at the next categories of anomaly, pertaining to the social and ideological background of Khan, Tanweer, Hussein and Lindsay and related issues of intelligence surveillance. The government’s account downplays the notion that the bombers operated as part of a wider al-Qaeda terrorist network, insisting that there “is as yet no firm evidence to corroborate this claim or the nature of Al Qaida support, if there was any.” Although speculating about the cursory liaison with al-Qaeda members during visits to Pakistan, the report focuses on the role of Mohamed Sidique Khan in indoctrinating and radicalizing the group.
This is perhaps the official account’s most significant omission. The evidence I’ve reviewed demonstrates that the four had operated as part of a well established al-Qaeda terrorist network in Britain, whose key leadership is well known to British authorities. The official account excludes the fact, reported shortly after the attacks, that British investigators had identified likely collaborators with the four bombers in Central Asia, NW Africa and the Balkans.
Khan and his colleagues in particular were members of a UK-based al-Qaeda network that had been planning terrorist attacks on multiple targets in New York, London and elsewhere in Europe. The cells involved in this planning, which included Khan and his colleagues, were being directed by a senior al-Qaeda operative, Abu Faraj al-Libbi. Al-Libbi had been arrested and detained in Pakistan in May 2005. US investigators called into interrogate him told the press that al-Libbi admitted that “the London mass transit system was a likely target for an attack.” That warning was reportedly passed on to British intelligence services. But the parliamentary intelligence committee report blandly insists that no warnings at all of the 77 terrorist attack was received by the security services. This is demonstrably false. Without an independent public inquiry, we may never know what happened to this, along with the many other warnings of the London bombings, that had been passed on to our government from various credible sources.
My research indicates that the networks under al-Libbi’s jurisdiction overlapped strongly with al-Muhajiroun, a militant British group headed by Omar Bakri Mohammed who is now in Lebanon, debarred from returning to the UK. Although routinely derided as nothing more than a hothead and a loudmouth, two of Bakri’s boys from al Muhajiroun had already conducted a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv years before the London bombings, which Bakri had openly praised. A Manchester businessman Kursheed Fiaz has told the BBC that Sidique Khan, described as the chief bomber, had personally known the Tel Aviv bombers and had visited Fiaz with them as early as the summer of 2001 to discuss recruitment tactics.
Numerous other al-Muhajiroun members and associates had repeatedly boasted in the years prior to the attacks that hundreds of them had undergone training in al-Qaeda camps with a view to return to Britain to carry out possible terrorist attacks against British targets. Khan and his colleagues were reportedly members of al-Muhajiroun. Compelling evidence indicates that Bakri himself had advanced warning of the 77 attack plans to target London, and may even have had a direct role in radicalizing the four, as well as facilitating their activities. In April 2004, Bakri declared that an al-Qaeda cell in London was planning an imminent attack. This is utterly ignored by the government. Now that Bakri is permanently outside of British jurisdiction, it seems that there is no prospect that he might be investigated in this regard, despite Scotland Yard’s recent insistence that those who knew about the attacks might face prosecution.
Similarly ignored is the evidence from a Times investigation that some of the four had attended Finsbury Park mosque and were inspired by Abu Hamza’s inflammatory preaching. And further overlooked is the connection to Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, an al-Qaeda IT expert whose laptop contained details of these very plans to attack, among other targets, the London Underground. The four were associated with networks with whom Noor Khan had been communicating, which were known to British police.
Why is the government downplaying these issues? An inkling of the answer may come when we look at the way security officials have dealt with the case of Haroon Rashid Aswat. Aswat, who used to be Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard, was believed by both British and US investigators to have been the key senior al-Qaeda operative who masterminded the London bombings. The connection was established through records of telephone conversations between Aswat and Sidique Khan, many of which occurred on the morning of 7th July 2005. Police officials described the contents of these conversations to the Times and other media in some detail, suggesting that Aswat had provided bomb-making expertise and other planning assistance. But British authorities quickly backtracked on these statements about Aswat’s involvement in 7/7 after revelations from US intelligence sources that Aswat was, in fact, an MI6 double agent. The revelation first came from former Justice Department prosecutor John Loftus. It has subsequently been corroborated by US and French investigators who even now continue to describe Aswat as the chief suspected 77 mastermind. Meanwhile British officials have said that they will not investigate Aswat in connection with 77.
The Aswat example seems to illustrate a wider problem here. American and French intelligence officials confirm that Aswat and his colleagues, Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri, were all used in an MI6 operation to recruit British Muslims to fight in Kosovo in the 1990s. The Anglo-American strategy of using mujahideen networks had begun in Afghanistan, continued in Azerbaijan and was imported to Europe during the Bosnian War. The operation is described in detail in Dutch intelligence files reviewed in the official Dutch inquiry into the Srebrenica genocide. The policy continued in Kosovo, and continues today in Macedonia.
British foreign policy in the Balkans meant that terrorists at home were given considerable latitude, and only this explains the reluctance of police and security services to prosecute individuals like Abu Hamza (who still has not been charged for numerous al-Qaeda linked terrorist activities in the UK). The Balkans is not the only region where British foreign policy makes use of networks affiliated to al-Qaeda. In Central Asia and Northwest Africa, British and American covert operations have collaborated with extremist Islamist terror networks in the pursuit of specific strategic and economic interests, largely to do with protecting corporate interests and controlling energy reserves. These networks are closely associated with the UK-based operatives linked to the London bombings. For example, in the summer of 2000, Yousef Bodanksy, former Director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism, reported that US and British intelligence had held a formal meeting hosted by Azerbaijan to discuss the supply of arms and funds to al-Qaeda mercenaries in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. There are many other reliable examples of this sort of collaboration.
There is now growing acknowledgement in the international intelligence community that Britain has operated within the framework of a “Covenant of Security” with these networks. Former Downing Street intelligence adviser Crispin Black, for instance, notes that the covenant was a tacit understanding between the security services and extremist terrorist networks inside the UK that they would be permitted to do what they liked on British soil as long as they didn’t target British interests. But even this doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon at stake. Omar Bakri, for instance, told his followers over the internet in January 2005 that the covenant of security had been broken by the British government in its arrest of people like Abu Hamza, whose trial had been originally scheduled for 7th July 2005, and that therefore Britain was now a legitimate target of al-Qaeda terrorist activity. The failure of the authorities to act can only be explained in light of the fact these extremist networks were not only tolerated, but were actively protected due to their utility to British foreign policy objectives in the Balkans and elsewhere.
The danger is that the government’s overwhelming imperative to conceal these policies from the public are compromising the integrity of the criminal investigation. Many of these networks in the UK remain intact. People associated with Bakri and other UK-based operatives linked to terrorism whom I identify in my writing, and who by their own admission have undergone terrorist training and are willing to carry out attacks inside the UK, have not been pursued. Meanwhile, the clear flaws in the British national security system that made the 77 attacks possible, tied as they are to Britain’s foreign policies, have yet to be rectified.
I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg here. The full story of the London bombings will not be fully told or understood in the absence of an independent public inquiry.
It is not reasonable for the government to leave the public, including the 77 survivors and families, to speculate about these issues. The government has a duty to clarify reasonably and judiciously what happened, how and why, on 7th July 2005.
Public Address, House of Lords, 12th July 2006, Chaired by Lord Rea, Sponsored by CAMPACC