Terror Watch: Bomb Probe

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with the support of his country's intelligence services, is quietly campaigning to block proposals for a 9/11 Commission-style inquiry into why authorities were unable to prevent two recent rounds of bomb attacks on London's public transport system.

In a debate that parallels one that took place in the United States after the September 11 attacks, some members of Parliament and an influential conservative newspaper have called for an official investigation into the inability of Britain's intelligence and law-enforcement community to thwart the subway and bus attacks earlier this month. The criticisms have been fueled by disclosures that at least two of the bombers in the deadly July 7 attack, as well as a suspected associate who left the country, had been previously identified in earlier terrorism investigations.

But a British government official familiar with the views of the country's intelligence agencies, including the foreign-intelligence agency M.I.6 and its domestic counterpart, M.I.5, said that the services strongly oppose any moves toward setting up such an independent inquiry. The services are especially resistant to an inquiry while Scotland Yard--despite four arrests made earlier today--is still actively hunting associates of the four bombers who died in the July 7 attacks, as well as others with terror links who are still believed to be at large.

"You don't want to be taking troops off the battlefield to answer questions" from an investigation into pre-attack lapses, the official said: "You would divert resources [from the hunt for the bombers] into answering questions before the event is even cleared up."

A spokesman for Prime Minister Blair echoed those comments today, saying an independent inquiry "would not be helpful" in light of the ongoing police investigation into the attacks. Even once all the suspects are arrested, and fear of another attack abates, however, Blair's government will probably seek to limit any inquiry into the pre-attack performance of police and intelligence agencies to a review by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, said the British official familiar with the view of the country's intelligence services. Similar to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in the U.S. Congress, this parliamentary panel is the official legislative oversight body for British intelligence. But even more so than in the United States, the British intel committee is considered protective of the intelligence services--and heavily influenced by the government in power.

The argument now being used by Blair and the intelligence services--that an independent inquiry into past failures would interfere with ongoing law-enforcement efforts--is exactly the same one used by Bush administration officials in the months after September 11 to throttle congressional demands for a probe into the performance of the CIA and FBI. But eventually, public pressure--generated in part by lobbying by the families of September 11 victims--led to a congressional resolution creating the 9/11 commission. The panel's hearings, culminating in a widely read report last year, produced major new disclosures about bungled counterterrorism efforts by the U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence communities as well as prior warnings to the Bush White House about a possible Al Qaeda attack in the United States. The panel's report also led to a significant overhaul in the structure of the U.S. intelligence community, including the appointment of a new national director of intelligence, John Negroponte.

It remains unclear whether similar public pressure will create momentum in the United Kingdom. So far, political criticism of the performance of British security forces has been relatively subdued--at least compared to that in the United States. Shortly after the July 7 attacks, for example, David Davis, the opposition Conservative Party's chief parliamentary spokesman on security issues, called for an inquiry into why the suicide bombings had not been prevented. But Michael Howard, the Conservative Party's lame-duck leader, gave Davis's suggestion only lukewarm backing, saying: "A limited inquiry could, in due course, provide a calm and dispassionate forum for learning appropriate lessons, helping to quell unhelpful speculation."

Nonetheless, more aggressive demands for an inquiry have been taken up in some quarters of the British media, especially the conservative Daily Mail, a tabloid newspaper that has been one of the Blair government's most severe critics. The paper has run two hard-hitting columns by investigative author Tom Bower sharply criticizing the performance of British intelligence--and suggesting the services had had gone easy on pre-attack monitoring of Islamic radicals because Blair's government was trying to curry favor with the Muslim community. Bower also linked alleged intelligence agency failures to previously investigated mistakes about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The Iraq intelligence questions were investigated by two independent inquiries set up by the Blair government following intense political pressure and directed by a senior judge and a former top civil servant. Both have issued public reports on their findings. But Bower charged that these and other Iraq-related U.K. investigations were "rigged to protect incompetent intelligence chiefs and untruthful politicians. The consequence of dishonesty, as history mournfully attests, is always greater failure," he wrote.

There is little doubt that at some point British agencies ultimately will have to answer questions about their performance. U.S. government officials have said that the names of two of the July 7 bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Germaine Lindsay, were identified during a major terrorism conspiracy investigation. Codenamed Operation Crevice, that inquiry resulted in the arrests of several suspects with Pakistani connections on charges of plotting to bomb unspecified London targets with homemade explosives. (Three of the four July 7 bombers were Britons of Pakistani descent.)

British authorities have denied that Lindsay, who was born in Jamaica, was on their radar before July 7. They have acknowledged Khan's name did come up in a previous investigation but felt that he was not regarded as an important enough suspect to merit an in-depth inquiry. U.S. investigators say that Khan's and Lindsay's names were indeed among the 2,000 names collected by U.K. authorities during Operation Crevice but that they were considered tangential figures in the probes.

British intelligence officials, like officials of other European security agencies facing an upsurge in Islamic extremism, also have said they just don't have enough manpower to watch all known suspects at all times.

Further questions could be raised about another suspect, Haroon Rashid Aswat, whose name featured in Operation Crevice as well as in connection with an alleged plot to set up a terrorist training camp in rural Oregon in the United States. British and U.S. authorities acknowledged last week they are looking to question Aswat and believe he may have played a support role in the July 7 attacks. Aswat is a one-time lieutenant to Abu Hamza, a notorious radical imam whose Finsbury Park Mosque was a major center for jihadi agitation before the cleric's arrest last year on terror charges filed against him in the United States and United Kingdom. A U.S. government official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the material, says that Aswat has been taken into custody somewhere outside the United States and that American officials are monitoring that part of the investigation closely.

Meanwhile, British authorities seem to be making at least some progress. On Wednesday, a British official confirmed that police had arrested Yasin Hassan Omar, believed to be one of the unsuccessful July 21 bombers. The suspect was arrested in Birmingham and officers were transporting him to a high-security police station in London for questioning. Reports said police in Birmingham had also held for questioning several other men and that yet another group of suspicious men had been arrested last night on a train from the northeastern city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to London Kings Cross, the main-line station near where the most deadly subway bombing occurred during a first round of attacks on July 7.

Earlier this week, Scotland Yard released closed-circuit TV pictures of four men police said they believed to be the July 21 bombers. While detonators went off on some of the bombs in that attack, the main charge of homemade explosive failed to detonate in any of them. The would-be bombers fled the scenes, leaving the partially exploded devices behind. Police said they had recovered what appeared to be a fifth bomb, studded with nails and bolts, in a park near a prison in west London.

Investigators are operating on the belief that the unsuccessful July 21 bombers are somehow connected to the four who blew themselves up on three tube trains and one bus during morning rush hour precisely two weeks earlier. U.S. and U.K. officials told NEWSWEEK that the homemade explosives used in both attacks were similar and possibly from the same batch. One explanation circulating among law-enforcement agencies as to why the July 21 bombs fizzled is that the volatile homemade explosive, believed to be a compound called TATP, decays rapidly. Also, according to some official sources, whoever made the July 21 bombs may have had to use improvised detonators because a cache of better detonators had been seized by police in a car left by the July 7 bombers at a railway station in Luton, north of London.

U.S. and U.K. officials following the investigation said that apart from circumstantial and forensic evidence linking the bombers, there are few signs that the two teams knew each other. Unlike the bombers in the July 7 attacks, the two July 21 suspects so far named by police have ties to East Africa rather than Pakistan or Jamaica. Omar was born in Somalia and migrated to Britain with his family as a child; the second alleged bomber, Muktar Said-Ibrahim was born in Eritrea and was granted British citizenship last year.

However, given the striking similarities in the timing and targets of the two attacks, investigators believe that the two must be connected. The tie, they say, could be through higher-level suspects such as the bombmakers or facilitators who put the attack plan together and then recruited, indoctrinated and equipped two teams of foot soldiers for the actual attacks.

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