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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 May 2006, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK
Missed chances but nobody blamed
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News website

The twin reports into the London bombings of 7 July 2005 are marked by the characteristically British habit in these types of inquiries of listing a long series of failures and then not blaming anyone.

CCTV of bombers
The ISC expressed surprise that Britons had 'blown themselves up'

The failures range from a conceptual disbelief that British citizens would become suicide bombers to practical shortcomings like not following up phone numbers discovered in other investigations and not showing a key photograph to one informer.

The contrast with the report of the American commission on the attacks of 9/11 is stark.

The British government's official account concludes: "This case demonstrates the real difficulties for law enforcement agencies and local communities in identifying potential terrorists."

The report of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) says: "It is tragic that, despite their success in disrupting other planned attacks, the attacks that took place in London on 7 July 2005 were not prevented."

This report does have a little sting in the tail in its last sentence: "We believe that lessons have been learned."

That is a rap on the knuckles and will be understood as such by those who can decode the language of British officialdom.

But it's a delicate one.

Compare this to what the American commission said: "Across the government, there were failures of imagination, policy, capabilities and management. The most important failure was one of imagination."

The same accusation could have been made about the performance of British agencies over the London bombings.

It turns out that they were much closer to preventing it than most people thought and probably could have done so if one or two further steps had been taken.

However, that they were not taken is not attributed to a "failure of imagination" but to a lack of resources and the greater priority given to other investigations.

Marginal figures

A curiously circular argument is used to justify a decision not to investigate Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, who had cropped up as supposedly marginal figures in a major investigation into another plot.

They were discounted as marginal figures but they were only marginal because they were not investigated.

Here are some of the missed opportunities identified, mainly by the ISC report, which is less bland than the government one.

  • MI5 "had on record" a number used by one of the bombers Germaine Lindsay. This was said, however, to have been identifiable only after the attacks, though the report does not say why

  • There was also a number used by a "Sidique Khan", identified as the bomber after the attacks, and used by him to talk to a suspect in another investigation

  • Two figures on the "peripheries of other investigations" and now known to be Khan and Tanweer were not identified at the time - 2004 - because there were not enough people to spare to find out who they were

  • An effort was made to find out their identities but "resources were soon again diverted to higher priorities"

  • Detainees held outside the UK reported on two men - in fact Khan and Tanweer - who went to Pakistan in early 2004. A photograph of Khan - taken as part of the other investigation - was shown to one of these detainees who did not identify the person. But it was not shown to another informant who, after the explosions, identified Khan from a press photo.

There was surprise that Britons had blown themselves up within the UK.

"The fact that there were suicide attacks in the UK on 7 July was clearly unexpected," says the committee report.

Yet Richard Reid had tried to do it and two young British Muslims had blown up a bar in Tel Aviv, though one of them did not set his bomb off for some reason and was found dead later.

The committee report gets it wrong when it says in a footnote that these two "attempted to conduct suicide attacks on a Tel Aviv bar". There was an attack and three people as well as one of the bombers were killed.

Difficult predictions

There was also an underestimation about the speed with which young British Muslims could be radicalised.

There is no real answer as to why these four should have turned to terrorism while others did not

One of the lessons learned was that efforts must be stepped up to identify people "upstream" who might turn into bombers, though predictions are very difficult to make.

As for motivation, little is added to what is already known. The committee report does quote an intelligence report that "events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation", though Khan did not refer specially to Iraq in his video. Other than that, the usual motives of anger against the West appear to have applied.

And there is no real answer as to why these four should have turned to terrorism while others did not.

As for al-Qaeda, it is concluded that there could have been a link, because Khan - the leader - and Tanweer - his lieutenant - were in Pakistan for some time and their planning for the attack appears to have started in earnest when they returned. It is possible, the government account concludes, that Khan made his video there.

So another lesson is that the Secret Intelligence Service, also called MI6, is to increase its surveillance and open new stations in places where potential bombers might go to get training and indoctrination.

Overall, what both reports indicate is how much was feared yet how little was known
Pakistan is the most obvious place because three of the four bombers had parents who came from there, and in particular from Kashmir.

It is surprising that the reports do not make more of the Kashmir link, as Kashmiris are so numerous in Muslim society in Britain and Kashmir itself is a source of militants already, fighting against India.

Overall, what both reports indicate is how much was feared yet how little was known.

Sir David Pepper, director of the government's electronic listening agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), quoted the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's famous remark:

"What happened in July was a demonstration that there were [x number] of conspiracies going on about which we essentially knew nothing, and that rather sharpens the perception of how big, if I can use Rumsfeld's term, the unknown unknowns are."


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