Why the CIA has to spy on Britain

Tim Shipman says that Britain is now so overwhelmed by Islamist extremists and terrorist plots that our foreign policy has become subservient to our desperate need for intelligence

25 February 2009

12:00 AM

25 February 2009

12:00 AM

On the night of the Mumbai attacks I spoke to an old security source of mine, who has friends in SIS, MI5 and defence intelligence. There was only one thought on the minds of our security chiefs that night: ‘Are they British?’

In the bar of the Travellers Club and the pubs and tapas restaurants of Vauxhall Bridge Cross, drink was taken in double and treble measures amid grim assumption that the terrorists would turn out to have links to the UK. It was a fair assumption since, where international terrorism is concerned, Britain is no longer part of the solution; we are part of the problem. Where once we exported football hooligans, now we are among the world’s most prolific suppliers of Islamist extremists. Mercifully, the Mumbai terrorists had no discernible link to the UK. But as the industrial-scale intelligence arse-covering exercise groaned into action that day, no one would have been surprised to discover that another suicidal cell of British militants had slipped through the net.

Serving and former intelligence officers on both sides of the Atlantic say that the UK’s status as a hotbed of militancy and an exporter of terror means that obtaining intelligence, once a by-product of good international relations, has become a goal as much as an instrument of foreign policy. Take one recent example, the case of Binyam Mohamed, the British resident recently returned from Guantanamo Bay. Trying to discern the truth from David Miliband’s public pronouncements on the affair has been a little like preparing an intelligence assessment — the publicly available facts are sketchy and the true motives of the participants are concealed behind layers of cant, hypocrisy and not a little squirming embarrassment. The foreign secretary allowed critics to assume he is lying when he claimed the US threatened to cut off intelligence-sharing if the full details of the torture meted out to Mr Mohamed in a CIA black prison were laid bare in the High Court. Mr Miliband was more content with the suggestion (accurate as it happens) that he was concealing evidence of British complicity in the interrogations rather than admit that British intelligence has become dependent to an unprecedented and embarrassing degree on the CIA, a relationship he could ill afford to threaten.

By MI5’s own admission, there are 2,000 terrorists suspects in the UK, perhaps twice that number who are susceptible to recruitment. As Jonathan Evans, the director-general, put it in January: ‘We don’t have anything approaching comprehensive coverage.’ MI5 deserves great praise for thwarting numerous attacks but sources say the Security Service can monitor, at most, two live plots at a time.

Into the vacuum have stepped the Americans. The CIA is now running its own agent networks on an unprecedented scale in the British Pakistani community. A British security source told me that somewhere between 40 and 60 per cent of CIA activity designed to prevent a new terrorist spectacular on American soil is now directed at targets in the UK. This is a quite staggering number. I ran the figure by several former CIA officers in the US, all of whom still have close links with the intelligence community. The consensus was that the 40 per cent figure is about right. ‘If you’re talking about total global operations, that would be an exaggeration,’ one national security official said. ‘If you’re talking about operations to deal with threats against the US homeland, that’s the ball park.’ This has caused some tensions in what my old tutor Dr Chris Andrew, now the official historian of MI5, calls ‘the most special part of the special relationship’. A former CIA officer who still does freelance work for the agency, said: ‘Britain is an Islamist swamp. You don’t want to have to spend time spying on your friends.’

As far as our closest ally is concerned, Britain is not part of the problem, Britain is the problem. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and Middle East expert on the NSC for three presidents, who has just been appointed to head Barack Obama’s overhaul of Afghan strategy, told me: ‘The 800,000 or so British citizens of Pakistani origin are regarded by the American intelligence community as perhaps the single biggest threat environment that they have to worry about.’


In short, the US believes that if there is to be a repeat of 9/11, it is most likely to be carried out by British Muslim terrorists.Robert Mueller, the head of the FBI, used a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington this week to announce that the bureau is now specifically targeting extremist splinter groups seeking to enter the US through the visa waiver programme.

Intelligence gained by American operatives from British people in Britain has thwarted several attacks and helped locate Rashid Rauf, an al-Qa’eda operative who was implicated in Operation Overt, the alleged plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic, who was killed in a US missile strike last November.

It’s understandable that the government’s response to the Binyam Mohamed affair was shaped by the need to protect this flow of information. But it is not an isolated example. Tony Blair’s decision to lean on the Serious Fraud Office and bring a halt, two years ago, to the corruption inquiry into BAE’s dealings with the Saudi government came after a Saudi threat to cut off intelligence co-operation.

The initial reluctance of the British government to point the finger at the Russians for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko owed a lot to anguish in MI6 at the likely loss of FSB intelligence on Muslim terrorist suspects, drug-smugglers and people-traffickers through the Balkans. British policy towards Pakistan is similarly defined by the desire to balance political reform with the need to maintain a steady flow of intelligence from the Pakistani military and those bits of the ISI intelligence agency that are not a wholly owned subsidiary of al-Qa’eda. Their information was vital in understanding how the London bombers of July 2005 were radicalised and trained.

Patrick Mercer, chairman of the Commons counter-terrorism sub-committee, said: ‘Once Britain has become seen as a net exporter of terror it’s understandable that other nations concentrate their intelligence efforts here and those links become increasingly important.’

The subordination of foreign policy to intelligence needs goes even further when it is shaped by the desire to avoid antagonising potential militants in the UK. Contrast Tony Blair’s support for Israel’s war in Lebanon with Gordon Brown’s immediate calls for a ceasefire in Gaza. Then listen to the security minister Lord West: ‘Tony Blair would never accept that our foreign policy actually had any impact on radicalisation; well, that is clearly bollocks. This business in Gaza has not helped us at all in our counter-radicalisation policy.’

You don’t have to support the Iraq war or Israeli aggression to know that governments need to be free to make decisions in the national interest without trimming their sails to avoid annoying potential homegrown terrorists. But the quest to prevent a new atrocity has become the secret driving force of British foreign policy. The reason is the debilitating fear of what would happen if British militants succeeded in an attack overseas. David Miliband’s trip to India after Mumbai was a diplomatic disaster. Imagine how much worse it would have been had British extremists, as was originally feared, been behind the attacks. British India policy now would be a protracted effort to placate and apologise.

Then consider the reaction in France, whose security services were first to coin the phrase ‘Londonistan&
#8217; to describe that Islamist swamp, if British Islamists ever struck across the Channel. We’d put even fewer past M. Sarkozy in the corridors of Brussels if that ever happened.

Finally, consider the case currently before Woolwich Crown Court, where eight British Muslims are on trial charged with plotting to blow up seven transatlantic airliners in August 2006. These men are innocent until proven guilty, but the knock-on effect of the case has already been felt in the intelligence world. It was the prospect of the airline bomb plot that initially persuaded the US to step up their espionage activities in the UK.

In the eyes of MI5, one British intelligence official said, ‘The fear is that something like this would not just kill people but cause a historic rift between the US and the UK. If an American aircraft carrying American passengers had been brought down out of the United Kingdom by British subjects, you can imagine the fallout. That is the sort of thing that brings governments down.’

That thought is why the spooks were downing double measures, David Miliband is dealing in half-truths, and somewhere in West Yorkshire the CIA is dining on chicken madras.

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Show comments
  • Jenny

    This has to be the scariest thing in this article:

    ‘Lord West: ‘Tony Blair would never accept that our foreign policy actually had any impact on radicalisation; well, that is clearly bollocks.”‘

    I know Lord West thinks the history of the world began with the presidency of George Bush, some of us, though, know that it stretches back to the Gates of Vienna and well beyond.

    I’m not surprised the CIA have given up on the UK. It’s thanks to people such as Lord West that the rest of us gave up a long time ago.

  • Ken

    Well clearly until the UK’s Islamist swamp is drained, cleansed and concreted over, cabinet ministers should personally be accountable for each and every extremist not subjected to zero tolerance. That means Brown in the dock, literally. Of course zero tolerance towards Islamists needs nationwide rollout with no further equivocation. It must be an extraordinary misuse of resource that the US feels the need to spy inside the UK because the government of the day is an abject appeaser.

  • Peter Hyde

    The biggest danger to world peace is this mamby pamby government who encourage extremists to come and settle here. U.S. are right to be scared

  • Ian J Saunders

    The elephant in the room

  • stuart

    And yet with one cctv camera for every fourteen residents, Labour regime seems to have unlimited resources to spy on motorists, people purchasing alcohol, or putting the ‘wrong’ kind of waste in their bin etc. etc……..

  • C Powell

    So the threat comes from 800,000 citizens of Pakistani origin. Well, who’d have thought it, eh? Our own enemy within and the government not only does nothing to stop further immigration from Pakistan (and other similar countries) or take action against those within that community who are a risk but is now proposing to talk to the very extremists who are behind the problem.

    Jesus wept…..

    Given the Left’s failure and unwillingness to understand the Islamist threat and Labour’s need for votes from that same community, nothing will be done about this until we get a new government. I just wish I could be certain that such a new goverment really would isolate the extremists and focus its efforts on those people who are the problem rather than worrying about cries of racism or discrimination.

  • Grunston

    Equines. Bolts. stables.



  • Herbert Thornton

    It is to be hoped that this will open more peoples’ minds to realisation of how desperately Britain needs to elect a BNP government.

    On the other hand, has the madness that I call Political Correctness Disease so infected the media and the establishment with blind prejudice that even otherwise rational people like Melanie Philips will continue to rail against the BNP at every opportunity?

  • Gil

    I would have thought that after the BBC’s infamous post 9/11 Question Time the CIA would have realised that the Establishment here was anti-American (and anti-Semitic). More evidence would have come with ‘Spooks’.Seeing the mob ransack Starbucks branches would have been the final proof. This country is certainly not part of the solution.

  • Mark Solomon

    Do we get any past Mr Sarkozy at present? None that one would notice….

    As to your penultimate paragraph, the USA would have to suck it up, just like we had to all those years our soldiers and civilians were killed by IRA bombs financed in the USA with their security services doing nothing to stop it and their Presidents courting the votes of those who donated the money.

    All this Islamists in the UK nonsense could be stopped with two simple measures:

    1. Stop paying benefits to anyone who has not previously made a contribution to the system, and then for a limited time only, as they do in other sensible European countries. Islamist plotting needs time and money and the UK benefits system gives them both. They will move elsewhere if the system changes, so this one move will solve our security, social, foreign relations, criminal and many other problems at a stroke.

    2. Stop the PC appeasement. No sharia anywhere for anything. The full extent of UK law applied to treatment of women. No proxy voting without a doctor’s certificate. No concessions and the full application of UK law and traditions. No Ramadan in schools – better still, the French approach of no religion in schools, strictly lay.

    Bending over backwards has just led to the current situation – no one has gone so far down the road of appeasement as the UK and consequently no one has the problem the UK does. Learn from history: you may want peace with all your heart but if the other side is set on war, then war it will be. Appeasement and lack of preparedness just means the battle will be harder and longer and more of your own will die when it happens.

  • Michael Brett

    Hardly surprising I suppose. But part of me keeps remembering an old policeman friend who would have murmured something about all the overtime one could get from scares like this. You could include articles, interviews, book contracts…jobs.

  • Roy

    One phrase says it all: “is shaped by the desire to avoid antagonising potential militants in the UK”. British appeasers are more concerned of not hurting the feelings of these people than doing something constructive by clamping down hard. If it is known that this crowd is taking military training in Pakistan or elsewhere they should be told their British Passport has been withdrawn . . . end of story. But no, the overplay of fairplay has to be taken to extremes and the whole western alliance goes into abeyance.

  • John Herbert

    To the left July 2005 is a distant memory, 9/11 is already an inside conspiracy. With respect, the comments of Michael Brett encapsulate this whimsy and soft headedness better than anything else could.

  • Stephen Green

    It’s simple, Islam cannot mix with cultures and religions of the west (or any other culture). Their for needs to be removed from Europe, as it really is a threat to our way of lives, and peace on the whole.
    With current birth rates within Islamic/Pakistani families, in the UK, and considering the declining birthrates of the indigenous population (not to mention immigration). Islamics are set to make up 40% of the UK’s population by 2025.
    If the people of the UK don’t wake up soon and start voting for the BNP, then the country is finished within a generation!

  • Craig

    This multicultural game is really fun, isn’t it? If only we’d known how exciting things would become forty years ago when we decided to play…

  • Archie

    To Mark Solomon: have you considered standing ing for office, Sir? here’s one vote!

  • John Thomas

    I don’t disagree with the sentiments of most commentators here (namely, that we should stop appeasement, get real, and take hard action, even if it offends the “liberation” lobby) – but I would just add one idea that no one seems to consider, in these discussions of the Islamisation of Britain/Europe: it may currently be the case that Pakistani birthrates are very much higher than those of indigenous peoples, but we cannot assume that that will always be the case. It is accepted that as former-immigrant communities get wealthier, and move into their third generations, they cease to breed at a high rate. Maybe this will happen with Pakistanis/ Muslims also. Perhaps in the future we will hear of embittered, rabid Islamicist mullahs complaining that “their” people are ceasing to care about the jihadist struggle, and are far too keen on paying their kids’ way through public school, and onto the property ladder. Present trends/situations don’t have to continue and grow, unchanged, perpetually. Remember the fate of Malthusianism?

  • Tony Renney

    Surely,people must now admit that Enoch Powell was right.

  • Tony

    There should be a true dialog in society about migration, the gains for the country but also the dangerous for the country. First we should ask ourselves, why do we accept so many non-western foreigners to the west? I would argue, that there are several reasons for that. I would like to take a closer look at two points:

    -demographics; the babyboomers and the following generation didn’t reproduce in sufficient numbers, as a result our economies depend on migrants to keep up productivity.
    -humanitarian reasons and new social/political ideas; these which have gained massive ground since 1968. It was argued that modern western multiculturalistic ideas were universalistic, thus all cultures and peoples would accept them and live peacefully together.

    The first point has worked so far more or less. Had the west not enjoyed massive migration since the 60s, the demographic realities would have kicked in earlier, and quality of life would of fallen already before. However, the second aspect has played out a bit different then it was originally intended, as we can see intensified conflicts on the fault lines of civilizations – to use Samuel Huntingtons approach. Personaly i would advocate open borders, but I would make demands for new-arrivers: The language must be mastered; there must be several years of work before there can be requested any social benefits; if your ciminal you must leave.
    That has worked for all great countries in the past. Maybe we can learn from US Imigration policy of the 19. century, a process they called americanisation, where newcomers were urged to adopt the american customs and ways of doing things. But thats just my idea. Nothing like this is happening.

    In order to fix Britain and the West, our leadership must somehow come up with a way to integrate all of our peoples and cultures into a new sense of common interest. I just don’t see how this is going to happen. The social peace and mutual trust seem to deteriorate every couple of weeks. Where is this going i ask?

  • Tony

    One more thing to add. Every few month, I read myself through the British and European news media, I start to think and to compare what is going on, with what has been going on in the last year or so, and I say to myself: “Gee, it seems as if things have deteriorated again. What happened to Plan XYZ , which they(Government) came up after the last big demonstration, or after the latest newspaper scandal? After every minor or bigger scanadal, you see politicians from Zapatero to Brown to Sarkozy to Balkenende say, that things are going to change. One million here, one million there, a sensitivity programm and some Streetworkers are usualy the result.”

    But then I ask myself, how many street workers are there already on the streets? How many more sensitivity trainings will there be for the bureaucrats, the police and Journalists, so that there may never be anymore an insult against anybody? How many millions have they already spent to print anti-violence leaflets? I could go on and on with this list. The question is, if its ever going to get any better? Or will western cities look more and more like Sao Paulo, Mexico city or Manila in the future? Does the future of Europe really look like Lebanon on a large scale, where rival groups make eatchothers lives miserable with constant attacks?

  • jon livesey

    I am just as tempted as anyone to reach for a quick solution, but when a problem has been brewing for a long time, quick solutions are rarely available.

    The solution to the Londonistan problem can only consist of playing a long game of many parts. Moslems in Britain have to coaxed and coerced into de-radicalization by a combination of incentives and threats; removal of benefits, suspension of passports, body searches of all travellers to and from Islamic countries, deportation of radical preachers, abolition of Islamic schools and full integration of Moslem youth into the state school system, Moslem recuitment into the Police forces, Armed forces, and security services. Moslems in the sub-continent and in the Levant a century ago competed to serve the UK and to become more British than the British. That has to be our aim today, but we have to recognize that it will take decades to achieve, and also that the current generation of UK Moslems is effectively “lost” and that our efforts should be concentrated on UK Moslems just being born.

    But there is one short-term thing we can do to deal with today’s problem. If UK Moslems are a threat to the US, then use the unequal deportation Treaty, that is currently used to victimize and intimidate British businessmen, to hand the Americans responsibility for solving their own problems. If the Americans think UK Moslems are threatening the US, then let them extradite whoever they want to stand trial in US Courts, and let the UK get on with the long-term job of integrating UK Moslems into UK society. That is the real task for we British, not pulling the Americans’ chestnuts out of the fire for them; a task for which we will get no thanks, as usual.

  • Bill Corr

    Islamic extremism in an immense and still-growing minority community? An insoluble problem? Never!

    When will someone in a position of real responsibility dare to suggest mass expulsions and deportations? This year? Next year? When?

    Just in case many or most readers assume that the Labour Party is responsible for all our present ills, here’s an anecdote, possibly apocryphal, from the 1951-1964 Tory years:

    An insignificant rank-and-file Conservative from a Northern mill town – this was when those towns still had working mills – briefly cornered Duncan Sandys at a Tory Party conference and demanded to know why the Conservative government was letting so many very obviously unassimilable aliens into the country.

    Duncan Sandys is said to have looked at this unimportant person with patrician disdain and hauteur and replied:

    “Well, there’s a labour shortage, isn’t there?”

    Precisely! In the eyes of many senior Conservatives, then and now, the short-term interests of the employing class were far more important than the long-term interests of the British people.

  • David Short

    I’m not sure I believe much of this badly-written, cliche-riden article: it does not quite ring true, and it doesn’t read as if the author has high-level, well-informed sources.

    But it is true that the US has never been able to trust the Labour administration since 1997 because it relies so much on Muslim votes in the Midlands and the North.

    George W Bush realised this when he expressed his doubts about Jack Straw.

    As long ago as 2006, Blair was under pressure West Bromwich West MP, Tommy Watson, and a cabal of Midlands MPs because of even more pressure they had come under from their Muslim constituents.

    The headline ‘Why the CIA has to spy on Britain’ is objectionable and inaccurate. ‘Why the CIA has to spy in Britain’ would be neither.

  • The Masked Marvel

    “British resident”? Are you mad? He’s no more legally British than Geert Wilders, whom HM Government turned away at the gates. The man voided his temporary residency once he left illegally to “sort out his drugs habit” in the poppy fields of Afghanistan.

    No more BBC News for you before bedtime.

  • Charlieray15

    Labour’s appeasement of Islamic extremism goes back to Rushdie “fatwa”, exemplified by the appalling Hattersly. It’s all part of a pice – they will do anything to stay in power, hence the client state and the lack of proper action against Moslem incitement to crime, public order offences and sedition.


    Nice to see people staring to wake up. A little late though. We have a population time bomb ticking very loudly. The only way to halt this invasion, is to stop making every thing so easy for them.
    And send them back to a country that is more to there way of life. Or! do nothing and wait

    for the bloodshed that will defiantly follow.