Reporting Terrorism

June 20, 2007

It’s nearly two years since I wandered away
With the local battalion of the bold IRA,
For I read of our heroes, and wanted the same
To play out my part in the patriot game.

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.

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 song’s voice is that of Fer­gal O’Hanlon, who died in the raid. Just sev­en 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. He’s 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.

The second quote, half a cen­tury later from Ed Husain, author of The Islam­ist, recounts his involve­ment in the ideo­lo­gic­al move­ment that drew some young Brit­ish Muslims towards ter­ror­ism. 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 they’re colum­nists, of course).

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 imme­di­ately, 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. I’m not using pub­li­city in a derog­at­ory way.

Here, for example, are its uses:

  • 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).

But 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. 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
  • that report­ing alone can’t carry the bur­den of inform­ing the pub­lic and act­ing as a watch­dog on the secur­ity ser­vices.

The non-conspiracies around David Copeland

Young man. Self-con­fessed ter­ror­ist. ‘Nor­mal, quiet bloke.’ Admits set­ting out to cause fear and dis­rup­tion. His dad’s amazed. Says he’s been trans­formed into a bomber by extrem­ists. Sound famil­i­ar?

Except it’s not a Brit­ish-born Muslim, or con­vert to Islam. It’s Dav­id Cope­land. In 1999, aged 22, Cope­land set off three nail bombs across Lon­don – each one aimed at minor­ity groups. His brief cam­paign of ter­ror left three people dead, includ­ing a woman who was four-months preg­nant. 129 people were injured.

As the police web­site on the invest­ig­a­tion, 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 because it didn’t offer a suf­fi­cient out­let for viol­ence. The tiny Nation­al Social­ist Move­ment, to which Cope­land belonged, had col­lapsed after one mem­ber stabbed anoth­er to death at a house in Chelms­ford in 1998.

Two men were imprisoned for their part in that murder, one of them was named in a tele­vi­sion doc­u­ment­ary as a paid inform­ant 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 had 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? The jury pre­ferred wicked­ness 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, which 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. Could the police have pre­ven­ted that bomb­ing? It was clear from the invest­ig­a­tion and tri­al that the police hadn’t had time to pre­vent Copeland’s mur­der­ous attack.

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. Copeland’s tri­al demon­strated pub­licly what the police had done to bring him to justice – and how they had man­aged their invest­ig­a­tion.

The mysterious career of Kazi Rahman

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 of court order. He is 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. He stood tri­al for a murder on cam­pus.

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.’

At lunch­time, the fol­low­ing Monday, a 20 year old stu­dent, Tundi Obanubi, was set upon by a group of Muslim stu­dents and stabbed to death, just out­side Newham College’s East Ham build­ing. The Nigerian’s crime, one of his attack­ers said 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 his book, The Islam­ist, Ed Husain gives a detailed account of the murder of Obanubi and its con­text. He quotes an eye­wit­ness, Majid Nawaz, 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 murder went to court, the Guard­i­an’s brief sum­mary ran 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 killing Obanubi. One of those found guilty wasn’t a stu­dent or Asi­an, but a reg­u­lar col­lege vis­it­or, called Saeed Nur. Nur was an Afric­an Muslim of Somali ori­gin. He 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 Nur’s sen­tence was banned because jur­ors could not decide on a ver­dict for one of his co-accused and it went for re-tri­al. One man had been acquit­ted out­right – Kazi Nur­ur Rah­man.

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

In ret­ro­spect, this gang murder was a jihadi mile­stone. For Ed Husain, 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 Pakistan, and a few years later, to an appear­ance on my pro­gramme, five news.

In 2001, at a shabby house on Ily­as Street, Lahore that served as the office of Al Muhajiroun Has­san Butt wheeled out a rather nervous and masked Brit­ish Muslim to talk to ITN report­er Jon Gil­bert. The man 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.’ The nervous young man was Kazi Rah­man, although he nev­er got an oppor­tun­ity to make good on his threats.

One of Rahman’s asso­ci­ates in that Lahore office was Mohammed Jun­aid Babar, an Amer­ic­an sup­port­er of Al Muhajiroun. He too was also inter­viewed by Gil­bert con­demning his coun­try. That sound­bite, re-broad­cast on CNN, brought Babar to the atten­tion of the FBI. Three years later, in April 2004, they arres­ted him in New York.

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

The Brits were the fer­til­iser bomb gang, under the lead­er­ship of Omar Khyam, who were stor­ing ammoni­um nitrate for use in pos­sible ter­ror­ist attacks. (Dur­ing their sur­veil­lance oper­a­tion the police swapped it for cat lit­ter.) 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 Guantá­namo).

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. In March 2004, 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 mis­sile launch­ers to tar­get pas­sen­ger jets. He pleaded guilty to pos­sess­ing weapons for the pur­pose of ter­ror­ism.

Babar had told the FBI 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 MI5’s ‘essen­tials’ list, no action was taken against Rah­man until a fort­night after the 7/7 bomb­ings. So how did Rah­man end up going to pris­on?

The trap

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 com­prom­ised 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. Rah­man 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 these weapon sys­tems. What happened next?

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, off the M25. 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. Pre­vi­ously, 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 – The Express
  • Plumb­er ‘planned to bring down jet’ in rock­et attack – The Times
  • PASSENGER JET TERROR PLOT FOILED AFTER 7/7 – Press Asso­ci­ation

Informants, information and public credibility

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 murky 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. A win­dow of account­ab­il­ity closes before it half-opens.)

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 be 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 his April 2007 speech, the Nation­al Coördin­at­or of Ter­ror­ist Invest­ig­a­tions, Peter Clarke, called 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 hon­estly 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-accused 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 oth­ers in law enforce­ment, wanted report­ing of the case to inform or influ­ence the debate on pre-tri­al deten­tion. It wasn’t that suc­cess­ful. Melanie Phil­lips wrote of the Barot case 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. The Met’s Peter Clarke told report­ers: ‘This oper­a­tion was planned in response to spe­cif­ic intel­li­gence.’

More than a week after the Forest Gate arrests, Melanie Phil­lips wrote 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 once more pub­licly declared 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?

Improving public understanding

One of the great bar­ri­ers to pub­lic under­stand­ing, not just in ter­ror­ist tri­als but 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 denied the oppor­tun­ity 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? They might then won­der if the secur­ity ser­vices didn’t decide to rap­idly ter­min­ate any exist­ing arrange­ments on the grounds that – well, you couldn’t 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. And 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?

By con­trast, the Cope­land case is not a fer­tile breed­ing ground for con­spir­acy the­or­ies and rumours. It does not lurk at the back of the pub­lic ima­gin­a­tion, pois­on­ing the image of the police and secur­ity ser­vices as secret­ive, homo­phobic, or racist. I would argue that’s because the tri­al and the facts presen­ted to the pub­lic denied them the abil­ity to flour­ish.

The future

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.

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. 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.


[i] The main exec­ut­ive guidelines are con­tained in the Home Office Con­sol­id­ated Cir­cu­lar to the Police on Crime and Kindred Mat­ters (reprin­ted 1986) (Home Office Cir­cu­lar 35/1986). These guidelines state (in para­graph 1.92):

a. No mem­ber of a police force, and no pub­lic inform­ant, should coun­sel, incite or pro­cure the com­mis­sion of a crime.

b. Where an inform­ant gives the police inform­a­tion about the inten­tion of oth­ers to com­mit a crime in which they intend that he shall play a part, his par­ti­cip­a­tion should be allowed to con­tin­ue only where -

i. he does not act­ively engage in plan­ning and com­mit­ting the crime;

ii. he is inten­ded to play only a minor role; and

iii. his par­ti­cip­a­tion is essen­tial to enable the police to frus­trate the prin­cip­al crim­in­als and to arrest them (albeit for less­er offences such as attempt or con­spir­acy to com­mit the crime, or car­ry­ing offens­ive weapons) before injury is done to any per­son or ser­i­ous dam­age to prop­erty.

The inform­ant should always be instruc­ted that he must on no account act as agent pro­vocateur, wheth­er by sug­gest­ing to oth­ers that they should com­mit offences or encour­aging them to do so.…

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