The London bombings
Blair forced to change spin
“Events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist related activity in the UK”
These words are from an assessment, drawn up in mid-June 2005, by the UK’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), in which the police and customs are represented along with the intelligence services. This (and other) leaked extracts from it were published in the New York Times on 19 July 2005. The Government has not denied that this is an authentic extract from a JTAC assessment from mid-June.
JTAC was created in June 2003 “as the UK's centre for the analysis and assessment of international terrorism”, according to MI5’s website here, which describes its role as follows:
“JTAC analyses and assesses all intelligence relating to international terrorism, at home and overseas, and produces assessments of threats and other terrorist-related subjects for customers from a wide range of government departments and agencies.”
It is inconceivable that the Prime Minister was not a JTAC customer and was not familiar with this assessment on 7 July 2005 when London was bombed.
Heightened threat predicted
Before the invasion in March 2003, the intelligence services were of the opinion that the threat from al-Qaida would be heightened by military action against Iraq (see the Intelligence & Security Committee report published in September 2003, paragraphs 125-127), information which the Prime Minister was careful to keep from the House of Commons, lest it refuse to vote for the invasion.
In other words, the intelligence services predicted in advance that the invasion of Iraq would act as a stimulus to al-Qaida activity in general. Judging by the leaked sentence from the JTAC assessment, they now seem to be saying that, by stirring up Muslim antagonism towards Britain, the invasion and its aftermath has acted as a stimulus to al-Qaida activity directed against Britain in particular - and heightened the al-Qaida threat to Britain.
Having said that, London would probably not have been attacked without a specific decision by the al-Qaida leadership that such an attack should be mounted. And there is little doubt that such a decision was taken in order to punish Britain for allying itself with the US in the invasion of Iraq.
Remember, in the autumn of 2003, in a message broadcast on al-Jezeera on 18 October 2003, bin Laden reserved the right to retaliate against all countries involved in Iraq “especially the UK, Spain, Australia, Poland, Japan and Italy” (see transcript of message here). Following this message, 19 Italian Carabinieri were killed in Nasiriyah in Iraq on 12 November 2003, British interests were attacked in Istanbul on 20 November 2003, and nearly 200 people were killed in the Madrid train bombings on 11 March 2004.
Protecting Blair’s skin
There is some doubt about the precise meaning of the JTAC assessment, but there is no doubt that it postulates a connection between events in Iraq brought about by Bush and Blair and al-Qaida activity in Britain. Despite knowing this, in the aftermath of the London bombings, Blair and other ministers gave the impression that there was no connection – while not specifically denying the existence of a connection.
The formulation they used was to point out that al-Qaida’s targets have been many and various, and that many al-Qaida attacks, including 9/11 itself, took place before the invasion of Iraq. Listeners were meant to infer from this that Blair’s Iraqi adventure was not the trigger for the London bombings – and therefore he should not be blamed. The formulation was not designed to inform the British public accurately: it was designed to protect Blair’s skin.
Blair deployed this formulation in an interview with James Naughtie on BBC Radio 4’sToday programme on 9 July 2005. He was asked:
“Have you ever worried in the last two days - has it crossed your mind just as an individual – that if you hadn’t gone to war that we might have been spared this?”
“What was interesting, round the table [at the G8] was, if you take President Putin, who was passionately opposed to the war in Iraq, and yet suffered Beslan, if you think of Bali, and what happened there, if you think that even after the change of government in Madrid, the terrorists there were planning further terrorist acts before they were caught, fortunately for the people of Spain, and if you remember that September 11, that was the reason we went into Afghanistan, September 11 happened before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before any of these issues, and that was the worst terrorist atrocity of all.“
There, he doesn’t specifically deny a connection between Britain’s going to war in Iraq and the bombings in London on 7 July 2005. But listeners were meant to gather that since al-Qaida carried out attacks before the invasion of Iraq, and even of Afghanistan, these actions couldn’t have been the trigger for an al-Qaida attack on London in 2005.
Of course, this formulation doesn’t prove that these actions couldn’t have been the trigger. After all, the factors that led al-Qaida to attack London in 2005 may have been very different from the factors that led it to attack New York in 2001. Events post 9/11, for example, Britain’s support for the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq might well have influenced al-Qaida in making Britain a target in 2005.
The formulation neither proves nor disproves a connection between the bombings and Britain’s support for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, in the traditional New Labour manner, it was repeated over and over again, as a defence against accusations that there was a connection, by Ministers and by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman.
(And by Conservative shadow ministers, with whom the formulation seems to have been shared in advance. For example, on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions on the day after the bombings, David Cameron, faced with the apt question: “Are we starting to reap that which we have sown?”, responded:
“I don’t think, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. … we’ve got to be clear about this, the 9/11 attacks, the bombs in the Kenyan embassy, the Tanzanian embassy, the first World Trade Center bomb, the attack on the USS Cole, all happened before the Iraq war.”)
Official line until 19 July
Until 19 July 2005, this was the line from the Government and the Conservative opposition. (As usual, the Liberal Democrats took the path of least resistance: they didn’t use the official line, but they didn’t challenge it either). To quote just a few examples:
(1) In reply to Alex Salmond in the House of Commons on 11 July 2005, Blair said:
“The one thing that is obvious from the long list of countries that have been victims of this type of terrorism that I read out is that it does not discriminate greatly between individual items of policy. I am afraid that I must tell the hon. Gentleman that it is a form of terrorism aimed at our way of life, not at any particular Government or policy.”
(2) According to the Downing Street website here, at his morning briefing on 13 July 2005, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said:
“… the Prime Minister's view was very firmly that it was misplaced to think this problem arose out of Iraq. This problem was there before Iraq - 9/11 was in 2001, not 2003. As the Foreign Secretary said in a recent interview that the problems in Afghanistan were there before the Iraq War, and the attacks that took place in Kenya and elsewhere were also before the Iraq War. It was therefore in the Prime Minister's view a mistake to say that this was a problem which had arisen out of the Iraq War. The reality was that each of these events was a symptom of a wider problem.”
(3) On 16 July 2005, addressing a Labour Party audience in London, Blair dismissed any connection between the bombings and British action in Iraq, with the rhetorical question:
“If it is Iraq that motivates them, why is the same ideology killing Iraqis by terror in defiance of an elected Iraqi Government?”
(4) On 18 July 2005, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman was asked about an article entitled ‘Riding Pillion for Tackling Terrorism is a High-risk Policy’ in a Briefing Note on terrorism just published by Chatham House (and the subject of The Guardian’s lead story that morning). The article said:
“A key problem … is that the UK government has been conducting counter-terrorism policy ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the US, not in the sense of being an equal decision-maker, but rather as pillion passenger compelled to leave the steering to the ally in the driving seat. There is no doubt that the situation over Iraq has imposed particular difficulties for the UK, and for the wider coalition against terrorism. It gave a boost to the Al-Qaeda network’s propaganda, recruitment and fundraising, caused a major split in the coalition, provided an ideal targeting and training area for Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists …”
The account of the exchange on the Downing Street website here is as follows:
“Asked if the Prime Minister rejected this morning's report suggesting that there could be a link made between the war in Iraq and recruitment of terrorists, the PMOS said that he thought it was better if we actually posed ourselves the same questions that reality posed to us. Was there terrorism from Al Qaida and its associates before Iraq? Answer: Yes. There had been attacks in 26 countries over the past 12 years. Was there terrorism before Afghanistan emanating from Al Qaida and its associates? Answer: Yes. Did the attack on 9/11 come directly from people who were implicated in Afghanistan? Answer: Yes.”
In all of these, while not specifically denying that there was a link between the war in Iraq and al-Qaida activity in general, and the London bombings in particular, the impression was given that no link existed.
Jack Straw responded to the Chatham house article on BBC News 24 on 18 July 2005. The edited version of his response on the Foreign Office website here is as follows:
“I'm astonished if Chatham House is now saying that we should not have stood shoulder to shoulder with our long standing allies in the United States. But let me also say this the time for excuses for terrorism are over, the terrorists have struck across the world in countries allied with the United States, backing the war in Iraq and in countries which had nothing whatever to do with the war in Iraq. They struck in Kenya, in Tanzania, in Indonesia, in the Yemen. They struck this weekend in Turkey which was not supporting our action in Iraq.”
Straw’s record for brazen misrepresentation is second only to the occupant of 10 Downing Street. This is a fine example of his capabilities in this field.
First, he misrepresented the Chatham House article, which did not say that Britain should not have stood shoulder to shoulder with the US; it merely said that invading Iraq had boosted al-Qaida, a conclusion with which the UK intelligence services concurred, as Straw knew when he spoke.
Second, he misrepresented the nature of al-Qaida targets: he knows that the targets in Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen were American, and the attack on Bali in Indonesia was directed at Australian tourists; he also knows that the recent attack in Turkey was by a Kurdish separatist organization, not al-Qaida.
Difficult to hold the line
When it came into the public domain on 18 July 2005, the Chatham House article rattled the Government, even though it contained very little concrete information. It made it difficult for the Government to hold the “no connection with Iraq” line. There was worse to follow: the next morning the New York Times reported on the JTAC assessment from mid-June, which contained the sentence (quoted above):
"Events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist related activity in the UK”
What is more, an ICM poll published in The Guardian the same morning suggested that nearly two thirds of the British people thought that there was some sort of connection between the London bombings and the invasion of Iraq. Asked (see ICM website here):
“To what extent, if at all, do you think each of the following is responsible for the London bombings?”
the reply for “Tony Blair for his decision to invade Iraq” was
Not at all
A remarkable 64% of the British public thought that Blair was to some extent responsible for the London bombings because he had taken Britain to war in Iraq.
It was now public knowledge that the intelligence services believed that events in Iraq were acting as a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaida and, before this information came into the public domain, nearly two thirds of the public believed there was some connection between events in Iraq and the London bombings.
New line: extremists will use Iraq
At this point, it was impossible to hold the “no connection with Iraq” line: a certain amount of slithering away from this position was urgently required. The new trick was to say that, of course, extremists will use Iraq (and other issues) to further their ends. This formulation could at a considerable stretch be reconciled with the JTAC assessment that “events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist related activity in the UK”.
From 19 July 2005 onwards, the Government machine repeated this new line ad nauseam. It began at the Prime Minister’s official spokesman’s morning briefing on 19 July 2005:
“Asked for a reaction to the view expressed by the Muslim Council of Great Britain and Zaki Badawi, the head of the Muslim College, that the Prime Minister must understand that the Iraq war had contributed to the feelings of social dislocation, exclusion and disillusionment with mainstream politics, particularly among Muslim youths, the PMOS pointed out that it was not the Government who had carried out the London bombings. They had been carried out by extremists. We recognised that some people would use issues such as Iraq, Israel/Palestine and Afghanistan to further their aims [my emphasis].”
It was repeated by Blair later that day at a joint press conference with Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan. Asked:
“… another thing that people find incomprehensible, 75% according to a poll this morning, is the argument that there is absolutely no connection with our engagement in Iraq. At Chatham House, your own security advisors and a very large percentage of this country, all think there is some connection. Isn't that common sense?”
“… let me just make one thing clear in relation to people who say well the terrorism here is to do with Iraq, or it is to do with Afghanistan, or other things. Of course, these terrorists will use Iraq as an excuse, they will use Afghanistan. September 11, of course, happened before both of those things, and then the excuse was American policy, or Israel [my emphasis]. … Now, yes, these people will use this as an excuse, but it doesn't make it [terrorism] justified …”
Whether it makes it justified or not is a subjective question. What matters is the objective question: have events in Iraq since March 2003 been useful to al-Qaida; have they increased its ability to recruit and therefore carry out operations in the UK and elsewhere? Judging by the JTAC assessment from mid-June, the answer to both these questions is Yes. Furthermore, it is most likely that the al-Qaida leadership took a decision to strike London in order to punish Britain for its involvement in Iraq, and without that involvement the attack would not have taken place.
This point was pursued by journalists at this press conference. One asked:
“… I don't think anybody is saying, Prime Minister, that the invasion of Iraq is any kind of justification, or indeed anything else is any kind of justification for terrorism. I think the point that is being put to you is that there is a link, and it seems to be recognised by the JTAC apparently, by these two academics with the Chatham House report yesterday and by the public in opinion polls, there seems to be a link between the invasion of Iraq and a greater risk of terrorist activity in Britain. You say the terrorists are using Iraq as their latest excuse. In a way that is saying the same thing, isn't it, that we have become at greater risk, because, whether or not the war is right or wrong, because of that invasion.”
Blair couldn’t give a straight answer to this question, since a Yes answer meant acknowledging that his foreign policy choices had increased the threat to Britain and a No answer was difficult to reconcile with the JTAC assessment, so he blustered:
“As I say, how you try and put this together is extremely important, because September 11 of course happened before Iraq, before Afghanistan, and it was planned under the Presidency of President Clinton, not President Bush. And my view is that they will use whatever is going on in foreign policy to justify what they do, whether it is Iraq, or it is Afghanistan, or it is Palestine, or it is just general the fact that Britain is an ally of America. What I am really saying is this though, where does that argument lead you that is the important thing. And what you have got to be careful of is getting into their perverted logic, which says even if people abhor the bombings in London; well nonetheless we understand why it has happened because of what has happened in Iraq.”
Later another journalist tried, asking:
“So you don't accept that the invasion of Iraq has acted as a recruiting sergeant for al Queda and made Britain a greater target?”
Again, Blair didn’t answer the question:
“Well they will use any issue, and before Iraq it was Afghanistan, before Iraq and Afghanistan it was the Palestinian issue, or support for the existence of Israel, not incidentally Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace because that is what we support, but support for the existence of Israel. Before all of those things it was America, just America, what it does, what it is. They will always have a reason for that, and yes they will use any issue to recruit people, they will recruit people over Iraq, they were recruited over Afghanistan, they were recruited over Palestine.”
Shortly after journalists tried to get the Prime Minister’s official spokesman to answer the same question (see account here):
“Put to him that by invading Iraq we had increased the likelihood of an attack and that it did not seem a difficult connection, the PMOS suggest[ed] that people should remember there had been a threat before Iraq. People should think back further and ask themselves what was the reason for the 9/11 attacks. Put to him that whilst everyone accepted that the UK had been a target for terrorism before the invasion in Iraq, the invasion had raised the likelihood of attack, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister's point was simple. It was wrong to imply and to suggest that in some way we were not a target before Iraq. We were. It was equally right to acknowledge, as the Prime Minister had at lunch time today, that people would use Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine or any number of other issues, as an excuse in their terms, to try and justify their actions. They would do that come what may. It was however wrong, in the Prime Minister's view to try and link a foreign policy with a threat from terrorism. That threat existed beforehand, that threat would seize on anything to try and justify its actions. That did not mean however that the threat had been fundamentally altered. The root cause of the threat was not Iraq, the route cause of the threat was not Afghanistan, the root cause was the perverse ideology that resulted in 9/11, Kenya and all the other attacks.”
Never said it
A week later, on 26 July 2005, the Prime Minister denied ever saying that there was no connection between the London bombings and Iraq. He told his July press conference:
“I think, incidentally, I read occasionally that I am supposed to have said it is nothing to do with Iraq, in inverted commas. Actually I haven't said that.”
This is undoubtedly true. No doubt, he had his minions check before he said it. But it is equally true that, from 7 July to 18 July, he gave the consistent impression that there was no connection between the invasion of Iraq and the attack on London. This formulation was designed to fend off the inevitable criticism that he had visited these awful events on London by invading Iraq.
But for events outside his control, he would still be giving this impression. The shift in formulation was not brought about by a desire to inform the public more accurately: it was brought about by the realisation that the original formulation was indefensible in the face of the leaked JTAC assessment, and the fact that nearly two thirds of the public believed that he was at least partly responsible for the bombings because of the invasion of Iraq.
Within a week, this figure became 85%: according to a YouGov poll published in The Daily Mirror on 25 July 2005, 23% of people polled said that the war was the main reason for the London bombings, and another 62% said that, while Iraq was not the principle cause, it did contribute to the reasons behind the bombings. A mere 12% said there was no real link.
What MI5 says
MI5 has a web page here, headed THREAT TO THE UK FROM INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM. At the time of writing (21 August 2005), it says, inter alia:
“Though they have a range of aspirations and ‘causes’, Iraq is a dominant issue for a range of extremist groups and individuals in the UK and Europe [my emphasis]. Some individuals who support the insurgency are known to have travelled to Iraq in order to fight against coalition forces. In the longer term, it is possible that they may later return to the UK and consider mounting attacks here.”
The general message here is in line with the JTAC assessment from mid-June, which came into the public domain on 19 July 2005. This linking of al-Qaida activity in Britain with Iraq has been on the MI5 web page since the page was altered on 19 July 2005 – at the latest. I don’t know if it was there earlier, but it seems unlikely since it isn’t consistent with “no connection with Iraq” formulation, pumped out by the Government before 19 July 2005.
Al-Qaida’s political demands
Blair’s characterisation of the motivation of those who bombed London has also shifted since the days immediately after 7 July. Then, we were told by Government and Opposition alike that the bombers were out to “destroy our way of life”. For example, Blair told the House of Commons on 11 July 2005:
“Together, we will ensure that, though terrorists can kill, they will never destroy the way of life that we share and value, which we will defend with such strength of belief and conviction that it will be to us and not to the terrorists that victory will belong.”
On behalf of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard agreed that our “way of life” was under attack:
“I want to begin by paying tribute to him [the Prime Minister] for the calm, resolute and statesmanlike way in which the Government responded to last Thursday's attack on our capital city, on our citizens and on our way of life. “
However, within a week or so of the bombings, Blair had stopped using this formulation, and admitted that, like the IRA, al-Qaida had political demands. For example, speaking to a Labour Party audience on 16 July 2005, he said:
“Neither is it true that they have no demands. They do. It is just that no sane person would negotiate on them. They demand the elimination of Israel; the withdrawal of all westerners from Muslim countries, irrespective of the wishes of people and Government; the establishment of effectively Taleban states and Sharia law in the Arab world en route to one Caliphate of all Muslim nations.”
One might argue about whether this is an accurate description of al-Qaida demands, but at least the Prime Minister has apparently got the message that its demands are concerned with the Muslim world and are not about changing Western societies.
IRA & al-Qaida
In late July, when the IRA was in the news because it announced the end of its military campaign, it was natural that journalists would draw an analogy between the IRA campaign and the more recent bombings in London. At Blair’s press conference on 26 July 2005, a journalist asked:
“… the fact is your uncompromising language does not fit easily with the fact that political realities, real politick as you put it, of having to deal at some level with terrorists. These terrorists have real demands too. The IRA wanted us out of Ireland and a lot of these people just want us, rightly or wrongly, out of the Middle East, out of Islam, and everybody in this room knows that, except you, apparently they do, they do, many of them have negotiable demands.”
“… they do indeed have demands, but they are not demands any sensible person can negotiate on … . And the reason for negotiating with the IRA is nothing to do with terrorism, the reason for being prepared to enter into a dialogue with Republicanism is because you do have a demand that is, I may agree or disagree with it, but you can hardly say it is a demand that no sensible person can negotiate on, it is a demand that is shared by many of our citizens in the north. So I genuinely think that is different.”
There, Blair acknowledged that both the IRA and al-Qaida have political demands. Surprisingly, he did not rule out negotiations with al-Qaida on principle, but only on the grounds that, unlike the IRA, al-Qaida’s demands are not shared by many people. In fact, al-Qaeda’s strength is that its core demand that Western interference in the Muslim world be ended is shared by the vast bulk of the Muslim world.
Labour & Trade Union Review
21 August 2005