How much did British intelligence know about the alleged London bombers prior to the 7th July 2005 terrorist attacks?
Not much, according to the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee report into 7/7, released in May 2006, which found that “none of the individuals involved in the 7 July group had been identified (that is, named and listed) as potential terrorist threats prior to July.” The report does confirm that Mohamed Sidique Khan, believed to be the chief bomber, and Shahzad Tanweer, were noticed by intelligence services on the periphery of a different unfolding terrorist plot, although their identities never became known to the services. Ultimately, there was, according to the official narrative, no real evidence of their involvement in a terrorist plot, and so no justification to monitor them as potential terrorists. Given the scarce resources available, the parliamentary report said, it was perfectly understandable, indeed prudent, for the services to invest in targeting more serious terrorist suspects for investigation.
The claims of the parliamentary inquiry have been discredited in the wake of the publication of a few interesting details about pre-7/7 US intelligence on Khan, revealed in the new book by Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine. Suskind’s sources as described The Times state that Khan “was considered such a dangerous threat that he was banned from flying to America” as early as 2003. The CIA believed that he had been plotting with Islamists in the US to “blow up a number of synagogues on the US East Coast”, and had already made “at least two trips to America to finalise attack plans.” The FBI had reportedly amassed “detailed files of Khan’s many telephone calls and e-mails, beginning in 2002, to a number of US based al-Qaeda-trained militants living in New York and Virginia.”
According to Dan Coleman, who led the FBI’s al-Qaeda investigations, Britain was warned that Khan was “a very dangerous character” who should be urgently monitored. US intelligence services placed his name on a ‘no-fly-list’ to stop him from leaving the UK, says Suskind, when they learned of his imminent plans to fly to New York in March 2003. US security officials confirmed that the CIA’s Counter-Terrorist Centre regularly shared its information on Khan with a British intelligence official in London.
Unfortunately, Whitehall is still in denial. The whole story is “untrue”, indeed, a “myth” (one of many in fact) that has somehow, inexplicably, spontaneously, randomly generated itself “around Khan.” The blanket denial by Britain’s security services doesn’t explain why or how such a Myth could generate itself from thin air, nor in particular why or how US intelligence services are ardent Believers in the Myth.
Suskind’s important revelations, however, only scratch the surface of credible information about intelligence surveillance of Khan which has long been buried in the public record.
Months before the release of the parliamentary report, for instance, disgruntled British intelligence officers revealed to the press that MI5 had Khan and Tanweer under surveillance, in fact, was bugging their conversations about waging jihad more than a year before 7/7. Further details about MI5’s bugging of Khan and Tanweer and their involvement in a UK-based bomb plot emerged after the release of the report, to welcome, if insufficient criticism.
But it wasn’t just these two. The Mirror reported in November 2005 that not only Khan, but all four London bombers had been “watched by intelligence officers a year before” – in relation to a terrorist plot against British targets being monitored by security services. Khan had been filmed with a terror suspect and spotted in conversation with an “al-Qaeda fixer”. Police sources confirmed that the other three bombers were also “being tracked”, as they were identified on a list of “100 people throughout the country feared to be Islamic fanatics.”
A large body of reports derived from western security sources about the identification and surveillance of Khan and others are reviewed in detail in my book, The London Bombings: An Independent Inquiry (pp. 56-65). I don’t have the time to reiterate the same here; but suffice it to say that extensive evidence in the public record shows that British intelligence had identified all four bombers as members of a wider network of suspected terrorists monitored by security services, who were linked to plots to blow up several potential targets in both the US and the UK, including West End nightclubs and the London Underground. The problem is that the four were not merely on the periphery of this plot; they, Khan in particular, were integral to it. Suskind’s revelations add a little detail to the information that’s already available, but the broad picture is quite clear.
For instance, Mohammed Junaid Babar, a member of al-Muhajiroun in New York who pleaded guilty to various US terrorism related charges, informed American intelligence that he personally knew Mohammed Siddique Khan. Telephone records also reportedly show that Khan was in regular phone contact with New York-based Islamists radicals (ibid., pp. 58-59).
What Suskind didn’t point out, however, is that the plot Khan was involved in, known to intelligence services, included a plan to target the London Underground. Khan was linked, for example, to a network of “over a dozen young Britons of Pakistani origin arrested in Luton in an attempt to foil an associated terrorist plot discovered on the laptop computer of Naeem Noor Khan, a captured al-Qaeda leader in Lahore, Pakistan.” The laptop contained plans going back to 2003 for “a coordinated series of attacks on the London subway system”, as well as on the financial districts of New York and Washington.
This was the same grand al-Qaeda terror scheme, encompassing potential targets in the US and UK, that the Parliamentary report concedes British police and security services were intercepting in 2003 and 2004. Senior al-Qaeda operative Abu Faraj al-Libbi was reportedly running the UK and US based cells, of which Khan and the other bombers were members, who were supposed to activate the plan. US security sources confirm that the British were involved in the surveillance operation, and were kept informed by their American counterparts. The 7/7 plot was not external to this scheme – it was part of it. If British security services failed to act on this information, the question is why?
The nail in the coffin for the government’s story, however, came about a week after the publication of the House of Commons report. British intelligence sources told BBC News that “the security services had been so concerned about him [Sidique Khan] they had planned to put him under a higher level of investigation.” In other words, they hadn’t dismissed him due to lack of evidence. On the contrary, they had ample evidence justifying plans to intensify investigation. But those plans were thwarted by senior officials: “MI5 officers assigned to investigate the lead bomber in the 7 July attacks were diverted to another anti-terrorist operation sources have now told BBC News.” This revelation – that MI5 investigators were taken of the Khan trail in spite of their urgent concerns - remains unacknowledged by any other media outlet, and flatly contradicts the assertion by Parliament’s cross-party intelligence inquiry to the effect that Khan was not considered a threat worth investigating. Why did British security services want to intensify the investigation of Khan? Did it have something to do with his direct involvement in an unfolding al-Qaeda terrorist plot with both US and UK targets? Why, despite that involvement, were the security services called off the chase?
In view of the evidence available in the public record, it’s now becoming increasingly apparent that Khan and the others in the 7/7 cell were not working in isolation, but were ranking members of a wider terrorist network actively planning multiple operations inside the UK, a network that the government has still failed to properly investigate and shut down. It’s also apparent that the decision to cease investigation of Khan and his colleagues were not justified by the evidence available to British security services at the time on the basis of their own, and American, intelligence investigations. The truth, unfortunately, is that the Myth is true: Khan’s involvement in an active terrorist plot that included a potential (soon-to-be actual) attack on the Tube network was known to the CIA, FBI, MI5 and MI6.
In this context, the actions of Britain’s security services surely warrant being characterized as one of the most drastic intelligence failures in history. What makes it worse is that instead of acknowledging the same, accepting accountability and reform, and moving on, the intelligence services – backed by an increasingly discredited government – continue to pretend that everything they did prior to 7/7 was perfectly “understandable”, to quote Home Secretary John Reid.
It is this narrative of 7/7 that is truly mythical. The stark and unsavoury reality is that inside the impenetrable bubble of intelligence operations, something went seriously wrong. But Blair and Co. would prefer us to simply throw more money at an increasingly secretive, defensive and unaccountable institution whose obvious failure is certainly not “understandable”. The urgent necessity of an independent public inquiry designed to discover precisely what put the British national security system to sleep precisely when it was most needed is beyond doubt.
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