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Could 7/7 have been prevented?

Margaret Gilmore
Commentary, 20 May 2009
UK, Domestic Security, Global Security Issues, July 7 Bombings, Intelligence, Terrorism, Terrorism, Europe
The cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee Review is critical of MI5 record keeping after it reveals that the 7 July bombing ringleader had featured in surveillance more often than was previously thought, though he was never identified as a priority. Though the committee attributes this shortcoming to an overstretched Security Service, it will not do much to subdue calls for a wide-ranging enquiry.

It is easy to suggest with hindsight that intelligence officers should have spotted the 7/7 bombers earlier. This new report reveals that the police or MI5 came across the men many more times than was initially thought. The name of the 7/7 ringleader, Mohammed Siddique Khan, featured on their radar at least six times before the attacks, and they photographed or heard him speak during covert surveillance on further occasions without putting a name to him. As early as February 1993, twelve years before the 7/7 attacks, his photograph and a criminal record in his name were put on the Police National Computer after he was cautioned over an assault. It has now been revealed for the first time that in 2001, four years before the 2005 bombings, Khan was one of forty extremists caught on CCTV on an outward bound expedition, though he was not identified. The photograph has never been published before.

Between April 2003 and March 2004 he was filmed and listened to covertly, and his name was traced to cars and a phone, as police and MI5 had other plotters under surveillance. He and another member of the 7/7 cell, Shazad Tanweer, were on the periphery of what is known as the ‘Crevice’ plot, where a terrorist cell planned to plant a fertiliser-based bomb at a shopping centre or nightclub. But even when those plotters were arrested, Khan and Tanweer were not followed up: mainly because Khan’s name had been spelled in various ways when it had been traced. In addition, the conversations traced between him and Tanweer had involved financial fraud as opposed to terrorist activity, so the men were not deemed an imminent threat. The various different contacts the security agencies had with them were not linked up until after the men and two other co-conspirators had detonated their devices on the London underground system and a bus, killing fifty two travellers and themselves.

It is undeniable that there were missed opportunities to target Khan. The extent to which he in particular had been linked to the Crevice cell was only discovered after the 7/7 attacks, when MI5 and police officers reassessed the surveillance material. Painstaking work in 2008 by a West Yorkshire police officer who retranslated surveillance tapes of multiple conversations in different languages, led intelligence analysts to conclude Khan and Tanweer were in direct contact with the Crevice cell when an explosives expert from Canada was visiting them, and may well have been at a ’farewell meal’ for him on 21 February 2005.

’Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shazad Tanweer had a conversation with Omar Khayam [the lead Crevice plotter] in his car at about 21.00 that evening,’ the report says. ’It is therefore likely that Mohammed Siddique Khan (and possibly Tanweer) attended this ‘farewell meal’.

This adds weight to the now accepted theory that recent terrorist plots in the UK may well be linked. The 7/7 plotters were not the only ones who can now be traced back to the Crevice plot and it seems increasingly likely that there were plans for a wave of attacks in the UK. The ISC report suggests (again with hindsight) there may have been a ’facilitator’ who helped plan the 7/7 attacks, adding that analysts judge it likely ’that the bombers were directed in some way by elements of Al-Qaida based overseas.’

Failing to connect the dots

The ISC report raises questions about why the sightings of the 7/7 bombers were not linked up, and why they were not deemed worthy of follow up by MI5. ‘With the resources and time to do so’, the report says, ‘MI5 could have connected the names, albeit without one hundred per cent certainty’. The report concludes that MI5 did not have (nor could they ever have) adequate resources to follow everyone. They did not have the time or the evidence to justify putting the men under surveillance as a priority. MI5 was overstretched: only one in some twenty terrorists could be watched round the clock in the years immediately before the 2005 attacks. MPs on the committee that wrote the report admit MI5 was still playing ’catch-up’ after the 9/11 attacks, and even now, though its budget has trebled, it will never be able to follow every suspected terrorist.

The report is, however, critical of MI5’s record keeping before 7/7, and of the way information was shared with other agencies. It says that MI5 failed to pass on or collate much of their information, and shared it only with agencies like the police on a ‘need to know’ basis at a time when much of the filing was still paper, rather than computer-based.

Michael Mates, one of the MPs on the Intelligence and Security Committee says that ‘the record keeping has been a problem. The system had been changing from paper records to computer records and even that does give you problems. If you don’t put in the right keyword you don’t get the right answers’. Referring to regional Counter-Terrorism Units which have since been established, where police and MI5 officers work together, Mates says that ‘one of the lessons taken from all this is that the communication wasn’t totally reciprocal at the time. That’s because they [the police and MI5] were two separate organisations’. He highlights that ‘now they are co-located so there is no need for formal requests to go back and forth’.

Questioning the claim that 7/7 bombers were ‘not on their radar’

The report also raises concerns about statements from MI5 immediately after the 7/7 attacks that the bombers were ‘not on their radar’. ’Even though Siddique/Sidique/Sadique Khan was not assessed to be significant,’ it states, ’it is nevertheless surprising, given the amount of information MI5 and the police had on him, that they said they had not identified Mohammed Siddique Khan prior to 7/7’. The report delves into the semantics of whether MI5 had used the word ’clean skins’ and concludes it did not. It accepts the explanation that he had not been properly identified though his name had been recorded several times.

There is no summary or list of ’conclusions’ or ’lessons to be learned’ in this report. But it is clear that those fighting terrorism have made progress since then. New laws mean people like Khan can be prosecuted for attending terrorist training camps.. Cultural changes have been made within the security agencies; communication between police and MI5 has never been better. They work side by side and sensitive information is no longer exchanged by email.

But it is equally clear that there must be a system which automatically collates information on suspect individuals and raises the alarm if they are appearing too often in suspicious circumstances. MI5 will doubtless be reviewing the way it handles information to see if further improvements could be made.

There is also new thinking on the speed at which young men are radicalised, it seems Khan’s process of radicalisation had taken place long before the attacks of 7/7, thus questioning certain ideas that the path to violent extremism is swift. There are issues over messages to the public. A lack of resources does not necessarily justify spending more on fighting terrorism. The proportion of public money spent on the terrorist threat must be balanced against other potentially life-threatening risks to the UK, such as flooding or a flu pandemic.

Calls for a public inquiry will continue

’Could 7/7 Have Been Prevented?’ is the fruit of fourteen months of work by the cross-party parliamentary committee which has responsibility for scrutinising the intelligence agencies. Its title raises an emotive, subjective question. It concludes that given the resources and evidence MI5 had at the time, the attacks could not have been prevented. However, despite revealing an unprecedented amount of sensitive material, it leaves many questions unanswered about who was behind the bombings and why explosives were left in the bomb factory in Leeds or in the car used to carry the four bombs which were detonated. In leaving these questions unanswered, the report seems unlikely to appease those amongst the bereaved and the survivors of the attacks who want an independent public inquiry into 7/7.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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