The missing links

Observations on terrorism

The jury in the trial of seven Muslims suspected of a conspiracy to blow up shopping centres and nightclubs with home-made "fertiliser" bombs - the so-called Crevice trial - has delivered its verdict. Five of those in the dock were found guilty of involvement in what could have been Britain's most devastating terrorist attack; two others, including the brother of the plot leader, were found not guilty.

With the verdict, we have also learned far more about British terrorist networks and links between those in the Crevice cell and other British-based terrorists. And we are learning more about the significance of the radical group al-Muhajiroun.

When reporting restrictions were lifted it was revealed that the 7 July bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan had had contact with the leader of the fertiliser-bomb plot, Omar Khyam, almost a year and a half before 7 July 2005.

In March 2004, MI5 mounted a surveillance operation - Operation Crevice - to gather evidence against Khyam and his fellow jihadists. When Khan and Khyam met, MI5 photographed and tailed Khan and his fellow suicide bomber Shazad Tanweer to their homes in Leeds. The unanswered question is: Why were the security services unable to prevent 7/7?

The official answer is that when MI5 monitored conversations between Khan and Khyam, it appeared that Khan was little more than a "petty fraudster". Operation Crevice had to prioritise targets. The security services took the view that Khan posed no urgent threat.

MI5 holds firm to its call. "Even with the benefit of hindsight," it says on its website, "it would have been impossible from the available intelligence to conclude that either Khan or Tanweer posed a terrorist threat to the British public."

But testimony from Mohammed Junaid Babar, the jihadi insider-turned-supergrass, suggests that the security services should have known a lot more about Khan.

Babar, a one-time US member of al-Muhajiroun, was arrested in April 2004 and decided to assist the authorities with 2,000 pages of information rather than face a life sentence for providing funds and support to al-Qaeda.

This invaluable text detailing the history and workings of western jihadi networks remains under US lock and key, but 66 pages were released as part of the Crevice pre-trial disclosure process. In it, Babar states that he was instructed to take "Ibrahim" and "Zubair" (noms de guerre for Khan and Tanweer) to a terrorist training camp in Malakand, Pakistan.

Babar's instructions came from another Crevice plotter, known during the trial as "Q". It is not known if Q from Luton, whose real name is Mohammed Qayum Khan, co-operated in any way with the security services. If he did, he would have been able to tell them that Khan and Tanweer were more than just petty fraudsters; they were also military-trained jihadists. But Q's status is unclear. The police refuse to discuss it and he has not been charged with any involvement in terrorism. If he did co-operate with the security services why didn't they know what Khan was up to? After all, according to Babar, Q was the one giving the orders.

Babar's US testimony shows that you don't have to be very bright to commit major terrorist acts. You just have to be motivated.

In Pakistan, the Crevice plotters compromised their security at almost every opportunity. They fired off machine-guns under the gaze of total strangers, exploded home-made bombs in the back garden of their suburban safe house, refused to move to another house until the carpets were cleaned, and tried to smuggle vital bomb-making ingredients through airport customs while carrying a collection of knives. Even their Pakistani landlord spotted that they were terrorists.

In Britain, their attitude to their own security was similarly lax; they talked openly in their homes and cars about targets for bombing. Perhaps it is not surprising that they were eventually caught.

However, what is also clear is that Khyam and his fellow jihadists were self-taught. They raised their own funds, took themselves to Pakistan, found suitable terrorist trainers, set up their own training camp, made their own connections with high-level al-Qaeda operatives and bought their own ingredients. The only things that were in place beforehand were their ideology and a support network of fellow British jihadists. It is this network which was vital.

During the trial it emerged that there were only a few degrees of separation between the Crevice cell and other British figures such as the Tel-Aviv bomber Asif Hanif, Daniel Pearl's killer Omar Sheikh and Abu Hamza.

Why the links are so close has also become clearer. The role of the radical group al-Muhajiroun has been misunderstood. It was not, as some believe, responsible for sending British Muslims to the front lines of Afghanistan, but the evidence from the Crevice trial shows its significance. Its role was that of a culture club, a school that instilled values and shared history into its members. And, like the British elitist old boys' network, former al-Muhajiroun activists, of whom Khyam was one, found that once they were ready to act, their own old boys' network was ready to support them.

So the security services' failure to stop Khan might not have been because of an inability to extract and process information. It was a failure of a higher magnitude - a failure to understand networks.

As a former jihadi insider told me, the security services missed Khan's importance because they were working with criminal paradigms, rather than understanding that the British jihadi network's connections make it a potent and lasting threat. In other words, what was important was not what Khan was doing, but whom Khan was with.

After all, at its root, conspire means "to breathe together".

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning