MI5 head unveiled

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Friday, November 10 2006

So Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller has made a public statement declaring “young (Muslim) teenagers [are] being groomed to be suicide bombers”. Who am I to argue with the head of MI5 who manages a £750 million budget and has all the apparatus of state at her disposal?

However the questions that spring to mind are these: who is grooming the groomers? Why should I trust such dramatic declarations? What were your expectations from such an unprecedented public intervention? What is the way forward if there are some 200 groupings or networks, totaling 1600 identified individuals who are actively engaged in plotting, or facilitating, terrorists acts here and overseas?

Nine days ago, Dame Eliza, your Secretary of State at the Home Office, John Reid, made a jingoistic speech declaring, “Islamist terrorism embodies much of what threatens our security today”. A newspaper reported that John Reid yesterday invoked the memory of Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the Dambusters’ raid bouncing bomb’, and Alan Turing, the Enigma codebreaker, in appealing to British industry to encourage technical innovation in the “war against terror” (1 November, The Guardian).

A few days later Foreign Secretary Margaret Becket called on British Muslims to ‘stand and be counted’. Is it a coincidence that your speech now follows? Responding to your remarks, the 1990 Trust issued a press release noting that all this could be “seen as softening up the public in advance of new security measures expected to by announced in the Queens Speech on Wednesday”. Surely it would be a misjudgement for any civil servant to be drawn into the political arena and seek to please the political masters.

New Labour has lost the trust of the British public. As Richard Ingrams notes “so many lies have been told both before and after the invasion of Iraq that large sections of the public no longer believe what they are told about the terrorist threat” (The Independent, 11 November 2006). An earlier DG at MI5, Dame Stella Rimington observed that “in my opinion the purpose of intelligence is to inform governments so they can form their policies, not to help governments justify policies they have already formed”. You have run the risk of being tainted by association.

There are alternative interpretations of course. Between the lines is there a call for more resources? Or is it a warning that you will seek a blanket cover for internments or similar restrictions of liberties in case of another atrocity, God forbid? Or perhaps, like Stephen Lawrence enquiry highlighted in the case of the Met, there is a problem of institutional racism and the xenophobic faction within your organisation has bent your ear?

The Muslim community does not condone, for even a second, persons convicted of breaking the law – look at the statements from the Muslim Council of Britain since 9/11 and its pocket guide ‘Know your rights’. So far we know of the following successful convictions under the terrorism laws: Dhiren Barot aka Isa Hindi and Sajad Badat (both through confessions); Andrew Rowe aka Yusuf Abdullah, Abu Bakr Mansha, Abu Hamza and Abbas Boutrob; and arising from the so-called ‘Ricin’ plot, Kamel Bourgass (also tried in June 2004 for the murder of DC Stephen Oake). There are a handful of others associated with supporting proscribed organisations in hotspots like Kashmir (- no one is quite sure where John Reid got his figure of 214 convictions under the Terrorism laws and groups such as the Muslim Safety Forum are pressing for the details).

One crime – including the July 7 bombers – is one too many and a sobering realisation for the Muslim community. However as Baroness Uddin has pointed out, warnings of threats or the subsequent known convictions are no basis for an indictment on the whole community (11th November, The Independent). When Philby and the other Cambridge spies were unmasked – and one only needs to refer to accounts of the early Cold War to see how much blood they had on their hands – the response was not to shut down Trinity College! The sort of painstaking, unpublicised intelligence work which uncovered Anthony Blunt and his proteges, and insightful interrogations to distinguish the light-weight fantasist from the heavy-weight killer is needed. Again quoting your predecessor Stella Rimington: “hasty warnings can backfire, making people paranoid with constant orange alerts”. Take heed of the respected Norton-Taylor’s comments: “sceptics will question why MI5 and the police have not acted to arrest or charge those said to pose such a direct threat to Britain’s security. Security sources argue that the alleged plotters are still being tracked because there is either insufficient evidence to apprehend and charge them or because their plans have not reached the stage when they pose an imminent threat to the public”(10th November, The Guardian). So Dame Eliza, if you believe there are 200 groups in criminal conspiracy and 30 serious plots, work with the Police and get the evidence – don’t create panic.

The Prime Minister on 4th July 2006 observed that Muslims have a “completely false sense of grievance against the west”. In your own speech there is this odd sentence – “the extremists are motivated by a sense of grievance and injustice driven by their interpretation on of the history between the West and the Muslim world”. You add, “they [British suicide bombers] are motivated by perceived worldwide and long-standing injustices against Muslims” Palestinian refugees are one of the largest and longest-standing unresolved cases of displacement in the world today. In January 1949 Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, looking at the Palestinian refugee problem, declared that the “driving of poor innocent people from their homes, whether it is in Germany by Hitler, or by anybody else, is a crime.” A crime is a crime -not an interpretation of history or a perceived hurt.

So long as the real injustices – most notably the partition of Palestine and the continuing traumas of its displaced and occupied peoples – are trivialised you will not be any nearer to understanding the problem. In your own career you have seen the dirty war waged by MI5 and the Provisionals in Northern Ireland concluded through political negotiation. The terrorist paymasters of the assassins sent to Britain to deal with Bevin and Prime Minister Attlee in London through letter bombs (according to MI 5 files released this year) were later honoured guests!

The way out of the current impasse is to make Muslims stake holders in an even-handed foreign policy that would be in Britain’s best interests, and start negotiating with your opponents ñ even the lethal killers – on the other side of this dirty war.

Now let us come to the matter of ‘groomers’. It seems to us in the Muslim community that certain ‘useful idiots’ have been allowed to nurse a veritable nursery of younger useful idiots. Why? Who knows the full workings of your mysterious world? Why, for example, was Omar Bakri left uncharged and free in 1991 when he stated that Prime Minister John Major was a legitimate target? Don’t tell me it was because of insufficient legislation! You have section 4 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 which prohibits the encouragement, persuading or endeavouring to persuade any other person to murder any other person; Section 1(a) of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it an offence to conspire with others to commit offences outside the United Kingdom.

And you, more than anyone, would know the full story of Abu Qatada. Richard Norton-Taylor, the security specialist, wrote in The Guardian that Abu Qatada, an “influential Muslim radical alleged to be a key al-Qaida leader in Europe and jailed without trial, offered to act as an informant for MI5 on Islamist extremists in Britain, it emerged last night” (24th March 2004). On 18th October 2006, The Guardian repeated the suggestion of Qatada’s contact with your agency, in an article on the Gauntanamo detainee Bishr al-Rawi: his (al-Rawi’s) interrogations have focused on his association with Abu Qatada, the London-based Islamist cleric who is suspected of being a spiritual advisor and fundraiser for an al-Qaida network, and who is currently held in Full Sutton maximimum security jail. However, the government now accepts al-Rawi was helping MI5 keep watch on Qatada and as a go-between with the cleric”. Abu Qatada came to the UK in 1993 and was allowed to tend to his nursery of younger useful idiots -and shop a few – for a decade.

Or take the case of Abu Hamza, who took-over of Finsbury Park mosque in 1996 with his gang. According to a former trustee, Mufti Barkatulla, “we tried to get him arrested but he is never apprehended. I asked Scotland Yard what they were doing. There was suspicion the police had another agenda”.

It seems that the groomers were allowed to groom because it fitted in with a particular policy. Not the sort of policy that exists in the crazed imagination of the likes of Melanie Phillips (her argument is that “Londonistan emerged because of the British instinct for appeasement” – see pages 226 and 247 of her book of this title). Far from muddle-headedness, security organisations like yours, Dame Eliza, looked at the cost-benefits and reached a certain ruthless conclusion. This was captured in The Guardian (25 August 2005) as follows: “US authorities were exasperated at the way that Abu Hamza was allowed to preach to a large crowd of radical followers every Friday outside the Finsbury Park mosque. But for a British spook, this kind of weekly photo opportunity is worth its weight in gold, and probably far harder to find with Abu Hamza now in custody, pending extradition to the US”.

The Financial Times ( 20 January 2005) also noted: “officials see the prevention of attacks and the use of robust means to make it known to radicals they are being watched as more important than the preservation of harmonious relations with the Muslim community”. These are chilling revelations. In short, there has been a deliberate trade-off to allow the Bakris to receive publicity so that this would bring out others from the woodwork. If the community is demonised or stigmatised as a result, bad luck!

Finally we are also indebted to the former minister Michael Meacher for lifting a corner of the veil. In an article entitled ‘Britain now faces its own blowback’ (The Guardian, 10th September 2005), he wrote, less well known is evidence of the British government’s relationship with a wider Islamist terrorist network [in Bosnia during the early 1990s]. During an interview on Fox TV this summer, the former US federal prosecutor John Loftus reported that British intelligence had used the al-Muhajiroun group in London to recruit Islamist militants with British passports for the war against the Serbs in Kosovo. Since July Scotland Yard has been interested in an alleged member of al-Muhajiroun, Haroon Rashid Aswat, who some sources have suggested could have been behind the London bombingsî.

So you see Dame Eliza, your statement that “I do not speak in this way to alarm-but to give the most frank account I can of the Al-Qaida threat to the UK” does not seem to us quite frank.