Reporting Terrorism: lecture preview

June 19, 2007

For the mas­ochists amongst you, here’s a pre­view of my pub­lic lec­ture on report­ing ter­ror­ism. It cov­ers the UK. The head­line? We need pub­licly avail­able tran­scripts of all court pro­ceed­ings and doc­u­ments. Sounds bor­ing put like that. Maybe it is!

It’s nearly two years since I wandered away
With the loc­al bat­talion of the bold IRA,

I don’t mind a bit if I shoot down police
They are lack­eys for war nev­er guard­i­ans of peace
And yet at desert­ers I’m nev­er let aim
The rebels who sold out the pat­ri­ot game

And now as I lie here, my body all holes
I think of those trait­ors who bar­gained in souls
And I wish that my rifle had giv­en the same
To those Quis­lings who sold out the pat­ri­ot game.

From The Pat­ri­ot Game, Domin­ic Behan (1957)

In a way, the murder of the infi­del, the first on Brit­ish soil, fore­shad­owed what happened on 7/7. But it was strange, until I saw his dead body, it hadn’t clicked that we were put­ting ideas into people’s heads that would mean the murder of inno­cent people.

Ed Husain (2007)

Behan’s lyr­ics, from 1957, cel­eb­rate and roman­ti­cise an IRA attack that year on a police bar­racks in North­ern Ire­land. The lyric’s voice is Fer­gal O’Hanlon who died in the raid. Just a few years later, the Clancy Broth­ers were singing it in New York’s Carne­gie Hall. The man who planned and led the action, Sean Gar­land, is in his sev­en­ties now, and is wanted for extra­di­tion by U.S. law enforce­ment author­it­ies invest­ig­at­ing a coun­ter­feit­ing ring. Today, half a cen­tury later, Behan’s song would prob­ably be coun­ted a glor­i­fic­a­tion of ter­ror­ism, and there­fore an offence under the 2006 Ter­ror­ism Act. But enough dewy-eyed nos­tal­gia for the ter­ror­ism of bygone days.

Ed Husain, author of The Islam­ist, recounts his involve­ment in the ideo­lo­gic­al move­ment that drew some young Brit­ish Muslims towards ter­ror­ism, and a little later on it will become clear why that murder marks a missed oppor­tun­ity in the report­ing of ter­ror­ism.

There are many clichés around the report­ing of ter­ror­ism. That the media encour­ages ter­ror­ism, legit­im­ises it or demon­ises it. That the media inflates the level of threat to scare, or refuses to take sides when soci­ety itself is imper­illed. I don’t what want to waste time on these clichés, because I regard them as a waste of journ­al­ists’ time (unless, of course, they’re colum­nists).

Nor am I going to spend time on the dilem­mas of air­ing host­age videos, or the cov­er­age of events like Beslan or 9/11. Many of these so-called eth­ic­al debates are actu­ally argu­ments about ‘hygiene’ – the taste issues involved in using such mater­i­al.

So how do we define ter­ror­ism? Do we include attacks on Bri­tons over­seas? Or ter­ror­ist attacks under­taken by Brit­ish cit­izens? Issues of jur­is­dic­tion are increas­ingly import­ant. Secur­ity ser­vices might choose to allow the agen­cies of oth­er coun­tries to try indi­vidu­als if their own leg­al sys­tem is not suf­fi­ciently accom­mod­at­ing, or may find their free­dom to act con­strained where con­spir­acies are inter­na­tion­al. The co-ordin­a­tion of invest­ig­a­tions between agen­cies and jur­is­dic­tions is fraught with not just leg­al, but polit­ic­al, oper­a­tion­al and lin­guist­ic prob­lems.

Before giv­ing up, what interests me is our abil­ity to report on ter­ror­ism as it affects our own soci­ety – which is to say with­in the con­trolled envir­on­ment where report­ers are both cit­izens and observ­ers.

Let me make a dis­tinc­tion here between report­ing and journ­al­ism. Journalism’s most import­ant role is the pack­aging and mar­ket­ing for inform­a­tion – pub­li­city. Journ­al­ists ‘sell’ and ‘pitch’ their stor­ies to edit­ors.

  • It can provide a pub­li­city plat­form for ter­ror­ist activ­ity, for ter­ror­ist sym­path­isers and apo­lo­gists, for the police and secur­ity ser­vices, for interest groups and occa­sion­ally for ter­ror­ism vic­tims and the pub­lic.
  • Pub­li­city can act as a safe­guard on the crim­in­al pro­sec­u­tion of sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists, assess­ing the effect­ive­ness and com­pet­ence of the police and secur­ity ser­vices.
  • That pub­li­city can also sug­gest remedi­al action (e.g. tough­er legis­la­tion, increased resources, great­er pub­lic vigil­ance or under­stand­ing).

Report­ing is dif­fer­ent. It is not the mar­ket­ing of inform­a­tion; it is the primary task of cre­at­ing inform­a­tion by invest­ig­a­tion and organ­ising it as explan­a­tion. Today I want to argue that we need more report­ing and more records to give us bet­ter pub­lic under­stand­ing of the issues around ter­ror­ism, that we’ve missed oppor­tun­it­ies to debate major changes, and that report­ing alone can’t carry the bur­den of inform­ing the pub­lic and act­ing as a watch­dog on the secur­ity ser­vices.

I want to begin by remind­ing you of a young man who was a self-con­fessed ter­ror­ist who admit­ted that he set out to cause fear and dis­rup­tion, and whose fath­er said had been trans­formed into a bomber by extrem­ists. Does that pat­tern sound famil­i­ar?

The young man’s name is Dav­id Cope­land. In 1999, aged 22, he set off three nail bombs, each one aimed at minor­ity groups. His brief cam­paign of ter­ror left three people dead, includ­ing a woman who was four-months preg­nant and 129 people were injured.

As the police web­site on the case, dubbed Oper­a­tion Mara­thon, made clear:

The arrest of Cope­land was not the end of the invest­ig­a­tion. Officers had to estab­lish wheth­er he was act­ing alone before they could be cer­tain the bomb threat was over. A mem­ber­ship card for a small (and now defunct) group called the Nation­al Social­ist Move­ment was found among Copeland’s belong­ings. Cope­land main­tained through­out his deten­tion that he acted entirely alone and nev­er even dis­cussed his plans with any­one else. Police could obvi­ously not rely on his word and so they went to enorm­ous lengths to trace and invest­ig­ate every­one he had con­tact with – going right back to his school days.

Copeland’s mur­der­ous activ­it­ies were framed by right-wing extrem­ism, but he was the instru­ment of his own ter­ror. He had turned his back on the Brit­ish Nation­al Party (BNP) because it didn’t offer a suf­fi­cient out­let for viol­ence. The tiny Nation­al Social­ist Move­ment which Cope­land belonged to, had col­lapsed after one mem­ber stabbed anoth­er to death at a house in Chelms­ford in 1998.

Two men were imprisoned for that murder, one of them was named in a tele­vi­sion doc­u­ment­ary as a paid inform­er for the secur­ity ser­vices. The inform­a­tion he had allegedly provided related to a bomb­ing cam­paign involving a Dan­ish neo-Nazi. (The secur­ity ser­vices obvi­ously took the Nation­al Social­ist Move­ment ser­i­ously enough to mon­it­or it, and in doing so, they had pre­ven­ted anoth­er bomb­ing cam­paign.)

Although there were pic­tures of Cope­land with lead­ing BNP fig­ures, and although the mini­ature Nation­al Social­ist Move­ment coun­ted would-be bombers and actu­al mur­der­ers amongst its ranks, the police did not uncov­er evid­ence that Cope­land had been rad­ic­al­ised by any of the people he’d asso­ci­ated with, as his fath­er claimed.

The BNP were not out­lawed because of Copeland’s asso­ci­ation with them. The report­ing of his tri­al made his neo-Nazism quite clear, and media cov­er­age reflec­ted the wide­spread revul­sion at his views and his actions.

There was one big dif­fer­ence between Cope­land and oth­er ter­ror­ism cases. His social isol­a­tion – Cope­land was a loner, and the cata­lyst of his own crimes. There was no net­work effect, no cell to amp­li­fy their impact. The report­ing of his case con­cen­trated on his men­tal state – was he mad or bad?

Psy­cho­logy, rather than ideo­logy was the way to under­stand Cope­land. Five out of six psy­chi­at­rists to inter­view him said he dis­played symp­toms of para­noid schizo­phrenia. The pop­u­lar media’s sus­pi­cion of psy­cho­logy and its dia­gnoses left little doubt that Cope­land was devi­ous and wicked. The jury too pre­ferred evil to men­tal ill­ness.

The pub­lic over­all gained little pos­it­ive inform­a­tion from the report­ing of the case. But they did learn a great deal about the police invest­ig­a­tion that silenced con­spir­acy the­or­ists and answered pub­lic doubts. Cope­land was caught after a phone tip-off an hour before the Admir­al Duncan pub in Soho had been blown up.

It was clear that the police hadn’t had time to pre­vent that explo­sion. The tri­al, invest­ig­a­tion and accom­pa­ny­ing inform­a­tion closed down spec­u­la­tion that might oth­er­wise have grown around the case.

Now we are told by the Attor­ney Gen­er­al and Scot­land Yard’s anti-ter­ror­ism chief that we need to change the rules on con­tempt so that we can be bet­ter informed, or bet­ter under­stand the nature and scale of the threat before us.

I would sug­gest that is a poor reas­on for chan­ging the rules, and that the Cope­land case provides a bet­ter one. Namely, that we under­stand how threats are assessed and how they are man­aged. The Cope­land case demon­strated pub­licly what the police had done to bring him to justice – and how they had man­aged their invest­ig­a­tion.

I want to bear that in mind when we look at anoth­er young man cur­rently imprisoned for ter­ror­ist offences. His case was not repor­ted whilst it was being tried because of a con­tempt order. He was a couple of years older than Cope­land, born in Wandsworth, south Lon­don towards the end of the 1970s. His name is Kazi Nur­ur Rah­man, and his fam­ily were Muslims, of Banglade­shi ori­gin. Rah­man first came to pub­lic atten­tion in the mid-1990s, when he was a stu­dent at Newham Col­lege of Fur­ther Edu­ca­tion.

Newham cur­rently ranks elev­enth in Britain’s depriva­tion league table of over 330 loc­al author­it­ies. It has a high immig­rant pop­u­la­tion, which began arriv­ing in the 1960s and 70s, drawn mainly from Bangladesh and Pakistan. But Rahman’s ter­ror­ist story is no more a tale of poverty and depriva­tion than Dav­id Copeland’s.

He was one of a group of young Muslims to stand tri­al for the murder of Tundi Obanubi, a 20-year-old Nigeri­an stu­dent at Newham Col­lege of Fur­ther Edu­ca­tion. Obanubi was stabbed to death at lunch­time on Monday, 27 Feb­ru­ary 1995, just out­side the college’s East Ham build­ing.

On Thursday, 23 Feb­ru­ary 1995, Omar Bakri Mohammed had giv­en a lec­ture at the Newham Col­lege. Bakri was the lead­er of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and later Al Muhajiroun. In 1991, dur­ing the first Gulf War he’d been detained briefly by Brit­ish police for mak­ing a veiled threat against the then prime min­is­ter John Major.

A couple of hun­dred stu­dents came to hear Bakri speak, and accord­ing to one of them, he did not dis­ap­point: Bakri had vis­ited our cam­pus a few days before and had giv­en one of his incen­di­ary speeches and every­one was all worked up. Four days later a group of armed young Muslims set upon a 20-year-old Nigeri­an stu­dent Tundi Obanubi. The Nigerian’s crime, one of them claimed later, was to dis­respect the Muslim reli­gion.

Asi­an stu­dents killing a young Afric­an in a for­got­ten corner of Lon­don didn’t make much nation­al news, but a week later it did mer­it a report in the Times High­er Edu­ca­tion­al Sup­ple­ment. The story began: ‘Police were this week play­ing down reports that the fatal stabbing of a Lon­don stu­dent was racially motiv­ated, for fear of height­en­ing fac­tion­al ten­sion on cam­pus.’ It quoted a mem­ber of staff:

Con­cerns have also been expressed about the col­lege not com­ing to terms with a group of Asi­an fun­da­ment­al­ists, some of whom are stu­dents, some from out­side the col­lege. Basic­ally they have taken over stu­dent soci­et­ies and only ever want to dis­cuss ele­ments of Islam in an increas­ingly hos­tile type of envir­on­ment.

How­ever, the same staff mem­ber said it was unclear if this group had any­thing to do with the stabbing.

The Islam­ic ele­ment of the story then dis­ap­peared. This is import­ant. The ori­gin­al report raised ser­i­ous ques­tions about reli­giously-motiv­ated cam­pus viol­ence – a murder. The author­it­ies played it down.

In The Islam­ist, Ed Husain gives a detailed account of the murder of Obanubi and its con­text. He quotes Majid Nawaz, an eye­wit­ness, and now a prom­in­ent fig­ure in Hizb ut-Tahrir:

…the boy, a Chris­ti­an stu­dent of Nigeri­an extrac­tion, had been throw­ing his weight around and being gen­er­ally offens­ive towards Muslims and about their atti­tudes. Someone had phoned Saeed [Nur], who, as he had done pre­vi­ously, turned up with­in fif­teen minutes. The pair con­fron­ted each oth­er out­side. The black boy drew a knife.

Saeed remained calm, looked the boy in the eye and said, Put that knife away or I will have to kill you.

The boy did not respond. Per­haps he thought Saeed was bluff­ing. Saeed walked closer and warned him again. Exactly what happened next is unclear, but with­in seconds Saeed had pulled out Abdul Jab­bar [a dag­ger] and thrust it into the boy’s chest.

Husain called the killing, the dir­ect res­ult of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ideas.

Just over a year later when the case went to court, the Guard­i­an’s brief sum­mary of the killing sat under the head­line NEWS IN BRIEF: ASIANS DENY MURDER CHARGE. It began: A dis­pute over a game of table ten­nis led to a group of Asi­ans mur­der­ing a Nigeri­an stu­dent.

Four men were accused of the killing, two were found guilty. One of them wasn’t a stu­dent or Asi­an, but was a reg­u­lar col­lege vis­it­or, an Afric­an Muslim of Somali ori­gin, called Saeed Nur. Nur car­ried a card that said ‘Sol­dier of Allah.’ Dur­ing Nur’s murder tri­al a num­ber of wit­nesses iden­ti­fied him as hav­ing engaged in vig­or­ous pro-Muslim activ­ity in the run-up to Obanubi’s murder, which had included threat­en­ing the Nigeri­an. Report­ing of their sen­tences was banned because jur­ors could not decide on a ver­dict and the case went to a re-tri­al. One man was acquit­ted – Kazi Nur­ur Rah­man.

The re-tri­al took more than six months to return to the Old Bailey. By this time, the story was clear­er. The Times head­lined a short account, ‘Muslims “killed stu­dent over an insult to Islam.”’

In ret­ro­spect, this gang killing was a jihadi mile­stone. For one of the Islam­ist extrem­ists at Newham that day, it began a long jour­ney away from viol­ence towards a very dif­fer­ent inter­pret­a­tion of Islam. For Kazi Rah­man it led to a murder charge, and an acquit­tal. And, a few years later, an appear­ance on my pro­gramme, five news.

In Lahore in 2001, at the Al Muhajiroun office on Ily­as Street, Has­san Butt wheeled out a rather nervous and masked Rah­man for my report­er col­league Jon Gil­bert. He told Brit­ish tele­vi­sion view­ers: ‘I can­not wait for the day that I meet Brit­ish sol­diers on the bat­tle­field and see them run…I am very happy to kill them. Rah­man nev­er got his oppor­tun­ity to make good on that threat.’

So, Rah­man had been caught up in a fatal gang stabbing that was dressed up in the rhet­or­ic of Islam­ism. He had become a pub­li­city tool of Al Muhajiroun. Would he become a ter­ror­ist? Well, one thing we do know is that he became a plumb­er.

One of Rahman’s asso­ci­ates in the Ily­as Street office in Pakistan was Mohammed Jun­aid Babar, an Amer­ic­an sup­port­er of Al Muhajiroun who was also inter­viewed by Gil­bert con­demning his coun­try. That inter­view, re-broad­cast on CNN, brought him to the atten­tion of the FBI and in April 2004 they arres­ted Babar.

Babar’s plea-bar­gain­ing deal with the FBI included an agree­ment to testi­fy against a Cana­dian, Mohammad Mom­in Khawaja arres­ted on 29 March 2004 and a num­ber Brit­ish men who had been arres­ted the fol­low­ing day.

These were the fer­til­iser bomb gang, under the lead­er­ship of Omar Khyam. They had been stor­ing ammoni­um nitrate (swapped by the police for cat lit­ter) for use in pos­sible ter­ror­ist attacks. Khyam and his asso­ci­ates had come to light dur­ing Oper­a­tion Crevice, a sur­veil­lance oper­a­tion ini­tially centred on a Luton taxi-driver who was allegedly in con­tact with a seni­or al-Qaeda fig­ure in Iraq (now detained at Guantanamo).

The Crevice sur­veil­lance oper­a­tion also turned up two of the men who, fif­teen months later, would go on to carry out sui­cide attacks on the Lon­don under­ground sys­tem – Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehz­ad Tan­weer, their names were placed on a list of 40 ‘desir­ables.’ It focused atten­tion on Rah­man too. He was placed on a list of 15 ‘essen­tials.’

We know this from an anonym­ous brief­ing after Omar Khyam and his gang were found guilty of their plot. On 30 April 2007, the Asso­ci­ated Press repor­ted on the Khyam group’s links with the 7/7 bombers, which had been kept secret for two years in order not to pre­ju­dice their tri­al:

A gov­ern­ment secur­ity offi­cial, who briefed report­ers on the case in exchange for anonym­ity, said 15 oth­er ter­ror sus­pects were ranked as high­er pri­or­it­ies than [Mohamed Sidique] Khan and [Shehz­ad] Tan­weer.

But only one of those sus­pects was later jailed: Kazi Rah­man, a man offi­cials believe was try­ing to buy a mis­sile launch­ers to tar­get pas­sen­ger jets. He pleaded guilty to pos­sess­ing weapons for the pur­pose of ter­ror­ism.

Jun­aid Babar had claimed that Rah­man had once planted an arms cache near a uni­ver­sity in Lahore, and later offered it for use to anoth­er of the Oper­a­tion Crevice tar­gets.

Des­pite these claims, and his pres­ence on the ‘essen­tials’ list, no action was taken against Rah­man until a fort­night after the 7/7 bomb­ings.

On 20 July 2005, the secur­ity ser­vices began an entrap­ment oper­a­tion tar­get­ing Rah­man. He was intro­duced – it’s unclear by whom – to a secur­ity ser­vice officer known as Salim. Togeth­er, they dis­cussed coun­ter­feit money, pass­ports and the pos­sib­il­ity of weapons pur­chases.

At some time shortly after this meet­ing, Rah­man appears to have flown to Bangladesh. It didn’t come up at his guilty plea, but a Banglade­shi news agency repor­ted a curi­ous incid­ent on 8 August 2005. Six Muslim pas­sen­gers were taken off the Brit­ish Air­ways flight from Dhaka to Lon­don.

The airport’s head of secur­ity told the agency that they had to check some pas­sen­gers at Brit­ish Air­ways’ request. The air­line said Brit­ish Intel­li­gence had informed them that someone trav­el­ling in a wheel­chair could be a sus­pec­ted crim­in­al. The pas­sen­ger was a woman. One of her two male com­pan­ions was iden­ti­fied as Kazi Nur­ur Rah­man. Secur­ity offi­cials also detained three Moroc­cans. The plane was searched but noth­ing was found, and the six off-loaded pas­sen­gers went on to Lon­don on a later flight. The story head­lined the incid­ent as no more than a secur­ity scare.

Still, it’s hard not to believe that this story – dis­cov­er­able via an Inter­net search – would have com­prised Rah­man to any ter­ror­ist asso­ci­ates. At the very least it would have aler­ted Rah­man and oth­ers, to the fact that his move­ments were being tracked by the Brit­ish secur­ity ser­vices.

Des­pite this, a little over two weeks later, Rah­man and under­cov­er secur­ity ser­vices agent Salim met again. Salim indic­ated that he could set up a meet­ing with an arms deal­er. Phone calls were exchanged anoth­er meet­ing took place in a café at Liv­er­pool Street Sta­tion on 29 Septem­ber and the meet­ing with the ‘arms deal­er’ Mohamed actu­ally an under­cov­er police­man – was fixed for 4 Octo­ber at South Mimms ser­vice sta­tion on the M25. Rah­man asked Mohamed for three Uzis with silen­cers and 3,000 rounds of ammuni­tion. A week later, Rah­man met once more with Salim.

The next meet­ing with Mohamed was on 15 Octo­ber, again at South Mimms. He handed over £2,000 (later found to be £3,000). Rah­man dis­cussed the pos­sib­il­ity of acquir­ing rock­et-pro­pelled gren­ades and sur­face-to-air mis­siles. On 19 Octo­ber Mohamed texted Rah­man with a price for the weapons. What happened next?

A week later, Rah­man flew to Saudi Ara­bia. It’s not clear why a major ter­ror­ist sus­pect in such a case was allowed to leave the coun­try, nor who he met and how he was mon­itored whilst he was away. He returned to Bri­tain on 10 Novem­ber. A week later, on 17 Novem­ber, Mohamed and Rah­man met again. When asked about the details of the weapons exchange Rah­man said he would bring someone along to check their authen­ti­city.

The weapons han­dover was sched­uled for 11am on Tues­day, 29 Novem­ber with the ini­tial meet­ing at South Mimms ser­vices. Rah­man, hadn’t man­aged to find any­one to bring along with him. Mohamed intro­duced him to anoth­er under­cov­er officer, Iqbal. Iqbal and Rah­man drove to back­street in Wel­ham Green where he was shown three Uzis. After see­ing them, he expressed con­cern that he was being set up in a sting, and went back to his car to call Mohamed. It was at this point that he was arres­ted by armed police.

The strange thing about the entrap­ment is that you could equally read Rahman’s involve­ment as an attempt to sting his suit­ors. When he asked for advanced weapons sys­tems, the price offered (get­ting on for £70,000) would have made him the best-fin­anced ter­ror­ist in Brit­ish his­tory. He mis­takenly handed over £3,000 instead of £2,000 – who gave him that money?

But now comes the inter­est­ing part. Before he entered his guilty plea Rah­man claimed to have been an MI5 inform­ant. It’s worth con­sid­er­ing exactly what he told police on 1 Decem­ber 2005. This is from the court doc­u­ments:

[Rah­man] said that he was not a ter­ror­ist and had no link with ter­ror­ist organ­isa­tions, claim­ing that he had been act­ing under duress, fear­ing for the safety of him­self and his fam­ily. He fur­ther claimed to have been tasked by an Anti-Ter­ror­ist Organ­isa­tion, which he claimed to be in fear of.

An inter­view then fol­lowed at 1.38pm in which he gave a story stat­ing that he had been spe­cific­ally tasked to infilt­rate ter­ror­ist groups. He claimed that he was recruited when he was on remand in pris­on about 10 years before [for the Obanubi killing – recruit­ment on remand is such stand­ard prac­tice that ACPO inform­ant guidelines spe­cific­ally men­tion it] and that he had been involved in a num­ber of suc­cess­ful oper­a­tions. He referred to meet­ing his hand­lers in hotel rooms and that he had been paid tens of thou­sands of pounds over the years. He later stated that he had no know­ledge of the fact that there were Uzi machine guns in the van, and that he had expec­ted to see two or three hand­guns and that he was to report back to his hand­lers by text mes­sage…

In a later inter­view when dis­clos­ure had been giv­en con­cern­ing items found at the search of his home address, Rah­man stated items seized by police would have been planted by the Anti-Ter­ror­ist Organ­isa­tion. He iden­ti­fied this organ­isa­tion as being MI5.

On 2 Decem­ber in fur­ther inter­view con­cern­ing 55 Hud­dle­stone Road, he stated the fol­low­ing:

I have come to the con­clu­sion that 55 Hud­dle­stone is owned by either MI5 or you guys and I have been badly stitched up.

He then referred to a map of Afgh­anistan inside the premises and stated that it should be examined for fin­ger­prints, stat­ing that either police or MI5 fin­ger­prints would be found on it.

He sub­sequently retrac­ted these claims and was sen­tenced to nine years impris­on­ment. It was only after the Crevice tri­al fin­ished in May 2007 that report­ing restric­tions on Rahman’s case were finally lif­ted. It didn’t gen­er­ate much cov­er­age. Atten­tion focused on the poten­tial for Rah­man to pur­chase the sur­face-to-air mis­siles he’d expressed an interest in, and the pos­sib­il­ity that they might have been used to bring down an air­liner. The head­lines?

• Mani­ac planned mis­sile hit on jet – Express
• Plumb­er ‘planned to bring down jet’ in rock­et attack – Times

So what do we make of the delayed report­ing of Rahman’s guilty plea and con­vic­tion?

On the one hand, thanks to the secur­ity ser­vices, an indi­vidu­al who fan­tas­ised about com­mit­ting ter­ror­ist acts was not giv­en the instru­ments to real­ize those fantas­ies.

On the oth­er, recall­ing the tenacity of police in pur­su­ing every con­tact of Dav­id Copeland’s, we might ask why the entrap­ment oper­a­tion was so long in com­ing against Rah­man and why sim­il­ar stings were not launched against the oth­er essen­tials lis­ted with him?

We might be con­cerned about the man­age­ment of inform­ants, their role as agents pro­vocateurs and the safety of entrap­ment oper­a­tions. We might also be con­cerned about the man­age­ment of ter­ror­ist threats with the involve­ment of for­eign agen­cies for whom the safety of UK cit­izens is a lower pri­or­ity and with their own rais­ons d’état.

Inform­ant hand­ling is a mirky busi­ness. It came up in the North­ern Ire­land Police Ombuds­man’s report on the killing of Ray­mond McCord Jnr. The report looked at man­age­ment of inform­ants in the province dur­ing the 1990s. Nuala O’Loan found that over a num­ber of years ‘police acted in such a way as to pro­tect inform­ants from being fully account­able to the law.’

(Iron­ic­ally, an inquiry like O’Loan’s could not take place now, since Spe­cial Branch respons­ib­il­it­ies in ter­ror­ism were moved to MI5.)

In Octo­ber 2003, the Police Ser­vice of North­ern Ire­land (PSNI) car­ried out a major review of all their inform­ants, as well as inform­ants who were run by the mil­it­ary with the know­ledge of PSNI. It was car­ried out by the Cov­ert Human Intel­li­gence Source Risk Ana­lys­is Group (CRAG for short).

As a res­ult, nearly a quarter of all police inform­ants had their rela­tion­ships ended. Half were ‘retired’ because they no longer had access to rel­ev­ant intel­li­gence. The remain­ing 12% were ‘let go’ because the CRAG review found that they had been too deeply involved in crim­in­al activ­ity for their con­tin­ued employ­ment to meet the leg­al and eth­ic­al stand­ards set by par­lia­ment. That means 12% of inform­ants were found to involved in crim­in­al activ­ity. That per­cent­age is actu­ally mis­lead­ing, since what we really want to know is the scale and nature of that crim­in­al involve­ment.

Man­age­ment of inform­ants wasn’t put on a stat­utory basis until the Reg­u­la­tion of Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act in 2000. That required record keep­ing and reviews of cov­ert human intel­li­gence sources, but not neces­sar­ily of cas­u­al con­tacts. It also appoin­ted an Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Com­mis­sion­er to review the author­isa­tion of inform­ants – cur­rently a retired Appeal Court judge, Sir Peter Gib­son.

In April 2007, Deputy Assist­ant Com­mis­sion­er Peter Clarke, Nation­al Coördin­at­or of Ter­ror­ist Invest­ig­a­tions, made a speech call­ing for great­er pub­lic under­stand­ing of the ter­ror­ist threat. He cri­ti­cized the length of time taken to bring cases to court. He cri­ti­cized too the report­ing restric­tions imposed because of evid­ence emer­ging in one case pre­ju­dicing jur­ors in anoth­er. Clarke said:

I just won­der if we could be bolder and, dare I say it, trust jur­ies to dis­tin­guish the pre­ju­di­cial from the pro­bat­ive … Is it not import­ant for gov­ern­ment, busi­ness, com­munity lead­ers and the wider pub­lic to be able to con­sider, in an informed way, what the impact of … an attack would be if it had actu­ally happened? Should we not be con­sid­er­ing the polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic con­sequences, or the poten­tially dev­ast­at­ing impact on com­munity cohe­sion? Apart from any­thing else, I I nestly believe that the pub­lic are entitled to know why air­port secur­ity is becom­ing ever more intrus­ive and incon­veni­ent.

At the time, media atten­tion was dir­ec­ted to his cri­ti­cism of leaked inform­a­tion about arrests in an alleged plot to kid­nap and behead a Brit­ish Muslim sol­dier. His call for a change in our rules on con­tempt went largely unre­por­ted. That call has been echoed by the Lord Chan­cel­lor and the Attor­ney Gen­er­al.

In Novem­ber 2006, the Dir­ect­or of Pub­lic Pro­sec­u­tions pub­licly backed the decision to allow report­ing of the case of Dhir­an Barot after he pleaded guilty, whilst sev­en co-defend­ants were await­ing tri­al, in a step towards recog­nising that jur­ies can make decisions on the evid­ence presen­ted to them in court.

Barot was jailed for 40 years in 2006, reduced on appeal to 30. The Met’s Peter Clarke described the case like this:

It is no exag­ger­a­tion to say that at the time of the arrest there was not one shred of admiss­ible evid­ence against Barot. The arrest was per­fectly law­ful –there were more than suf­fi­cient grounds, but in terms of evid­ence to put before a court, there was noth­ing. There then began the race against time to retrieve evid­ence from the mass of com­puters and oth­er IT equip­ment that we seized. It was only at the very end of the per­mit­ted peri­od of deten­tion that suf­fi­cient evid­ence was found to jus­ti­fy charges.

Clarke and his law enforce­ment col­leagues were keen that the pub­lic under­stood the issues around pre-charge deten­tion. Of Barot him­self, journ­al­ist Melanie Phil­lips wrote in the Spec­tat­or:

…the case attrac­ted rel­at­ively little media atten­tion. Cer­tainly, the lur­id details of the plot were fully repor­ted, but there has been vir­tu­ally no ana­lys­is of the sig­ni­fic­ance of the Barot case. There’s been no dis­cus­sion of what it tells us about the sheer scale of the threat to this coun­try, or how best we should pro­tect ourselves against it.

On the oth­er hand, in June 2006 secur­ity sources told the Sunday Tele­graph that a pos­sible Sar­in attack on the Lon­don Under­ground had been foiled with the arrest of two broth­ers in Forest Gate. Again, accord­ing to the Met’s Peter Clarke: ‘This oper­a­tion was planned in response to spe­cif­ic intel­li­gence.’

More than a week after the arrests, this was Melanie Phil­lips in the Daily Mail:

That affair is now cloaked in rumour and counter-rumour. Some police officers are repor­ted still to believe that there is a chem­ic­al weapon some­where, even if it was not where they thought it was. Anoth­er report says that before the raid Scot­land Yard had ser­i­ous doubts about the cred­ib­il­ity of the MI5 source. Yet anoth­er says the ori­gin­al tip-off did not come from an MI5 inform­er, but from someone who phoned the Met’s anti-ter­ror­ist hot­line.

But this April, Peter Clarke again emphas­ised that such a raid would not have been launched without very good reas­on. We’re already famil­i­ar with the murder acquit­tal where the police announce that they’re not look­ing for any­one else. So, who to believe?

One of the great bar­ri­ers to pub­lic under­stand­ing, not just in ter­ror­ist tri­als but also in all crim­in­al pro­ceed­ings, is the wider impact of that activ­ity on our soci­ety. The leg­al pro­ceed­ings in the case of Tundi Obanubi effect­ively shut down wider dis­cus­sion of the impact of Islam­ist recruit­ment on cam­puses. So too did the pro­nounce­ments of the police. Politi­cians, the press and the pub­lic were quite pos­sibly denied the right to debate how to respond to a threat by a secur­ity agency seek­ing to man­age that threat for them.

Our tra­di­tion of pub­lic com­mu­nic­a­tion – in our courts, and in our par­lia­ment – is adversari­al. We would do well to remem­ber that when it comes to enabling pub­lic under­stand­ing of the issues arising out of ter­ror­ist activ­ity. We can’t guar­an­tee under­stand­ing, but without allow­ing polit­ic­al, par­tis­an dis­cus­sion of those issues (and allow­ing jur­ies to make up their minds on the facts and evid­ence presen­ted to them in court), we risk the slow pro­cess of justice blind­ing us to the rap­id trans­form­a­tions tak­ing place around us.

The oth­er prob­lem we face is the lack of pub­lic com­mu­nic­a­tion by the secur­ity ser­vices them­selves. This makes the default pos­i­tion of report­ing, the ‘secur­ity source.’ These sources are likely to be at best, dis­in­ter­ested pub­lic ser­vants, at worst, apo­lo­gists or blame-shifters. Their claims are almost impossible to veri­fy.

Let me illus­trate that with an example, a stretch­ing of the thin exist­ing facts to reach one of those fantasy con­clu­sions so beloved of con­spir­acy the­or­ists.

Recall that we have an offi­cial, but anonym­ous, con­firm­a­tion that Rah­man was one of the 15 essen­tial tar­gets iden­ti­fied by MI5 after March 2004. Our con­spir­acy the­or­ist would point out that no action was taken against him until late July 2005. And also, that none of the remain­ing four­teen people on that list had been arres­ted at the time of the state­ment in April.

The con­spir­acy the­or­ist would point to two of the 7/7 bombers who were on the list of 40 desir­ables. One of them was Mohamed Sidique Khan, the sup­posed ringlead­er of the 7/7 con­spir­acy. He was recor­ded in Omar Khyam’s car. Here’s some of that record­ing from the Daily Tele­graph, although it appeared in many places:

At one point, Sidique Khan asked Khyam: Are you really a ter­ror­ist?
Khyam: They are work­ing with us.
Sidique Khan: You are ser­i­ous, you are basic­ally?
Khyam: I am not a ter­ror­ist, they are work­ing through us.
Sidique Khan: Who are? There is no one high­er than you.

It’s a strange frag­ment of a con­ver­sa­tion.

A con­spir­acy the­or­ist might put that togeth­er with the tim­ing of the move against Rah­man and ask what if the secur­ity ser­vices had been double crossed by someone that had pre­vi­ously relied on as an inform­ant? And might then won­der if the secur­ity ser­vices didn’t decide to rap­idly ter­min­ate any exist­ing arrange­ments on the grounds that one could not be too care­ful.

So, was Rah­man a cas­u­al con­tact of the secur­ity ser­vices? Someone whose ser­vices had not been prop­erly dis­pensed with? Or was he a jihadi oppor­tun­ist just wait­ing for a chance? Just to punc­ture the spec­u­lat­ive bubble, Rah­man pleaded guilty. He with­drew his claims about MI5.

But does what you’ve learned about his his­tory inspire you with con­fid­ence that this is the total­ity of his story? Do the anonym­ous sources and leaks sat­is­fy your citizen’s curi­os­ity that intel­li­gence efforts are being handled in a way that gives you con­fid­ence?

I don’t really think we can expect report­ing as it is cur­rently resourced to provide either the answers or the kind of pub­lic scru­tiny these import­ant ques­tions require. (I don’t even know if we can ask the pub­lic en masse to be inter­ested.) And there are few incent­ives for journ­al­ism to shoulder the bur­den of inform­ing the pub­lic in the first instance (although there are niche oppor­tun­it­ies for that to hap­pen). So what can we do?

Pub­licly account­able com­mu­nic­a­tion might restore our con­fid­ence. The pres­sure of open, pub­lic com­mu­nic­a­tion is as much about the bur­den it places on an organ­isa­tion to tell a con­sist­ent story, as it is about the com­mu­nic­a­tion itself.

We need pub­lic access to tri­al records, inform­a­tion and doc­u­ments. The cur­rent sys­tem where pro­vi­sion of tri­al tran­scripts is farmed out to agen­cies is impossible to jus­ti­fy.

Court tran­scripts and doc­u­ments ought to be made pub­licly avail­able online. It is bizarre in the extreme that Old Bailey records from the sev­en­teenth to nine­teenth cen­tur­ies are freely avail­able and search­able on the Inter­net, that the Hut­ton Inquiry tran­scripts and doc­u­ments are avail­able online, but not the cases com­ing before our courts every day. In a mod­ern inform­a­tion soci­ety, their non-avail­ab­il­ity is actu­ally an abuse of the public’s trust. As Sir Igor Judge noted of the Barot case: ‘[T]he free­dom of the press to report the pro­ceed­ings provides one of the essen­tial safe­guards against closed justice.’

This surely needs address­ing as part of a wider review of the pub­lic pro­vi­sion of inform­a­tion. Once that mater­i­al is freely avail­able, let journ­al­ists do what they are good at – mar­ket it, scru­tin­ise it, argue over it, exam­ine it. And let inter­ested parties, and the gen­er­al pub­lic, do the same online.

I’m sure the secur­ity ser­vices would not want to rely on the vagar­ies of news plan­ners and assign­ment desks to ensure that inform­a­tion on their suc­cesses went duly noted. I’m sure too that the pub­lic and Par­lia­ment, would feel the same about inform­a­tion on their fail­ures.

We need more effect­ive insti­tu­tion­al over­sight of the secur­ity ser­vices. In the United States, the Office of the Inspect­or Gen­er­al in the Justice Depart­ment has played an import­ant part in audit­ing the FBI’s per­form­ance as it shifts from law enforce­ment to ter­ror­ism pre­ven­tion. Our own domest­ic secur­ity ser­vice, which is now called on to play a sim­il­ar role to the FBI, needs at least the same degree of reg­u­lar, organ­ised scru­tiny.

In the US, sev­er­al Con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees exer­cise over­sight in respect of the FBI and its oper­a­tions. Here, it is just one – the Intel­li­gence Select Com­mit­tee. The Prime Min­is­ter with Oppos­i­tion con­sulta­tion appoints its mem­bers. Ideally, the House of Com­mons should elect that com­mit­tee. More com­mit­tees, where appro­pri­ate, need to be able to scru­tin­ise MI5 oper­a­tions to ensure that secur­ity policy really is ‘joined up.’

The final issue that needs address­ing is libel. Some indi­vidu­als have won large set­tle­ments from news organ­isa­tions after being wrongly iden­ti­fied as ter­ror­ist sus­pects. The law con­siders accus­a­tions of involve­ment in ter­ror­ism among the most ser­i­ous that can be made.

But being a sus­pect is not the same as being found guilty in a court of law. The sus­pects in the killing of Steph­en Lawrence were pub­licly iden­ti­fied by the Daily Mail. They have nev­er been found guilty of his murder and yet live under the shad­ow of sus­pi­cion. Would a jury be minded to award them libel dam­ages? We will all have to get used to a soci­ety where a pre­sump­tion of inno­cence is replaced by an absence of leg­al con­vic­tion. It’s a real­ist­ic con­sequence of devel­op­ments like con­trol orders and of the data trails we leave behind us in everything we do.

None of this will pre­vent the inter­na­tion­al con­flicts of interest that arise in coun­ter­ing a glob­al ter­ror­ist threat, but it might give us con­fid­ence in the prob­ity and effect­ive­ness of our own nation’s part in that effort.

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