Dame Eliza keeps quiet about Blair’s wars


The Director General of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, made a rare speech at Queen Mary’s College, University of London, on 9 November 2006 [1].  The speech was entitled The International Terrorist Threat to the UK. 


She spoke, she said, “not as a politician, nor as a pundit, but as someone who has been an intelligence professional for 32 years” and painted a blood-curdling picture of “some 200 groupings or networks, totalling over 1600 identified individuals (and there will be many we don’t know) who are actively engaged in plotting, or facilitating, terrorist acts here and overseas”.


She continued:


“I do not speak in this way to alarm (nor as the cynics might claim to enhance the reputation of my organisation) but to give the most frank account I can of the Al-Qaida threat to the UK. That threat is serious, is growing and will, I believe, be with us for a generation. It is a sustained campaign, not a series of isolated incidents. It aims to wear down our will to resist. [my emphasis]”


In the aftermath of Dame Eliza’s speech, the media repeated ad nauseam her prediction that the al-Qaida threat will be with us for a generation, even though it is a nonsensical statement. It is nonsensical because the duration of the al-Qaida threat to Britain is intimately connected with the duration of Britain’s intervention in the Muslim world, particularly in Iraq.  And Dame Eliza is well aware that this is the case.


If Britain continues to intervene militarily in the Muslim world for a generation, then it is a racing certainty that the al-Qaida threat to Britain will be with us for a generation.  But, if Britain were to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and cease its continued political support for Israel while it slaughters defenceless Palestinians, then the al-Qaida threat to Britain would disappear very quickly.  The choice is in the hands of Prime Minister Blair and his successors.


Blair chose to make us less safe

In March 2003, having been warned in advance by the intelligence services that the threat from al-Qaida “would be heightened by military action against Iraq” (see Intelligence & Security Committee report of 11 September 2003 [2], Paragraph 126), the Prime Minister chose to make Britain a less safe place by invading Iraq.  He, or his successors, can chose to make it a more safe place by withdrawing from Iraq (and Afghanistan).


Of course, Dame Eliza was careful not to spell any of this out bluntly in her speech lest she offend the Government.  But there is ample evidence that MI5 is of the opinion that Britain’s intervention in Iraq has had a dramatic effect on motivating individuals to attack British interests at home and abroad.  You have only to look at MI5’s website, where on a page entitled Threat to the UK from International Terrorism you will read [3]:


“In recent years, Iraq has become a dominant issue for a range of extremist groups and individuals in the UK and Europe.”


And an assessment drawn up in March 2005 by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), on which Dame Eliza sits, was even more explicit about the motivating effect of the invasion of Iraq.  The assessment was entitled International Terrorism: Impact of Iraq.  Extracts from it were published in The Sunday Times on 2 April 2006 [4].  Amongst its conclusions were:


Iraq is likely to be an important motivating factor for some time to come in the radicalisation of British Muslims and for those extremists who view attacks against the UK as legitimate.”


“There is a clear consensus within the UK extremist community that Iraq is a legitimate jihad and should be supported. Iraq has re-energised and refocused a wide range of networks in the UK.”


“We judge that the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism and will continue to have an impact in the long term. It has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the West and motivated others who were not.”


“Some jihadists who leave Iraq will play leading roles in recruiting and organising terrorist networks, sharing their skills and possibly conducting attacks. It is inevitable that some will come to the UK.”


You won’t find this blunt message in Dame Eliza’s speech on 9 November 2006, despite the fact that she put her name to it in April 2005.  The reason for her reticence is that she couldn’t possibly offend the Government, which is desperate to play down any link between its invasion of Iraq and terrorist attacks in Britain.


Imagine the headlines (and the fury in Downing Street) if she had stated bluntly that in her opinion “the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism”.  That would have merited headlines about a split between Dame Eliza and the Prime Minister, who clings rigidly to the dogma that terrorist attacks on Britain are not the product of his wars - and would have implied that British withdrawal from Iraq was likely to be more effective in making Britain safe than all the efforts of her organisation.


More “complex” picture

Understandably, therefore, in her assessment of the motivation of al-Qaida operatives, Dame Eliza painted a more “complex” picture:


“There has been much speculation about what motivates young men and women to carry out acts of terrorism in the UK. My Service needs to understand the motivations behind terrorism to succeed in countering it, as far as that is possible. Al-Qaida has developed an ideology which claims that Islam is under attack, and needs to be defended.


“This is a powerful narrative that weaves together conflicts from across the globe, presenting the West's response to varied and complex issues, from long-standing disputes such as Israel/Palestine and Kashmir to more recent events as evidence of an across-the-board determination to undermine and humiliate Islam worldwide. Afghanistan, the Balkans, Chechnya, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Kashmir and Lebanon are regularly cited by those who advocate terrorist violence as illustrating what they allege is Western hostility to Islam.


“The video wills of British suicide bombers make it clear that they are motivated by perceived worldwide and long-standing injustices against Muslims; an extreme and minority interpretation of Islam promoted by some preachers and people of influence; and their interpretation as anti-Muslim of UK foreign policy, in particular the UK's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.


“Killing oneself and others in response is an attractive option for some citizens of this country and others around the world.”


That is carefully tailored not to avoid generating headlines such as “Blair’s wars have increased terror threat to Britain, says head of MI5”. 


Al-Qaida plot in November 2000?

Dame Eliza also provided the Prime Minister with a little bit of ammunition for his repeated assertions that Britain was under threat from al-Qaida before the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and even before 9/11 (from which we are meant to deduce, illogically, that any attacks on Britain are unrelated to the these invasions).  Dame Eliza said:


“We now know that the first Al-Qaida-related plot against the UK was the one we discovered and disrupted in November 2000 in Birmingham. A British citizen is currently serving a long prison sentence for plotting to detonate a large bomb in the UK. Let there be no doubt about this: the international terrorist threat to this country is not new. It began before Iraq, before Afghanistan, and before 9/11.”


Home Secretary, John Reid, mentioned this case on 13 August 2006 at the height of the furore about the “plot” to blow up transatlantic aircraft, but he didn't give any details (see BBC report [5]).  I have been unable to find out what this case was about.  MI5 must have deemed it to be “Al-Qaida-related” in the past 12 months or so, otherwise Blair would have trumpeted it after the London bombings last year, to “prove” that the bombings were not the product of his wars.


Muslim radicalisation

Another source of comfort to Downing Street in Dame Eliza’s speech was her continual harping on about the “radicalisation” of British Muslims, which is the Government’s buzzword of the moment.  This carries with it the implication that the problem is the existence of a small number of sinister individuals, chiefly clerics, in the Muslim community, who indoctrinate young Muslim men in “perverted” forms of Islam, and if only they were dealt with - locked up, deported, etc - then the problem would be eliminated.


In fact, Muslim radicalisation is a product of real events in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and this summer in Lebanon.  British Muslims have only to turn on their TVs to be radicalised.  No other agency is necessary.


Why speak now?

Why did Dame Eliza choose this time to make a speech for public consumption?  The last time she spoke publicly was over a year ago on 1 September 2005 in The Hague (at a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the Dutch security service), when she spoke on The international terrorist threat and the dilemmas in countering it.  The word “Iraq” didn’t pass her lips on that occasion.


The more fundamental question is why does the head of a secret intelligence service speak in public at all.  One the FAQs cited on the MI5 website [6] is:


“Would the Director General of MI5 speak at my conference/event?”


to which the following answer is given:


“The Director General receives many invitations to speak at a variety of public events. Unfortunately, pressure on her diary means she has to turn down the vast majority.”


This answer is bizarre: if making public speeches is an essential part of the job of the head of MI5, then time would have to be set aside to make them.  And if not, why should the head of MI5 make public speeches at all?


The MI5 website doesn’t mention that the Director General has to seek authorisation from her boss, the Home Secretary, before making a speech (see Crispin Black, The Guardian, 17 November 2006 [7]).


Time was when the name of the head of MI5 wasn’t known, and there was no question of the head of MI5 making public speeches.  It was much better that way.  MI5 is supposed to be in the business of giving objective advice to the Government, including advice that the Government doesn’t like.  But, when the head of MI5 speaks in public, s/he cannot possibly say things Government doesn’t want noised abroad, and therefore the public is given a partial picture with the authority of “an intelligence professional”.  Inevitably, therefore, the exercise is advantageous to the Government because the partial picture excludes matters that the Government doesn’t want emphasised, in this case the fundamental fact that “the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism”. 


It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Dame Eliza’s latest public speech was prompted (and vetted?) by the Government, which seems to be gearing up for a campaign to paint the Conservatives as soft on crime in general, and terrorism in particular.  How could anybody resist any anti-terrorism proposals from the Government in the light of the Dame Eliza’s blood-curdling picture of the al-Qaida threat to Britain?  And how could anybody resist providing additional resources for MI5, if Dame Eliza asks for them?


Extending detention period

The head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, has also been speaking in public (after a welcome silence for the past 12 months, while the Menezes cloud hung over him).  According to The Sunday Times on 12 November 2006 [8], he made a speech in Germany in which he proposed that the length of time that suspects can be held without charge under terrorism legislation be increased from the present 28 days (to which it was increased from 14 days only a year ago).


The Sunday Times also reported that Gordon Brown, Labour’s leader-in-waiting, was right behind Sir Ian on these matters, saying:


“I completely agree with him.  Given the scale of the threat we face, we must give the security service and the police not just the resources they need, but the powers they need, to gather securely the evidence and use that evidence to gain convictions.”


He told The Sunday Times that he is going to take charge of the fight against terrorism personally, when he becomes Prime Minister, and that he favours the extension of the 28-day limit to up to 90 days, the proposal that the House of Commons rejected a year ago, despite extensive lobbying by the police, including Sir Ian.


When the controversy about pre-charge detention was raging a year ago, I tried to obtain information about the length of time terrorist suspects were held under the existing 14-day rule before charge or release, information that might indicate that people were being released without charge after 14 days, when holding them longer might have lead to their being charged, rather than released.  However, the Government didn’t seem to have presented Parliament with information along these lines, despite the fact that one might have thought that information of this kind was vital for making a case for the extension of the existing 14-day period.


In fact, the Government couldn’t have presented this information to Parliament, because it doesn’t collect it. This emerged in an interview with Dominic Grieve, the Conservative Shadow Attorney General on BBC Radio 4’s World This Weekend on 13 November 2006.  Asked if the Conservative Party favoured the extension of the 14-day detention period, he replied:


“We need to see the evidence.  Back in early September, we asked a Parliamentary question of the Government as to the length of time that each terrorist had been held, or suspected terrorist under the terrorism act, prior to release or charge, which seemed to us to be the essential building block.  And, to my consternation, we got the answer that the Government said it didn’t have this information, which was not being collated centrally.  Now, with that dearth of information, it’s a bit difficult to support the Government if it comes out with a series of bold statements.  If there’s credible evidence that an extension is needed, we will consider that evidence pragmatically.”


Could there be a clearer indication that the Government’s approach to anti-terrorism legislation is not driven by objective evidence, but by a desire to look tough for tabloid editors?


David Morrison

18 November 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review




[1]  www.mi5.gov.uk/output/Page374.html

[2]  www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/publications/reports/isc/iwmdia.pdf

[3]  www.mi5.gov.uk/output/Page269.html

[4]  www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-2114502,00.html

[5]  news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4788101.stm

[6]  www.mi5.gov.uk/output/Page258.html

[7]  commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/crispin_black/2006/11/post_642.html

[8]  www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-2450152,00.html