For almost two years, Westminster has been abuzz with what many MPs believed to be an explosive secret. The ringleader of the 7 July London bombings, Mohammed Sidique Khan, was not a so-called ‘clean skin’ who came out of the blue. Instead, he had been bugged, photographed and followed during an MI5 investigation into a thwarted fertiliser-bomb plot more than a year earlier. ‘When this gets out,’ one shadow minister told me last summer, ‘it could bring down the government.’
Well, it got out on Monday, when five men were sentenced to life over the fertiliser plot intercepted in what police called Operation Crevice in March 2004. Arguably, it was MI5’s greatest success — yet the next day’s headlines suggested precisely the reverse. The media were finally allowed to disclose the link between the Crevice investigation and the London bombings — and that Khan had slipped through MI5’s fingers, keeping his head down for a year or more before making his murderous comeback.
Yet, politically, this is nowhere near as toxic as Conservatives hoped. Ministers, too, have been preparing for this day for years. MI5 has been transformed and has a new director-general in Jonathan Evans. The Home Office has been split in two, and a new Office for Counter-Terrorism and Security is now up and running. It is hard to call for heads to roll, or another shake-up. The sole option open to David Davis, the shadow home secretary, is to demand an independent judicial inquiry.
An investigation into MI5’s dealings with Khan has already been carried out by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. It may not have seen the full set of photographs of Khan, but it was certainly told that these images existed. And in assessing the background to the investigation, and the state of MI5 at the time, it found no fault with the spooks. This was, after all, an agency then working with just 2,000 staff. There were more people assigned by the government to answer tax-credit hotlines than working for MI5 on the war on terror.
To trail one terror suspect occupies about 50 intelligence operatives, and MI5 had identified 55 people around Omar Khyam and the six others who stood trial. The service needed to prioritise, and thus divided suspects into two groups: a cohort of 15 who were known to have explicitly discussed acts terrorism, and the remaining 40. Khan and Shehzad Tanweer — another of the 7 July bombers — were among this latter group. MI5 found out only after the 7 July bombs that they were fellow graduates of the al-Qa’eda terror schools in Pakistan.
If Mr Davis were to be granted his judicial inquiry, it would soon find the MI5 of today bears little resemblance to that which let Khan slip. It has 50 per cent more staff, and will hit its target of 3,500 by the end of next year. Old rivalries with other agencies have been buried. Staff from MI6 and Special Branch now have desks in its Thames House headquarters, and while the number of suspected plots has quadrupled to 200 over four years, MI5 has more money, know-how and manpower.
The change in staff numbers conceals a faster cultural shift. Once, the service did everything in-house. An agent could be assigned to the Belfast bureau one year and the accounts department the next. Now, outsiders run its back-office functions and even handle the 100,000 jobs applications it gets each year for the 400 vacancies. When a management consultancy firm was asked to advise MI5 two years ago, it had little to say. Aside from an internet start-up company, it had encountered no other organisation going through change at such a rapid pace.
Four years of shadowing suspects has allowed MI5 to hone its profiling of terror suspects, so it knows better than ever before who it is looking for. One thing is for sure: that archetypal figure bears no relation to the ideas set out in the now-infamous ‘Contest’ document — the anti-terror strategy released by the Cabinet Office in July last year which sought to graft the New Labour world-view on to the practical task of hunting down terrorists. It claimed, for example, that young men could be radicalised by ‘socioeconomic factors such as discrimination, social exclusion and lack of opportunity’.
The biographies of the five convicted men show, yet again, how misplaced this analysis was. Khyam captained the Sussex under-18 cricket team. Anthony Garcia, who bought the fertiliser, drove an Audi A4. Waheed Mahmood was a published author. They flew to Pakistan. They were jetset jihadis, not an Asian underclass.
A better diagnosis can be found in the play which Hanif Kureishi, author of My Beautiful Laundrette, wrote in 1995 for the BBC. Entitled My Son The Fanatic, it depicts an immigrant taxi driver who has settled into Bradford life but then watches in dismay as his boy embraces extremist Islam. Perhaps this was a phenomenon that the West did not want to recognise or take seriously. But as Melanie Phillips explains in her seminal book Londonistan, the warning lights were emphatically flashing.
Seven years ago, Khyam’s uncle told the Times how his nephew had been brainwashed — ‘given a rifle and told martyrdom is a good thing and sent on a suicide mission to places like Kashmir’. What changed was that the location of his suicide mission became the Bluewater Centre in Kent. He had been radicalised by Omar Bakri Mohammed, one of the foreign jihadis who stayed in Britain abusing the hospitality of the liberal judiciary. It was not until July last year that Bakri was banned from Britain.
A pattern is now quite clear. British Muslim extremism is the product of contact between impressionable young men and mainly foreign recruiters. Once, such preachers aimed their bile at the likes of Salman Rushdie, then at the war in Kashmir, then Afghanistan and now Iraq. People like Khyam, once dispatched to fight in Afghanistan, are being encouraged to stay at home, strap homemade bombs to their backs and blow themselves up on the London Underground. Many go to the Pakistani training camps where al-Qa’eda has regrouped.
The good news is they are growing easier to spot. The bad news is that there are limits to what is feasible in a democracy with cherished liberties and finite resources. When the next terrorist attack hits Britain (and everyone who assesses the risk speaks of ‘when’) the names of the attackers will probably be found on an MI5 database. If the service is doing its job properly, it will have logged every young person who visits a suspicious Pakistani camp. But tracking all these people is beyond the remit of a free country. The Stasi had one spy for every 167 East Germans. They could keep tabs on everyone. For MI5, the ratio is one for every 20,000. Our spooks, quite simply, need luck.