This morning, a year-long trial in the Old Bailey came to a conclusion. A jury found five of seven Muslim men guilty of conspiracy to detonate bombs intended to kill hundreds in targets as varied as one of the largest of the UK’s shopping malls and one of its largest night clubs, the Ministry of Sound. Sentencing will occur this afternoon. Speculation is that this will be up to forty years for some and the judge has already indicated that there will be no remission.
The seven defendants were arrested in March 2004 following the discovery of more than half a ton of chemical fertiliser in storage in west London. Links with al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan have been established.
The cost of the trial to British taxpayers is estimated at over $100m. The outcome is seen as a success for international co-operation, with security services in the USA, Canada and – in the shadows – Pakistan all being involved.
There is no doubt that MI5, the British counter-intelligence service, with their colleagues in other countries, have averted a serious disaster. One of many, they claim.
There are serious questions, however, over the conduct of the investigations. This group had contact with fifty-five other targets, of which fifteen were designated as high priority. Those designated as "clean skins" or low priority included two of the July 7th bombers that were to kill fifty-two people in London. This was despite some four of five meetings taking place and listened in to by MI5 officers. The lack of resources to track all these people is one concern (it is estimated that to keep tabs on one person for twenty-four hours takes fifty agents). The monitored conversations between the two groups were concerned with committing bank fraud to raise money, hence the low priority allocated to the 7/7 bombers.
Both Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokesmen are demanding a public enquiry as to why the 7/7 bombers were not kept under surveillance. The politics will be to downplay a security success by highlighting a security failure -–a deadly security failure.
Like all security operations, there are ludicrous errors. An example was when one of the group was under surveillance, but on 2 August 2004 the New York Times published his name, citing Pakistani sources. The leak caused police in Britain and Canada to make arrests before their investigations were complete. The U.S. government later said they, in their haste to gain political advantage, had given the name to some journalists as background, for which Tom Ridge, the U.S. homeland security secretary, apologised.
We should make no mistake, a bomb plot that threatened hundred of lives was averted. There are cells in our countries that are determined to take lives of the innocent in exchange for what they perceive as a war on their religion. The outcome will be more resources for our intelligence services, more resources for the war on terror.
As a Liberal Democrat I cannot deny the need for this, nor for an intensification of our efforts to combat the terror that others want to propagate on our societies.
The tragedy can be seen in one of the two young Muslims who have been found not guilty. He was recorded on MI5 tapes arguing that the taking of innocent lives was wrong. "Why is it necessary?" he is shown as asking. Why indeed.
The power of our nightmares will continue and increase until we can reach out to these young men who ask this question as to why innocents should die – give full voice to a fundamental part of their religion that demands that they should not. This is really what we should hold public enquiries about.