The al-Qaida threat to Britain

MI5 says Iraq “a dominant issue”


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


This is the considered assessment of the British intelligence services at the time of writing, and has been for a couple of years.  All the while, the Government has tried to give the impression that the threat to Britain from al-Qaida and related groups is unconnected with the British invasion of Iraq, or any other aspect of British foreign policy towards the Muslim world.


In his recent “farewell” address to the Labour Party [1], the Prime Minister dismissed the notion out of hand, saying:


“This is a struggle that will last a generation and more.  But this I believe passionately: we will not win until we shake ourselves free of the wretched capitulation to the propaganda of the enemy, that somehow we are the ones responsible.


“This terrorism isn’t our fault.  We didn’t cause it.  It’s not the consequence of foreign policy.  It’s an attack on our way of life.”


The Government has been spectacularly unsuccessful in convincing the public that this is so: an ICM opinion poll for the Guardian (published on 22 August 2006) [2] posed the question:


“Generally speaking, do you think that government policies such as backing for action in Iraq and Afghanistan have made this country more of a target for terrorists, less of a target, or have they made no difference one way or the other?”


to which 72% replied “more of a target” and only 1% “less of a target” (and 22% said “no difference”).


MI5 assessment

I didn’t need access to a mole in MI5 in order to get hold of this MI5 assessment quoted.  I found it on the MI5 website.  To get to it, all you have to do is go to the MI5 home page [3], find the section (bottom right) stating the threat level (currently SEVERE) and click on Find out more, whereupon you will reach a page headed THREAT TO THE UK FROM INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM.  There you will read a sober and relatively objective assessment of the threats to the UK.  I quote:


“The threat of international terrorism comes from a diverse range of sources, including Al Qaida and associated networks, and those who share Al Qaida’s ideology but do not have direct contact with them. A threat could manifest itself from a lone individual or group, rather than a larger network. Such groups and individuals have a wide range of aspirations and causes, such as:






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


A logical conclusion from points 2 and 4 above, and the final sentence about Iraq, is that the threat to Britain from al-Qaida has been increased by British foreign policy towards the Muslim world, and its actions in the Muslim world.  In other words, in the judgment of MI5, the Prime Minister has made Britain less safe by standing shoulder to shoulder with President Bush since 9/11, and invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq.


From this it is reasonable to conclude that withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan would certainly diminish, and perhaps eliminate, the threat to Britain from al-Qaida.  In other words, if we ceased spending money and blood invading Muslim countries, we wouldn’t need to spend money protecting the British homeland from terrorism emanating from the Muslim world in response - and blood would not be spilled on our streets when the protection proves to be fallible.


(It is worth noting that the motivations cited above by MI5 for al-Qaida terrorism against Britain are all concerned with governance in the Muslim world, in particular, with ending Western interference in the Muslim world.  MI5 does not cite a desire on the part of al-Qaida to “destroy our way of life” (whatever that is), which was the mantra parroted by Blair, and repeated by many others, after the London bombings in July 2005.)


Earlier MI5 assessments

It should be emphasised that the current MI5 assessment of the threat to Britain from al-Qaida isn’t a major departure from earlier ones.  For example, on 19 July 2005, shortly after the London bombings, the MI5 website said:


Though they have a range of aspirations and ‘causes’, Iraq is a dominant issue for a range of extremist groups and individuals in the UK and Europe.  Some individuals who support the insurgency are known to have travelled to Iraq in order to fight against coalition forces.  In the longer term, it is possible that they may later return to the UK and consider mounting attacks here.”


On 19 July 2005, the New York Times published extracts from an assessment, drawn up in mid-June 2005, by the UK’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) [4].  The most striking sentence in these extracts was:


“Events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist related activity in the UK


(Police and customs are represented in JTAC along with the intelligence services.  According to MI5 [5]:


“JTAC analyses and assesses all intelligence relating to international terrorism, at home and overseas, and produces assessments of threats and other terrorist-related subjects for customers from a wide range of government departments and agencies.”


JTAC was created in June 2003. )


JIC assessment (April 2005)

A few months earlier, in April 2005, a report drawn up by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) was even more explicit about the motivating effect of the invasion of Iraq.  It was entitled International Terrorism: Impact of Iraq.  The following extracts from it were published in The Sunday Times on 2 April 2006 [6]:


“It [the invasion of Iraq] has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the West and motivated others who were not.”


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.”


Bombers statements

Two of the London bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, made videos prior to their deaths.  They both state clearly that it was British intervention in the Muslim world which motivated their action.


In a video broadcast by al-Jazeera on 1 September 2005, Mohammad Sidique Khan said [7]:


“Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world.  And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters.


“Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight.  We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.”


In a video broadcast on al-Jezeera on 6 July 2006, Shehzad Tanweer said [8]:


“What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger … until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iran and until you stop your military support of America and Israel.”


Since it’s difficult to imagine why suicide bombers would lie about what motivated them to take such extreme measures, you might have thought that this would have settled the matter and that the Government would admit that its foreign policy was a motivating factor for terrorism against Britain.  But, that underestimates the brass neck of this Government.


Browne obfuscates

On 12 August 2006, Muslim MPs and peers and 38 Muslim groups wrote to the Prime Minister pointing out that British foreign policy was fuelling terrorism in Britain and suggesting that it be changed.  They wrote in the aftermath of the arrest of more than a score of people for allegedly conspiring to blow up aircraft crossing the Atlantic with liquid explosive.  I quote from their letter:


“The debacle of Iraq and now the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East [ie Lebanon], not only increases the risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to extremists who threaten us all.”


Nevertheless, the Government was furious that British Muslims dared to suggest that British foreign policy was at the root of the matter - despite the fact that they were merely reflecting what MI5 said on its website. 


Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, was interviewed by John Humphries on the BBC Today programme on 15 August 2006 about the letter from Muslim leaders (see transcript [9]).  Humphries asked:


What affect has our foreign policy had on terrorism, as it affects this country?”


Browne didn’t say “none”, but, instead, embarked on a 3-point process of obfuscation, the first being that foreign policy was distorted and the second that, even though it was distorted, it didn’t explain why Muslims engaged in terrorism, which ignores the assessment of the intelligence services, not to mention the statements of the two of the London bombers.


The third point was the old familiar story trotted out by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the London bombings, namely, that, since al-Qaida carried out attacks prior to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, then any al-Qaida attacks after these invasions cannot be due to these invasions.  For example, he told the BBC Today programme on 9 July 2005 [10]:


“… if you remember that September 11, that was the reason we went into Afghanistan, September 11 happened before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before any of these issues, and that was the worst terrorist atrocity of all.”


There he was careful not to contradict what his intelligence services had told him in April 2005, namely, that “the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism”, but he was careful not to reveal what they had told him either.


Browne’s version of this “no connection with Iraq” argument was:


“… that analysis [that the terrorist threat to Britain is affected by foreign policy]… fails to take account of the fact that the nature of this terrorism predates our involvement, for example, in Iraq or Afghanistan. … One of the early attempts by Islamist terrorists to inflict substantial damage on the West was as far back as 1993, when the World Trade Centre was first targeted.”


Absolutely true, but absolutely irrelevant.  All of the attacks prior to 9/11 - on the World Trade Centre in 1993, on US embassies in East Africa in 1998, on the USS Cole in 2000 - were on US interests.  None of them was on British interests.  Al-Qaida or al-Qaida inspired groups did not attack British interests, until after Blair volunteered Britain to support the US in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.  British interests – the British consulate and a branch of the HSBC bank in Istanbul – were first attacked on 20 November 2003 and London itself was attacked on 7 July 2005.


Humphries then tried to get him to confirm that “our foreign policy has had no effect at all on terrorism as it affects this country”, which he refused to do, saying instead:


The main role our foreign policy appears to play in this debate is that it gives a new focus to people in terms of the way in which they want to present this particular problem.  I don’t believe that it changes people’s minds.”


The latter sentence is contradicts the JIC assessment of April 2005 that “the conflict in Iraq … has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the West and motivated others who were not”.  The JIC clearly believes that the conflict has changed people’s minds.


Blair’s “no connection with Iraq” argument after the London bombings on 7 July 2005 lasted until 19 July 2005, when the New York Times published extracts from the JTAC assessment from mid-June 2005 that “events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist related activity in the UK.”


After this revelation, the Prime Minister slithered away from his “no connection with Iraq” line and began to say that extremists will use Iraq as an excuse, telling a press conference on 19 July 2005:


“Of course, these terrorists will use Iraq as an excuse, they will use Afghanistan. September 11, of course, happened before both of those things, and then the excuse was American policy, or Israel …”


Browne’s earlier statement that foreign policy “gives a new focus” echoes this second Blair line, which accepts that there is some connection between terrorism in Britain and Iraq, while refusing to concede publicly that “the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism”, which is the plainly stated view of the intelligence services.


John Humphries put to him the judgement of the JIC from April 2005 that “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”.  Browne refused to admit that this differed from what he had said up to then, despite John Humphries’ efforts to make him do so.


Other Ministers, in addition to Browne, engaged in the same kind of obfuscation in response to the letter from British Muslim leaders, in order avoid admitting that the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat to Britain from al-Qaida, as the letter said and the intelligence services have stated repeatedly.  One wonders why the Government persists in this obfuscation since the vast majority of the public believe that the foreign policy pursued by the Government since 9/11 has increased the threat to Britain.  Ministers’ continual obfuscation merely enhances their well-earned reputation as twisters.


Pre-invasion warnings

It should never be forgotten that, prior to the invasion of Iraq, the intelligence services warned the Government that taking military action against Iraq would increase the threat to Britain from al-Qaida.  We know this from the Intelligence & Security Committee (ISC) report published on 11 September 2003 [11], which quoted a JIC assessment, entitled International Terrorism: War with Iraq, dated 10 February 2003:


“The JIC assessed that al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.” (ISC report, Paragraph 126)


Needless to say, the Prime Minister kept this from the House of Commons, lest it refuse to vote for the invasion.


The Prime Minister also kept another part of this JIC assessment from the House of Commons.  A major part of his case for taking military action against Iraq was that there was “a real and present danger” that chemical and biological weapons would find their way from Iraq to al-Qaida or associated groups.  For example, when the House of Commons supported the invasion on 18 March 2003 he told the House of Commons [12]:


“The key today is stability and order. The threat is chaos and disorder—and there are two begetters of chaos: tyrannical regimes with weapons of mass destruction and extreme terrorist groups who profess a perverted and false view of Islam. …


“Those two threats have, of course, different motives and different origins, but they share one basic common view: they detest the freedom, democracy and tolerance that are the hallmarks of our way of life. At the moment, I accept fully that the association between the two is loose—but it is hardening. The possibility of the two coming together—of terrorist groups in possession of weapons of mass destruction or even of a so-called dirty radiological bomb—is now, in my judgment, a real and present danger to Britain and its national security.”


When the Prime Minister said this, he was aware that in the same JIC assessment:


“… the JIC reported that there was no intelligence that Iraq had provided CB materials to al-Qaida or of Iraqi intentions to conduct CB terrorist attacks using Iraqi intelligence officials or their agents. However, it judged that in the event of imminent regime collapse there would be a risk of transfer of such material, whether or not as a deliberate Iraqi regime policy.” (ISC report, Paragraph 126)


Again, the Prime Minister chose not to divulge this information to Parliament, understandably so, since it would have destroyed an important part of his case for taking military action.


Under threat in October 2001?

Today, the Prime Minister refuses to admit that his actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased the threat to Britain from al-Qaida.  Back in October 2001, he had a different problem: he needed to prove that Britain was already under threat from al-Qaida, in order to justify joining in the US attack on Afghanistan.


On 4 October 2001, a few days before the US/UK started bombing Afghanistan, the Government published a document entitled Responsibility for the terrorist atrocities in the United States, 11 September 2001.  An updated version of this is on the Downing Street website [13].  I was puzzled when I heard that the British Government was going to publish such a document.  Why was the British, and not the American, Government publishing it, when the attack took place on American soil?


The answer became clear on reading the document.  It has four conclusions.  The first two were that bin Laden and al-Qaida were responsible for the attacks and that they are capable of mounting further attacks.  The third is the reason why the document was published: it was that “the United Kingdom, and United Kingdom nationals are potential targets” for al-Qaida.


This was based on two statements by bin Laden (see Paragraph 22).  First, the declaration of war against the US military presence in Saudi Arabia from August 1996, which talks about the “aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed” on the Muslim world “by the Zionist-Crusader alliance and their collaborators”.  Second, the fatwa issued in February 1998, which calls on Muslims “to launch the raid on Satan’s US troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them”.


The Government concluded from this that:


“Although US targets are Al Qaida’s priority, it also explicitly threatens the United States’ allies. References to ‘Zionist-Crusader alliance and their collaborators’, and to ‘Satan’s US troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them’ are references which unquestionably include the United Kingdom.” (Paragraph 24)


This was a doubtful conclusion, since Britain isn’t mentioned in either of the two statements by bin Laden.  But it was the best that could be done on 4 October 2001, when the document was published, to “prove” that Britain was under threat from al-Qaida.


A week or so later, on 13 October 2001, happily more evidence came to hand, when bin Laden declared Blair one of the “arch-criminals from among the Zionists and Crusaders” and warned Muslims in Britain not to travel in aircraft and not to live in tower blocks.  No doubt about it: after 13 October 2001, Britain was definitely under threat from al-Qaida.


It is true that between 4 October 2001, when the original document was published, and 13 October 2001 when bin Laden made his threat, Britain attacked Afghanistan along with the US on 7 October 2001.  It is just conceivable that bin Laden’s threat on 13 October 2001 was in response to this attack.  Nevertheless, the Government added this explicit threat from bin Laden, uttered after the attack began, to the document used to justify the attack.


Paragraph 24 of the modified document on the Downing Street website [13] now reads as follows:


“Although US targets are Al Qaida’s priority, it also explicitly threatens the United States’ allies. References to ‘Zionist-Crusader alliance and their collaborators’, and to ‘Satan’s US troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them’ are references which unquestionably include the United Kingdom.  This is confirmed by more specific references in a broadcast of 13 October, during which Bin Laden's spokesman said: ‘Al Qaida declares that Bush Sr, Bush Jr, Clinton, Blair and Sharon are the arch-criminals from among the Zionists and Crusaders . . . Al Qaida stresses that the blood of those killed will not go to waste, God willing, until we punish these criminals . . . We also say and advise the Muslims in the United States and Britain . . . not to travel by plane. We also advise them not to live in high-rise buildings and towers’”


Readers are not told that the “confirmation” of al-Qaida’s threat to Britain arrived after Britain attacked Afghanistan.


On 7 October 2001, the UK government notified the UN Security Council as follows:


“In accordance with Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, I wish on behalf of my government to report that the United Kingdom has military assets engaged in operations against targets we know to be involved in the operation of terror against the United States of America, the United Kingdom and other countries around the world, as part of a wider international effort.”


In other words, the official Government line was that Britain itself was an al-Qaida target on 7 October 2001 and that Britain attacked Afghanistan in self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter - which explains why the Government was keen to “prove” that Britain was under threat from al-Qaida before the attack.   After it, Britain certainly was on al-Qaida’s target list.  Attacking Iraq moved Britain up the list.


Iraq effect, according to US intelligence

On 24 September 2006, The New York Times published an article, entitled Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terror Threat [14].  It was about a US National Intelligence Estimate entitled Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States, which was completed in April 2006.


National Intelligence Estimates are formal assessments on specific national security issues, signed off by the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte.  They express the consensus view of the 16 US spy agencies, based on raw intelligence supplied by all of them.  This Estimate is the first formal appraisal of “global terrorism” by United States intelligence agencies since the Iraq war began.


In an effort to undo the damage done by this leak, President Bush has declassified and published the “key judgments” in the Estimate [15].  But the “key judgments” merely validate the headline on The New York Times article.  Listen to this:


“We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere.


·         The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.


“We assess that the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities and are likely to do so for the duration of the timeframe of this Estimate [believed to be 2006-2011].


·         Four underlying factors are fueling the spread of the jihadist movement: (1) Entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness; (2) the Iraq “jihad”; (3) the slow pace of real and sustained economic, social, and political reforms in many Muslim majority nations; and (4) pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims - all of which jihadists exploit.”



David Morrison

28 September 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review



[1]  See

[2] - August/guardian-august-2006.asp










[12]  See