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Operation OVERT, airlines & smokescreens - updated 9th Feb 2009

The Intelligence & Security Committee Annual Report for 2006-2007 contained a cryptic passage:

GCHQ's net operating costs rose to £***...recognising a need to strengthen its counter-terrrorism capabilities, GCHQ reallocated resources througout 2005/06 to cover terrorist targets. The work was often manifested through direct support to key Security Service investigations - notably OVERT, for which GCHQ temporarily diverted significant resources to support the operation...

The reference was to an operation which brought UK air travel to a standstill on 9th August 2006, with headlines of plots to blast mid-Atlantic flights. Two years later to the day, the intrepid Richard Norton-Taylor and a colleague in The Guardian were able to state that "after a £10m investigation and trial lasting more than two years, the jury could not agree on the main allegation - that eight men planned to blow up seven airliners on their way to North America from Heathrow".

The subsequent announcement that there would be a retrial was an indication of some discomfort behind the scenes: the issue of 'strained relations' between UK police forces had been raised. Then another factor was introduced: a conviction for blowing up airlines was not obtained because police were unable to collect sufficent evidence, their hand being forced by 'external factors'. Thus Norton-Taylor quoted Peter Clarke, a former senior Met anti-terrorism officer stating "Scotland Yard decided in 'a matter of minutes' that all 20 suspects had to be arrested to prevent them destroying evidence and fleeing or mounting 'a desperate attack'."

Now, in February 2009, the allusion to those 'external factors' is clearer - turf wars between the CIA and British intelligence over 'assets'.

"...The dramatic escalation in CIA activity in the UK followed the exposure in August 2006 of Operation Overt, the alleged airline bomb plot.

The British intelligence official revealed that CIA chiefs sent more resources to the UK because they were not prepared to see American citizens die as a result of MI5's inability to keep tabs on all suspects, even though the Security Service successfully uncovered the plot.

MI5 manpower will have doubled to 4,100 by 2011 but many in the US intelligence community do not think that is enough.

For their part, some British officials are queasy that information obtained by the CIA from British Pakistanis was used to help target Mr Rauf, a British citizen, whom they would have preferred to capture and bring to trial....There is no doubt that a great deal of valuable intelligence vital to British national security is procured by American agents from British sources."

9th Feb 2009, Tim Shipman in the Daily Telegraph

According to Michael Clarke in The Guardian (9th September 2008) "it is an open secret that the United States went behind the back of British officials to have Rashid Rauf arrested in Pakistan and that this risked alerting the UK plotters and blowing apart a year of surveillance and the biggest counter-terrorist operation the UK had ever undertaken."

So US intelligence operating in the UK had obtained information that prompted them to act in Pakistan, even if it meant compromising a British investigation. The only precedent to such high-handedness were actions by Israeli agencies over twenty years ago when their agents withheld from British intelligence information about a plot to assassinate a Palestinian journalist - Naji Ali, a cartoonist - shot dead in a South Kensington street. In 1988, Prime Minister Thatcher expelled a five-man cell and two Israeli diplomats for using their agent Ismael Sowan for planning an operation against the Palestinian Abdul Rahim Mustafa, who was hiding in England at the time.

It has never been entirely clear why the claim of 'insufficent evidence' was made in the first place - maybe in the heat of the moment. After all, as the Guardian timeline on the case observed, Operation OVER surveilllance had been going on for some time:

"July 31 2006: Police begin recording audio and video evidence. Sarwar buys a spade, suitcase and probe thermometer. Police watch him carrying bags into King's Wood, High Wycombe. Officers later find the partially-buried suitcase holding bombmaking ingredients and equipment.
August 1 2006: Sarwar is watched visiting three pharmacies in High Wycombe within 15 minutes. He buys citric acid at each one.
August 2 2006: Ali and Hussain go to the passport office in Victoria, central London, for fast-track applications. Ali's bid is rejected because of a problem with his photograph.
August 3 2006: Hussain is watched meeting Ali by police as Sarwar travels to east London.
August 4 2006: Sarwar is watched by undercover police as he visits a Slough internet cafe and posts several DVD packages to Los Angeles"

There followed a twin-track strategy by British sources to salvage their dignity. Firstly it was not really lack of evidence that had been the issue: "the US action had not led to crucial evidence being lost. Even if [the surveillance operation] had gone on for a few more days we would not have found anything better as evidence than what was found in the first 24 hours". According to The Sun (11th August 2006) "the plot was uncovered nearly a year ago. Intelligence agencies brought in anti-terrorism police at Christmas to watch the suspects".

Secondly, Britain had been holding its hand to protect the mysterious Mr Raof from torture! "Cheney then privately dispatched the CIA's operations director, Jose Rodriguez, to Islamabad to secure the arrest of one of the British suspects, Rashid Rauf, believed to be a possible link with al-Qaida. The British had been watching him and preparing his extradition. They did not want him rendered useless through CIA or Pakistani torture. Within days, news of Rauf's capture reached the British plotters. In a panic, the police had desperately to round up as many suspects as they could find overnight....top officials in British intelligence cursed, threw ashtrays and screamed bloody murder" (Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 10th September 2008)

The Yanks had messed it up! And all for domestic consumption? Simon Jenkins notes that Cheney was apparently "desperate for a headline boost to the Republicans' 2006 mid-term elections". What if it messed up the 'special relationship' a bit?

Now what about this Mr Rashid Rauf? On 19th August 2006 the Daily Mirror's Glen Owen had this to say:

"Rashid Rauf, whose detention in Pakistan was the trigger for the arrest of 23 suspects in Britain, has been accused of taking orders from Al Qaeda's 'No3' in Afghanistan and sending money back to the UK to allow the alleged bombers to buy plane tickets. But after two weeks of interrogation, an inch-by-inch search of his house and analysis of his home computer, officials are now saying that his extradition is 'a way down the track' if it happens at all....Rauf's arrest followed a protracted surveillance operation on him and his family which, The Mail on Sunday has established, dates back to the 7/7 bomb attacks on London....Rauf left for Pakistan four years ago after another uncle was stabbed to death in Birmingham following an alleged dispute over an arranged marriage..."

Notwithstanding his association with public enemy No. 1, Mr Raof was worth losing a leg and an arm for. Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, was charateristically acerbic in his blog of December 2006:

"Despite naming him as the 'mastermind' behind something 'bigger than 9/11', the British government made no attempt to extradite Rashid Rauf on charges of terrorism. That is not difficult to do - the Pakistani authorities have handed over scores of terrorist suspects to the US, many into the extraordinary rendition process, and on average the procedure is astonishingly quick - less than a week and they are out of the country. But the British security services, who placed so much weight on intelligence from Rashid Rauf, were extraordinarily coy about getting him here where his evidence could be properly scrutinised by a British court. However MI5 were greatly embarassed by Birmingham police, who insisted on pointing out that Rauf was wanted in the UK over the alleged murder of his uncle in Birmingham. Now he was in custody in Pakistan, shouldn't we extradite him? So eventually an extradition request over that murder was formally submitted - but not pursued with real energy or effort. There remains no sign that we will see Rauf in the UK."

So here is someone known to security agencies on both sides of the Atlantic, yet somehow he manages to remain at large - after giving the slip to his Police escort!

Mr Rauf's links with the equally mysterious 'Jundullah' have also come to light:
"...The pre-emptive arrest of Rauf, however, prevented British investigators from uncovering the role of the Pakistani ISI and the wider network under its tutelage. US interference may have been designed to protect ongoing illegal relationships with intelligence assets of dubious moral stature.

Intelligence sources say that at least four of the alleged liquid bomb plotters had gone to Pakistan after the earthquake in October 2005 under the cover of humanitarian relief work. The men were reportedly then taken to camps run by Jundullah (Army of Allah), a terrorist organisation loosely linked to al-Qa’ida in the Waziristan area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where they were trained in the fabrication and use of explosives.

Yet, according to ABC News (April 3, 2007), citing US and Pakistani intelligence sources, Jundullah “has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005,” to stage terrorist attacks inside Iran. To avoid Congressional oversight, the Pentagon has funnelled assistance to Jundullah through Afghan military and Pakistani intelligence services. The dual US-ISI sponsorship of Jundullah was, say Pakistani sources, agreed between Vice-President Dick Cheney and former President Pervez Musharraf. As of February 2008, American national security journalist Andrew Cockburn reported that an official Presidential Finding authorized a further $300 million to finance covert operations against Iran from Lebanon to Afghanistan - among the beneficiaries is Jundullah."

26th September 2008, Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed in The Muslim News

So the janus-faced Mr Rauf has a number of associations to thank for not being "rendered useless".

Over and above the US-UK agencies' turf wars, OVERT also brought into public view an unedifying squable between various police forces in the land - about matters such as overtime payments being claimed by the Met and other dirty linen:

"Police involved in Britain's biggest anti-terrorist investigation claimed up to £5 million in overtime, leaked emails show. Thames Valley officers were told the shifts had "premium rates" and would suit those with a "raging credit card habit". Night shifts, thought to be paid at £300 each, would give them time to "read a good book, take up botany or ornithology, study for your sergeant's exam [or] work out the compound interest on a rest day's pay". The internal emails were sent to officers during Operation Overt, the inquiry into an alleged terrorist plot to blow up transatlantic airliners, and related to a huge search in woods near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. ..."

19th September 2008, Evening Standard

Andy Hayman, another now retired Met officer associated with the case, has said that "at times during the Overt inquiry, co-operation between the forces was strained". It sounds like an understatement. He has called for a radical overhaul of the structure of anti-terrorist policing.

Maybe - but the real overhaul needed is of anti-terrorist politics.

£10 million and more has gone into OVERT so far - with untold damage to community relations in Britain. It is not the first time that 'terrorism' incidents have been arc-welded into the public consciousness for short-term political gain. When a UK Home Secretary ordered the bizarre deployment of armoured carriers in Heathrow in December 2005 - terrain most unsuitable for this type of firing power, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former head of the joint intelligence committee, observed "I mean all that stuff... tanks at Heathrow. I mean, I call that overselling."

First posted: 10th September 2008

Links:

The Intelligence & Security Committee Annual Report for 2006-2007

Richard Norton-Taylor and Haroon Siddique in The Guardian, 9th September 2008

Michael Clarke in The Guardian, 9th September 2008

Sean O'Neill in The Times, 10th September 2008

Guardian timeline

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, 10th September 2008

Daily Mail, 19th August 2006

Craig Murray blog, December 2006

Andy Hayman comments in the Times, 10th September 2008

(c) Salaam.co.uk April 2008

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