Finding the Bombers
An independent public inquiry into the events of 7th July 2005 may have been ruled out by departing Prime Minister Tony Blair, but the pressure for one will not go away.
Meanwhile the ongoing police investigation into the bombings has recently stepped up a gear with a series of arrests. Kurt Barling looks at the unanswered questions which have left the bereaved families of the murdered and survivors bewildered.
Those directly affected by the atrocities on 7th July 2005 need answers. Closure is impossible without it. Victims I have spoken to are still angry about what they perceive to be inadequate compensation. For them knowing whether the whole affair was preventable is of the utmost importance.
Of course the desire to know what more can be done to prevent future attacks means legitimate questions need to be asked, and answered, about the conduct of the security services and police in the years prior to 2005.
Of particular interest is the way in which the intelligence services handled information coming out of Finsbury Park mosque in the years following Abu Hamza’s takeover in 2000.
The painstaking investigation by the police to find those who may have helped the bombers is now approaching its second year. Three men are due to return to the Old Bailey on June 8th after being charged with conspiring with the suicide bombers.
Last week 4 other people including the widow of suicide bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan, the alleged ringleader, were arrested and brought to London to be interviewed by detectives from the Metropolitan Police anti-terror squad. All four were held on suspicion of aiding the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.
One of the key issues for the security and police services is how to deal with the prospect of a suicide bomber carrying out a threat. Unlike tackling the IRA bombers, who invariably did not want to die, the authorities cannot wait until the point of detonation to apprehend their suspected target. The Jean Charles de Menezes shooting showed everyone just how delicate a balance will need to be struck in the future.
During the worst days of the IRA campaign on the mainland, warnings were telephoned prior to the bombs exploding. Sometimes this only gave the authorities’ minutes to play with, but it meant from a strategic point of view that the danger to life was minimised and the onus was on the emergency services having plans to react speedily to a specific threat.
Investigators would then sift through the debris caused by an explosion to identify evidence. These clues could ultimately lead them to an individual bomber or an IRA cell on the ground.
The obvious difficulty faced by the same authorities now, is that they have to arrest prospective bombers well before they have left the evidence as a result of an atrocity. The absolute risk to life has changed the rules of the investigators game.
By targeting civilians and locations randomly, and making it clear that they are prepared to die in the process, suicide bombers have also made the Muslim communities of Britain even more vulnerable to tough terror policing. Of course that may well be the point, to create conflict where none already exists.
By its very nature suicide bombing pushes the police and security services into conflict with areas of civil liberties that are usually only tested in a court of law. If prospective perpetrators build into their plans not to be around to face justice, the police need to rely on prevention.
This of course means a greater emphasis on intelligence led policing. Getting the intelligence right has been a significant problem since the end of the 1990s. First the security services didn’t recognise the scale of the threat they faced, ignoring repeated appeals from the French security services in the wake of the bombing campaigns on the Paris Metro in 1995. Secondly they did not have in position, people who could do the job of gathering the intelligence properly in the venues where Islamic militants were operating.
It still remains a mystery to many people how Abu Hamza was allowed to continue preaching on the streets outside Finsbury Park mosque after he had been ejected. As early as 2000 television programmes had secretly filmed him there and elsewhere, witnessing Jihad lectures and other hate filled sermons.
Of course any independent public inquiry would have to address these questions and the answers may be uncomfortable. It may also present the emergency services with a distraction from the urgent job of averting more attacks.
Reda Hassaine a former MI5 informant told me back in 2003 that he believed that Finsbury Park had become a “suicide factory”. He believed what this meant in practice, was that whilst Abu Hamza was in charge, young men (and in some cases boys) were being shown how it was possible to operate independently as small groups or cells.
Reda Hassaine believed at some point in the future these cells would select the right moment to engage in Jihad against “Western” interests. These so-called “sleeper cells” are amongst the conspirators that the security services are now actively and urgently trying to target.
In other words the problem has run away from where it was in 2005. Now the security services are playing a game of catch-up in the sure knowledge that if they fail more innocent people will be murdered. In this sense knowing what went wrong before 2005 may not help us tackle the problem we now face.
This brings us back to the police investigation. The trawl for conspirators in an ongoing conspiracy is likely to draw in more innocent parties than an investigation which is specifically focussed on a crime that has already resulted in death and destruction.
It is therefore self-evident that the police have to manage concerns in communities most likely to be affected more delicately. Last week’s arrests yet again provoked angry reactions from those close to the people involved. The police handling was again criticised as unnecessary and heavy-handed.
In recent months the level of police activity and intervention has also given Muslim radicals a new label to apply to those who are arrested and remanded in custody pending a trial. In a recent protest outside Paddington Green high security police station, Anjoum Choudhary referred to those arrested and now charged as “political prisoners”.
Whilst these radicals have been progressively isolated from mainstream Muslim discourse, the more individuals from a Muslim background that are picked up by the dragnet approach, the more important it becomes that the police and security services are seen to be beyond reproach.
All sides of the community have an interest in seeing a police investigation gathering enough evidence for the prosecutors to get a case into court. It should help explain some of what went on in the run up to July 7th 2005. It will lay before us the evidence that justifies the level of intervention in Muslim communities across the capital and it should offer some closure to the bereaved and surviving victims of the bombings.
If an independent public inquiry does not happen, a trial may be the closest we’ll get to the truth of what happened on that terrible day. Far from the public eye, we can only hope the authorities have already learned their lessons. London’s security depends on it.
last updated: 20/05/2008 at 14:07