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Inside the Crevice: 7/7 and the Security Debacle

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After the verdict of the crevice trial announced on 30th April, which convicted five British Muslim defendants of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks in the UK, the spotlight has been on MI5’s handling of connections between the crevice plotters and the alleged 7/7 bombers, Mohamed Sidique Khan and Shahzad Tanweer.

In an official statement on its website, the security service claims that Khan and Tanweer were “never identified during the fertiliser plot investigation because they were not involved in the planned attacks. Rather, they appeared as petty fraudsters in loose contact with members of the plot. There was no indication that they were involved in planning any kind of terrorist attack in the UK."

Oh really?

Thanks to the investigations of a number of British journalists, we now know that MI5 has been somewhat economical with the truth. Richard Watson of BBC Newsnight, Vikram Dodd at the Guardian, and David Leppard at the Sunday Times, among others have obtained evidence from security sources showing that Scotland Yard and MI5 had indeed identified Khan, by name, at latest around six months prior to 7/7, via his car registration. This is also confirmed by a Crown Prosecution Service document that came up in the course of the crevice trial.

Other interesting tidbits also surfaced in that trial about what was known about Khan. Contradicting the notion that he was only believed to be a petty criminal, the Crown also wanted to produce evidence at the beginning of the trial about Khan’s attendance at an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, as early as 2003. In the words of the trial judge, the evidence was supposed to prove “that the purpose of the training camp was to plan and cause explosions in the UK.” At this time, Khan was already under surveillance, and indeed MI5 knew that he was “fully versed in how to make bombs” by the time he returned to the UK in summer that year (Sunday Times 22.1.06)

Intelligence leaks also suggest that Khan was directly involved in the fertiliser bomb plot. MI5 surveillance tapes obtained by journalists showed him contributing to attack plans with the fertiliser bomb plotters, and that he was involved in “late-stage” discussions about the plot, while repeatedly expressing his own desire to participate in al-Qaeda terrorist activity. (Sunday Times 14.5.06)

In fact, contradicting the British official narrative entirely, French security officials are insisting that the 7/7 suspects had “belonged to the same network as the Britons of Pakistani origin who were partially arrested in Great Britain in March 2004” in Operation Crevice. Out of the total number of terrorist suspects “identified by the British only eight were arrested and five escaped”, according to a senior French police officer in Liberation (14.7.05). Among the five suspects at large, say the French, was Mohamed Sidique Khan.

Khan seemed to surface everywhere. He came up again when MI5 was investigating the unimaginable series of plots (the dirty bomb project, the limousine gas project, etc.) hatched by Dhiren Barot, also convicted of plotting terrorist attacks in the UK. The Luton cell under Barot was, according to security officials, also linked to Khan. (ABC News, 14.7.05)

Given this extensive track record of apparent terrorist activities and connections in multiple plots linked by authorities to al-Qaeda, the stated reasons for why Khan was dropped just don’t add up. All the evidence available to MI5, according to the aforesaid intelligence leaks, shows that the security services knew that Khan did indeed have direct knowledge of, and was involved in, terrorist activity in the UK.

But the new evidence that has come to light after the crevice trial additionally shows that Khan was indeed under ongoing MI5 surveillance. A British security source told this author that Khan was monitored all the way through to May 2005. Further, a document disclosed by prosecution lawyers to the defence before the commencement of the crevice trial cited MI5 surveillance recordings of Tanweer “discussing bombings and using the internet to make such a bomb,” as late as “two weeks before” 7th July 2005. (Guardian, 3.5.07)

So why didn’t the security services pick up any further information about the 7/7 plot, especially considering that not only Khan and Tanweer, but all four London bombers had been “watched by intelligence officers a year before” the attacks according to security sources cited in the Mirror (3.11.05)? Indeed, MI5’s insistence that Khan was only viewed as peripheral has also been torpedoed by its own officers. Last year, British security sources told BBC News (30.3.06) that:

“… the security services had been so concerned about him [Sidique Khan] they had planned to put him under a higher level of investigation. 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. [emphasis added]”

Why was an assessment that Khan needed to be prioritized, by officers on the ground monitoring him, rejected by senior officers? Did it have something to do with the possibility, mentioned by Charles Shoebridge, a 12-year veteran Metropolitan Police detective and Royal Military Academy graduate, who told BBC Newshour (June 2006):

“The fact that that has been so consistently overlooked it would appear by the security service MI5, to me suggests really only one of two options. Either, a) we’ve got a level of incompetence that would be unusual even for the security services. But b) possibly, and this is a possibility, that this man Khan may even have been working as an informant for the security service. It is difficult otherwise to see how it can be that they’ve so covered his tracks in the interim.”

Indeed, the evidence in the public record suggests significant intelligence about the London bombings was obtained in advance, yet clearly it was not acted upon. In the year before 7/7, MI5 and MI6 had received just under a dozen credible warnings of an impending terrorist attack, many from foreign allied intelligence services, including vital clues as to date, target and even timing. The Americans flagged-up the London Underground as a prime target, the Saudis pinpointed July 2005 as the deadline for the attack, the Pakistanis pointed at UK-based extremist networks in which Khan participated, while the French and Spanish gave general warnings of an imminent strike. Many of these warnings emphasized the threat from cells allegedly linked to al-Muhajiroun. Yet MI5 continues to pretend that it received no warning whatsoever of the London bombings.

So why is MI5 being economical with the truth? The service’s increasing defensiveness, oversensitivity to criticism, and ritual denials of the evidence leaking from its own officers like water from a broken dam, bear witness to the validity of the questions that 7/7 survivors and families, journalists, investigators, opposition MPs and the public at large are asking. But we will never have the answers without an independent public inquiry.


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Dr Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. A former Guardian writer, he writes the 'System Shift' column for VICE's Motherboard, and is also a columnist for Middle East Eye. He is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work.

Nafeez has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New (more...)

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