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Wiretaps May Have Prevented UK’s 7/7 Attack

Could 7/7 Have Been Stopped?

Only with more wiretaps and interrogations.

by Gary Schmitt
05/29/2006, Volume 011, Issue 35

ON JULY 7, 2005, in London, shortly before 9 a.m., three suicide bombers blew themselves up and destroyed the subway cars they were riding in, killing 39 and injuring nearly 700 commuters. About an hour later, another suicide bomber got on a double-decker bus–crowded with men, women, and children who jumped on board following the closure of the London Underground–and detonated the bomb hidden in his rucksack; this attack killed 13 more people and injured more than a hundred. Although aware of a high threat posed by Islamic radicals at the time, the British government was nevertheless taken completely by surprise by the most deadly attacks ever in peacetime Britain.

Now two long-anticipated government reports on the bombings have been completed and made public. The first, the Blair government’s "official" version of the 7/7 attacks, is a narrative of what happened and an overview of what was known and not known at the time about the bombers. Its concluding note is that the "case demonstrates the real difficulty for law enforcement agencies and local communities in identifying potential terrorists."

The second report was issued by the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Parliament’s cross-party oversight body for Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence community. Somewhat more analytic and investigative, the committee’s report attempts to assess how well British intelligence, especially MI-5, the domestic security service, performed in the run-up to the bombings, whether any intelligence was overlooked that could have prevented the attacks, and what lessons can be learned from what did happen. Its conclusion: With hindsight, some leads were probably missed that could have increased the chances of preventing the attacks, but–given the number of urgent, higher priority investigations going on and the reality of limited MI-5 resources–the decisions not to follow up on those leads "were understandable." Echoing the limitations theme of the government’s report, the committee concludes that it has "been struck by the sheer scale of the [terrorist] problem that our intelligence and security agencies face and their comparatively small capacity to cover it."

And, to the extent the two reports are accurate, the difficulties British intelligence and security services faced in uncovering the terrorist plot were indeed daunting.

To start, none of the four suicide bombers stood out as an obvious Islamic extremist. Mohammad Sidique Khan, the apparent leader of the group, was ethnically Pakistani but a second-generation British citizen, as were two of the other bombers. (The fourth bomber was Jamaican born, had moved with his mother to Britain as a youngster, and converted to Islam after his mother did in 2000.) While religious, Khan didn’t openly avow radical, violent behavior. To the contrary, he had spoken out against the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11. This was not true of two others in the group but, again, they were no different from thousands of other British Muslims and, more important, were not known associates of any would-be terrorists that MI-5 or the local Special Branches would have been tracking. Nor were any of the four embedded in some deeply impoverished, alienated subgroup of immigrants. All in all, Khan and the other suicide bombers seemed hardly out of the ordinary when set against a sea of other Muslim immigrants who had poured into Britain over the previous decades.

Compounding the problem for British intelligence was that Khan and his fellow bombers were security conscious. They rented a safe house in which to mix the bombs’ chemicals in an area with a transient student population–that is, in an area where four young men could come and go without being noticed. They used chemicals that were not expensive, could be bought "off-the-shelf," and didn’t require great expertise to assemble into bombs. To make detection even less likely, Khan and company were careful in their cell phone use and only used rental cars for pre-attack planning runs. And, finally, probably aware that Britain’s mosques were no longer free of prying government eyes, Khan appears to have recruited the others and planned the attack in private settings that were not likely to be monitored by British police or security.

Of course, there are no perfect conspiracies. And the terrorists of 7/7 left trails that, if followed, might have allowed British security to unravel the plot.

First, as both reports note, Khan was someone MI-5 had come across "in the periphery of another investigation" and was, potentially, interested in knowing more about. But, as the reports also note, MI-5 didn’t have the resources or the manpower to monitor someone who, absent more telling intelligence, was not a "primary investigative target." MI-5’s caseload was exploding. In 2001, it had 250 such targets; by July 2005, the target list was approaching 800. MI-5 resources were expanding but not at a rate that allowed them to keep up with the case load–let alone, as the parliamentary committee argued, generate many new leads.

If there is any smoking gun when it comes to the failure of British intelligence and the July 2005 bombings, it’s the fact that there appears to have been knowledge of Khan’s role as a possible al Qaeda fellow traveler among the post-9/11 detainees in both Pakistan and Guantanamo. What is known for sure is that Khan had traveled to Pakistan in 2003 and late 2004. And while he was only one of several hundred thousand U.K. residents who visited Pakistan for a month or longer in 2004, at least one detainee, and perhaps a second, subsequently recognized Khan and knew about his efforts to reach out to Muslim extremists while there.

In addition, the government’s report takes note of the fact that in the run-up to the bombings themselves, the terrorists appeared to be in relatively constant phone contact with an individual or individuals in Pakistan. Although "it is not known who this was or the content of the contacts," according to the report, "the methods used, designed to make it difficult to identify the individual, make the contacts look suspicious."

Of course, it is impossible to know whether, if these "leads" had been followed up, the bombings would have been prevented. Nevertheless, the irony here is what would have been required to crack the case–information gained from detainee interrogations and from listening in on calls made to terrorist suspects abroad. Both are practices pushed by the Bush White House and roundly reviled by London’s elite.

Tellingly, the committee report points out that only a tiny fraction of the increased funding for counterterrorism allocated by the British government prior to 7/7 went to the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)–Britain’s NSA equivalent. According to the same report, it appears that’s about to change–along with a boost in the Secret Services’ (MI-6) counterterrorist efforts in places like Pakistan and a renewed effort to get the "Special Branches" of Britain’s police departments more deeply involved in tracking potential terrorist cells in local communities.

None of this comes a moment too soon. Throughout the 1990s, London became home to some of the world’s most vocal and active Islamic extremists. In turn, young Muslims from Britain flowed–largely unmonitored–in and out of Pakistan and Afghanistan. London, the joke was, had become "Londonistan."

Well, it’s a joke no more. Since last July, MI-5 reports that three new terrorist attacks have been foiled. Yet, if the British public wants "greater assurance against the possibility of attacks," the parliamentary committee openly admits that "some increase in intrusive activity by the UK’s intelligence and security Agencies is the inevitable consequence." And "even then," it concedes, it is "highly unlikely that it will be possible to stop all attacks."

Lest we forget.

Which of course our America-hating one party media long since has.

This article was posted by Steve on Wednesday, May 24th, 2006. Comments are currently closed.

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