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The UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee are preparing to publish a hitherto confidential report into what MI5 knew about the 7 July suicide bombers before they detonated their bombs killing fifty-two people and themselves.
The acquittal on 28 April 2009 of three men accused of helping plot the attacks, appears to have removed any legal reason for withholding this report. Those three men, who were friends of the bombers, were found not guilty because the evidence against them was not strong enough to convince a jury of their involvement in the plot.
Their acquittal however, leaves us frustratingly back where we were soon after the 2005 attacks – with serious questions still unanswered about the role of the intelligence agencies, and about the attacks themselves.
Learning from Possible Intelligence Failures
The ISC report will answer some of these questions – and it seems only fair that those bereaved and injured in the attacks four years ago, should have this information. It is expected to give new insight into what the Security Service, MI5 knew about the 7 July bombers before the attacks – and whether they handled that information adequately. Following on from its initial findings in a report on the London terrorist attacks which was published in May 2006, this new document is likely to consider why MI5 did not actively follow up leads on at least two of the bombers – after filming them covertly during surveillance on a different terrorist cell. The report is also likely to form a view on whether MI5 could have passed the limited information it had gleaned on the bombers, to specialist police officers in West Yorkshire – where they lived – so that police there could work on indentifying them and following them up.
MI5 maintains it had not ‘fully identified’ any of the bombers before the 7 July attacks –it states this on its website. But what does it mean by ‘fully’? How far had intelligence analysts in fact gone down the road of working out who they were? And is their explanation that the men were not prioritised for follow up because they were ’not then regarded as an imminent threat, adequate?
The Security Service, MI5, may well be criticised in the report – we do not yet know – but it is the job of the ISC to scrutinise the intelligence agencies – and those working in the intelligence agencies will know they must take whatever comes their way. The impact of any criticism is unlikely to demoralise MI5 staff, who, along with police counter-terrorist officers remain convinced they have successfully foiled and disrupted a number of other plots since then. Nevertheless whatever it says it must be evaluated fast and any lessons learned taken on board by the Security Service – especially with the challenge of security at the Olympics now on the horizon.
If the report is critical however it risks undermining public confidence – and increasing the scepticism of those who rightly or not believe the terrorist threat has been exaggerated by some in the security agencies and the Government. This further acquittal in a terrorist case has given oxygen to that argument – and it is now for politicians in the main, who can speak openly, to explain how risks and actions, which cannot be fully revealed for reasons of national security, are being tackled covertly– and to explain the degree of these risks as far as possible.
Grappling with Unanswered Questions
This week’s acquittals leave one further set of questions which police and the intelligence agencies must continue to investigate. Why for example were there apparently other bombs left in the car used by one of the four suicide bombers? Why so much of the explosive liquid found in the bomb factory the bombers had in Leeds? Who was behind the attacks – who, both here and abroad, helped the bombers? Police remain convinced the four were not acting alone.
The ISC report will not bring answers to the latter set of questions but it is likely to bring some new solutions. Rather than speculate, we should exercise some patience and wait for its evaluation – in the meantime putting pressure on the Committee to publish its findings as soon as possible.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.