Monday, June 19, 2006

7/7 HE SAY SHE SAY

According to the Times (amongst others) - US 'issued alert' on 7/7 bomber in 2003:
The leader of the July 7 suicide bombers was considered such a dangerous threat that he was banned from flying to America two years before the attack in London, according to a book written by a US intelligence specialist.

Although MI5 has always denied knowing that Mohammad Sidique Khan was a potential danger, the CIA is alleged to have discovered in 2003 that he was planning attacks on American cities.

The disclosures are made in a book by the award-winning author Ron Suskind that is serialised today in The Times.
From today's published extract, US authorities suspected Khan might be up to no good long before 7/7. According to the FBI's main man on Al Qaeda, Dan Coleman:
Khan, Ali and others exchanged e-mails discussing Khan’s upcoming trip to the US and plans for various violent activities. They included a desire to “blow up synagogues on the East Coast”. Other records showed that Khan had been to the US at least three times in the past two years, meeting with fellow radicals.

Dan read the cables intently. “This is a very dangerous character,” he told colleagues at FBI. “We and the Brits should be all over this guy. But we have to do it right. Unless we have some co-ordinated effort between us and CIA to handle him — arrest him on some charge that’ll stick, or work close, co-ordinated surveillance on him and all the people he’s in contact with over here when he comes, we just can’t take the risk. Let’s say he goes and blows up a temple in Washington. You going to explain to the President that we knew what he was going to do and we let him into the country anyway?”
So did they take the risk? Apparently not:
What happened next speaks volumes about the War on Terror, and the perils of a war being fought — in America and abroad — by competing bureaucracies.

...

Dan Coleman’s assessment was passed, hurriedly, to Joe Billy [head of the FBI’s New York office], who called back the CIA New York station. Billy’s focus was on the interdepartmental conflict. He echoed Dan’s concern but didn’t say much about swiftly launching an ambitious, joint FBI-CIA effort to track the incoming Brit. The discussion was about who’d ultimately be responsible for Khan, and who would take the fall if he did anything. “We’d be wide open on this one,” he told the CIA’s New York chief. If Khan managed to do some damage, “everyone — including Langley — will blame FBI. It ain’t gonna happen.”

They had to make a decision. Khan, according to the sigint, was due to fly to the US the following afternoon. After a few more calls between FBI and CIA — tense exchanges that went all the way to top bosses in Washington — Khan was put on a no-fly list. Essentially, inaction. A default.

The next day he arrived at Heathrow for his flight to the US. At the ticket counter, he was informed that the US had a problem with him. He was on a no-fly list. He wouldn’t be going anywhere. Befuddled, and alerted for the first time that he was known to US authorities, Khan quietly returned to his home in Leeds. He knew, now, that he’d have to keep an especially low profile, not do anything that would arouse suspicion, and not talk on phones or send e-mails that might be traceable. All of this was very valuable information to a young man bent on destruction.
We all know what happened next.

If these allegations are true, it's an interesting tale. The US "Not In My Back-Yard" approach was a delaying tactic, forced by circumstances rather than intelligence. The problem only came when Khan was alerted to the fact that the authorities were onto him. A pretty vicious dilemma - the US didn't want him plotting mischief over there but British intelligence on the man was sketchy at best and sticking him on a "No-Fly" list only aroused his suspicions, forcing him underground and making him harder to track.

But not everyone agrees with this version of events. From the original Times article:
The claims contradict evidence from Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the Director-General of MI5, to the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee that Khan had never been listed as a terror threat before the attack that killed 52 innocent people.

A senior British security source has told The Times that they were aware of the allegations but said that they were “untrue and one of the many myths that have grown up around Khan”.
Clearly our security services aren't always one step ahead of the game, but then neither is Ron Suskin. PowerLine (of RatherGate fame) exposed Suskind for completely misrepresenting evidence to support his version of events leading up to the Iraq War in 2001.

We already know that our security services lacked sufficient resources to tackle the problem of home-grown Islamic extremism. Even if Khan were denied entry to the US, that would hardly make him unique - there are another 300,000 suspected terrorists or supporters of terrorist groups on the US National Counterterrorism Center's watch-list. And from the ISC report we know that British intelligence certainly didn't have the capability in 2001 to track several hundred 'primary investigative targets', let alone trawl through a list of hundreds of thousands of "No-Fly" suspects.

Time will tell whether these allegations hold any weight.

In the mean time (and given his track record) I wonder how much of Suskind's thesis is written through the rosy prism of hindsight?

UPDATE: Suskind's talking cobblers according to the Telegraph. They claim it's a case of mistaken identity.

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