Disquieting Disclosures in London Terror Trial

The convictions should have been an unqualified victory for Britain's intelligence and police agencies. Five British men were sentenced to life imprisonment after a jury found them guilty of planning to use one or more homemade fertilizer bombs to kill thousands in a public shopping mall or nightclub in 2004. Instead of bolstering confidence in British intelligence and security efforts, however, the yearlong trial—which, at a cost of £50 million ($100 million) was the most expensive criminal trial in British history—raised new questions about the competence of British counterterrorism agencies.

The arrests and this week's conviction thwarted the plot, but the trial also revealed that two bombers who went on to carry out London's deadly mass-transit attacks in July 2005 had come to the attention of British authorities on several occasions in the years before the bombings. Two of the July bombers, leader Mohammed Siddique Khan and his right-hand man Shehzad Tanweer, had at least four meetings with those convicted this week. These meetings took place while the government was conducting an intensive antiterror operation codenamed "Crevice."

The problem was that, while tracking the Operation Crevice bombing conspiracy suspects, MI-5, Britain's domestic spy service, ran across more than 50 potential terror suspects, all of whose activities they thought should be monitored. As many as 2,000 different individuals who came into contact, however briefly, with the principal conspiracy suspects were entered in the Operation Crevice database, according to investigators who worked on the case. Of the 50 most interesting suspects, U.K. authorities classified 15 as "essential" targets for further investigation. But at the time, Khan and Tanweer, the future London transport bombers, weren't thought to be very dangerous, so MI-5 simply listed them as "desirable" targets for further tracking. Due to limited resources, full-scale surveillance of the future bombers was never undertaken—with devastating results.

The ties between the Operation Crevice suspects and the July 7 bombers—and the surprising extent to which the latter were known by the authorities—unraveled slowly during the trial. At first, British officials appeared to claim that there were no connections. Three days after the 2005 attacks, then-Home Secretary Charles Clarke said the July 7 bombers "simply came out of the blue." Clarke and other U.K. officials initially described the July 7 bombers as "clean skins"—intelligence parlance for operatives unknown to the authorities.  But, over the last year, trial testimony painted a picture of a much more tightly interwoven web that linked the future London bombers with the "Crevice" conspirators closely. Last spring, for instance, Mohammed Junaid Babar, an Islamic militant raised in Queens, New York, who later became an FBI informant, testified that members of the Crevice cell and the July 7 attack had trained together in Pakistan in the summer of 2003.

Among the most disturbing information to surface in court during the lengthy "Crevice" trial was evidence indicating that the U.K.-based conspirators were in contact with high-level Al Qaeda operatives who were apparently close to what remains of the bin Laden terror network's central leadership, perhaps including Osama bin Laden himself.

Evidence introduced at the trial included a voluminous statement given to police by one of the suspects, in which he talked about meeting an apparent Al Qaeda leader in the years after 9/11 at a mosque in Luton, a gritty town north of London, which radical Islamic activists have sometimes used as a base. The Al Qaeda leader, identified at the trial as Abu Munthir (pronounced Munzr), in turn was described by U.S. and U.K. officials as a deputy to one of Al Qaeda's top leaders, Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, who, according to evidence presented in court was also in contact with some of the Crevice suspects during visits by them to Pakistan. The Bush administration announced last week that Abdul Hadi, who at one point was believed by U.S. agencies to be the principal contact between what remains of Al Qaeda's high command and allied jihadi fighters in Iraq, had recently been transferred from the secret custody of the CIA to the U.S. military prison encampment at Guantanamo, Cuba. Intelligence sources indicated that Abdul Hadi was captured at an unspecified location sometime late last year and then detained and questioned in secrecy by the CIA until his recent transfer to Guantanamo. The fact that a close associate of such a high-ranking Al Qaeda leader was able to visit Britain after 9/11 may be one of the most disquieting revelations to surface during the Crevice trial.

As is standard procedure in British criminal trials, the judge in the Operation Crevice case issued an order prohibiting publication of information about the defendants' links to suspects in other cases until the Crevice verdicts were delivered Monday. At one point, prosecutors had sought to introduce trial evidence indicating that the Crevice suspects had some contacts with the July 7 London bombers, but the judge ruled this information inadmissible and banned the U.K. press from disseminating it on the grounds that it could gravely prejudice the Crevice jury against the defendants they were about to judge.  But when the larger story hit the headlines today, the news of MI-5's early knowledge of Khan and Tanweer led to cries for a fresh inquiry into the July 7 bombings from victims of the attack as well as opposition politicians, who are now questioning whether the terrorist attacks of two summers ago might have been preventable after all.

Later today, a group of July 7 survivors and victims' families delivered a letter to the Home Office demanding "an independent and impartial public inquiry" to provide "a comprehensive, accurate and definitive factual account" of the events surrounding July 7. Among them is Rachel North, a 36-year-old writer who survived the attack at London's King's Cross station, where 26 of the 52 deaths occurred. "The latest revelations are that the bombers were not 'clean skins.' Two were under surveillance and were known terrorists," says North. "They should have been blinking red as serious threats. Clearly, decisions [MI-5] made led to 52 people being killed. It is very troubling."

Likewise, the Conservative Party's counterterrorism spokesman, David Davis, is also calling for an independent inquiry into the bombings. In a strongly worded editorial published in The Times of London today, Davis writes, "Public safety demands that we assess any shortcomings and put them right as a matter of urgency … The British public deserve no less." The trial may be over, but the questions are likely to linger.