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The buck stops with Blair

By Richard M Bennett
July 13, 2005 20:19 IST
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The most significant lesson that can be learnt from the outrageous July 7 attack on central London is that tragically, the dedicated terrorist will eventually get through even the tightest security.

The first question that must be asked, however, was whether in this case the security was in fact as tight as it could or should have been.  

For the long suffering Londoner, this is a fearful reminder of the Blitz and many years of IRA attacks. This well co-ordinated assault on a major civilian target is almost certainly the work of Al Qaeda or one of its many offshoots. It has the 'fingerprints' of Osama Bin Laden all over the bodies of the dead and maimed.

'3 bombers were of Pakistani origin'

While the initial security response could not completely rule out anti-capitalism extremists or indeed the remnants of the Real IRA, the level of deadly proficiency would appear to point firmly at a re-run of the Madrid train bombings, aimed this time at disrupting the opening day of the G8 summit in Gleneagles in Scotland.

It is significant that Al Qaeda tactics are obviously targeting the very life blood of a major city, its public transport systems and its vitally important tourist industry. The multiple explosions were aimed at creating terror and massive long term disruption rather than simply killing large numbers of innocent civilians. Security officials in MI5 are known to be greatly concerned that any repeat of such tactics may include targeting other major transport and tourist centres in Britain in the future.

Osama? Nowhere near London attacks 

This attack has also brought with it massive confusion about whether there were warnings issued just before the first explosions took place.

The Associated Press in Jerusalem reported July  7 that "British police told the Israeli Embassy in London minutes before Thursday's explosions that they had received warnings of possible terror attacks in the city, a senior Israeli official (in the Foreign Ministry) said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the nature of his position. British police told the Israeli Embassy in London minutes before Thursday's explosions that they had received warnings of possible terror attacks in the city, a senior Israeli official said."

'I had predicted London blasts'

It has been claimed that the warning was passed to the Israeli Embassy minutes before the first bomb struck just before 9 am London time. The Israeli Embassy promptly ordered the former Israeli Prime Minister and now Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remain in his hotel on the morning of July 7. Netanyahu was apparently due to take part in an Israeli Investment Forum Conference at the Grand Eastern Hotel, located near the Liverpool Street Underground station and one of the targets in the series of bombings on July 7.

This version of events has been firmly denied both by both Britain and Israel.

However STRATFOR, a US Security Consultancy, claimed July 8 that "Israel warned London of the attacks a couple of days ago, but British authorities failed to respond accordingly to deter the attacks, according to an unconfirmed rumour circulating in intelligence circles. While Israel is keeping quiet for the time-being, British Prime Minister Tony Blair soon will be facing the heat for his failure to take action".

These remain unconfirmed rumours so far, but it is known that the Israeli authorities have warned Britain on a number of occasions of impending terrorist attacks,  none of which turned out to be genuine.

Five lessons from London 

If in this case such warnings were again passed to MI5 and perhaps the British government chose to ignore them rather than disrupt the G8 summit in Gleneagles or cause a major security alert in London, then this too must raise further questions to Britain's overall commitment to counter-terrorism and the true capabilities of the security community.

STRATFOR goes on to comment "The British government sat on this information for days and failed to respond. Though the Israeli government is playing along publicly, it may not stay quiet for long. This is sure to apply pressure on Blair very soon for his failure to deter this major terrorist attack".

Despite the outrage that is quite rightly felt by the world at this latest terrorist attack, the real lesson for Blair's government is that despite four years of the US led war on terror, the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, and a major expansion of the Security Service, it has to be admitted that Britain is still horribly vulnerable.

Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on revamping and vastly expanding the counter-terrorist capabilities of MI5, JTAC (Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre) and the Special Branch, millions more on MI6, the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Electronic Intelligence Monitoring Agency, GCHQ.

It's the Al Qaeda again

Yet a dedicated terrorist cell has obviously been operating safely within Britain, probably for some months if not longer, and successfully planned and carried out a deadly attack in the very heart of the capital city apparently without any warning.

If the rumours that the Israeli Embassy was indeed tipped off about an imminent attack are true, then the best that can be said is that there was too little time for any warning the UK authorities might have had to be of any significant use.

The first response of the authorities to close down the underground system and the bus network in Central London was undoubtedly right, as was the shutdown of the mobile phone system, particularly as some terrorist explosive devices have been known to be triggered by a simple phone call or text message.

While Britain can be justly proud of the quick and professional response of the emergency services, the hospitals and even the ordinary citizen on the streets of London, the same cannot be said of those services whose duty it is to prevent just such a terrorist outrage.

London Underground resumes

As soon as the sheer scale of the attack was fully understood, COBRA, the Cabinet Office Briefing Room, was quickly activated and the nominated committee of experts was then chaired by the Home Secretary Charles Clarke to manage the emergency services initial response.

But once again, this is simply another Western government being forced to respond to terrorist success. Blair and his Cabinet will have very tough questions to answer over the coming months, and so too will the Director General of MI5, Eliza Manningham Buller and the Senior Counter Terrorism Directors of the Security Service.

Why did the security fail?

There has been more than enough time for MI5 to improve its counter-terrorism performance, and indeed the government has claimed on numerous occasions that is has provided both the cash and the personnel for the Security Services to do so. While it is perfectly correct for Tony Blair and the security chiefs to constantly remind Britain that the total prevention of terrorism is virtually impossible, the fact that a large and well co-ordinated attack has been carried out by a terrorist cell operating within the London area and also within a massively tightened security environment is simply not acceptable.

'Blasts will shake British govt from complacency'

In October 2001, in the wake of the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in New York, MI5 quickly established a threat assessment section known as the Counter-Terrorism Analysis Centre or CTAC. A decision was made in February 2003 to expand the responsibilities of this section to act as a clearing house for threat assessment. Renamed the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre,  it included specialist staff from the other security services including the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6); GCHQ; the Defence Intelligence Staff; the National Criminal Intelligence Service; the Special Branch and TRANSEC (Transport Security Division) of the Department of Transport.

JTAC has supposedly now established itself as an 'authoritative and effective' mechanism for analysing all-source intelligence on the activities, intentions and capabilities of international terrorists who may threaten UK and allied interests worldwide. JTAC sets threat levels and issues timely threat warnings as well as more in-depth reports on trends, terrorist networks and capabilities

Every six months, the prime minister and the small number of ministers within the Intelligence & Security sub-committee receive a so-called "wisp list" of about ten items dealing with potential long term security. This select group of Cabinet Ministers decide what the future policy should be on any particular issue. The imminent threat highlighted by the regular flow of current intelligence assessments that are of greatest significance to these ministers and to the Security Chiefs.

Some security analysts have already questioned whether this mix of long term security policy and current threat assessment is working. The tragic events of July 7th do not give much cause for confidence.

Britain's Security Community works closely with its international partners in the War on Terrorism such as the FBI, the French DST and in particular the Israeli MOSSAD and SHABAK agencies.Indeed Israel has long been at the forefront of global co-operation against Islamic terrorism and was responsible for the creation of both the KILOWATT and MEGATONNE information networks that were to form the basis for today's highly sophisticated Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism co-operation.

In pictures: Terror strikes London

However, it is alarming that nowhere--- amid the millions of phone calls and e-mails that the US National Security Agency and Britain's GCHQ monitor round the clock for any hint of a terrorist attack; the surveillance of airports, seaports, railway stations, the monitoring of known or suspected Islamic extremists by MI5, Special Branch and the FBI; the information that pours in from open source intelligence, the universities who monitor their overseas students on behalf of the security services, informants and the vast resources of the global network of counter-terrorist organizations -- was there apparently a single useful hint over the last six months or so of a major terrorist attack being planned in London!

There still appears to be nothing positively known about the terrorist cell behind the London bombings. There are suggestions of a North African or Syrian-Iraqi connection or that the cell is controlled by so-called Al Qaeda 'godfathers' in France or Germany.

Most disturbing of all for Britain's long term security is the nagging suspicion that the bombers were 'home-grown', drawn from the small minority of second or third generation Muslim immigrants who have become alienated by British society and increasingly 'polarized' by Islamic extremists.

The introduction of tougher immigration controls, ID cards and other draconian police measures will have little or no positive security benefit if the threat is proven to be from this particular internal source.

Many experienced security analysts have become increasingly concerned that the Western powers, if not actually losing the war on terrorism, are indeed falling well short of winning. Tony Blair has said terrorists will not be allowed to destroy "our values and our way of life". However realism suggests that the terrorist can win simply by avoiding defeat.

The buck stops with Tony Blair.

"If you bomb our cities," Osama bin Laden said in one of his recent video tapes, "we will bomb yours."

That should be a crystal clear threat even to the average politician. It is hardly 'rocket science' to have concluded that on the opening day of the well protected G8 Conference in Scotland that London would prove to be a tempting and suitable alternative terrorist target. Yet the threat level had been reduced and many thousands of the Capitals Metropolitan Police Force had been moved north to supplement the local Constabulary protecting the Gleneagles summit.

Putting it bluntly the bloody attack on London represents the single biggest failure of the British Security Services in the War on Terrorism and perhaps one of the worst acts of political negligence for many years.

But coming from a British Government under Tony Blair -- which falsified the Intelligence Dossiers on Iraq; seriously misled both Parliament and the British public on numerous occasions about the 'threat' posed by Saddam Hussein, the existence and capabilities of Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction and indeed the true reasons for the eventual invasion of Iraq -- then perhaps that shouldn't come as so much of a surprise after all.

London blasts: Police arrest one

The British Government must now finally face up to the fact that tough new immigration laws; detention without trial, identity cards and the creation of some sort of police State will neither defeat terrorism nor keep the British people safe from further terrorist outrages.Radical political change and a concerted attempt to deal with the economic and social problems that provide the recruiting grounds for extremism are probably still the only viable long term course for the international community to pursue.

The terrorists have once again proved just how easy it is to paralyze a major city and Manchester or Bristol, Cardiff or Glasgow are just as tempting targets as London and significantly far less well protected.

Britain received the cruellest form of wake up call on Thursday July 7.  But you would be very foolish indeed to be confident that Tony Blair is really listening.

(The author is a Intelligence & Security Consultant and editor of the International Security Database)

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Richard M Bennett