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A Lesson the West Ignored From 7/7
Seventeen years ago today, four Al-Qaeda suicide bombers attacked the London transport system and in just under an hour that morning murdered fifty-two people from eighteen countries and wounded seven-hundred, one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in British history. An important thread in the story was the role of Pakistan in fostering the ideological and material environment that created the killers, which did not get the attention it deserved at the time, nor in the years since.
THE PAKISTAN DIMENSION OF 7/7
At 8:50 on 7 July 2005, Shehzad Tanweer (aged 22) detonated his suicide vest on a tube train, a minute later another suicide bomber, Mohammad Sidique Khan (30), detonated on a second train, and a minute after that another train was blown up by Germaine Lindsay (19). Thirty-nine people were massacred. At 9:47, a fourth suicide-killer, Hasib Hussain (18), blew himself up on a bus at Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury, slaughtering thirteen people.
The Security Service (MI5) confirmed that the killers had not been on their radar before the attacks, but once they were identified it became clear that Khan had been on the periphery of a prior investigation, Operation CREVICE, which in March 2004 had rolled up an Al-Qaeda network in and around London that was planning to carry out a terrorist atrocity using a fertiliser bomb. Khan was found to have been in telephone contact with one of the conspirators, Omar Khyam, and both Khan and Tanweer had been briefly surveilled by the security services because of their contacts. After running various checks on Khan and Tanweer, it was determined that neither merited further resources: they seemed to be involved in minor fraud as part of financing the network, rather than having any involvement—and potentially not having any knowledge—of the terrorist planning that CREVICE was interested in.
Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5’s G-Branch dealing with international terrorism during this period and later the MI5 chief, noted later that the plot thwarted by CREVICE, led by Mohammed Qayum Khan, had been directed by Al-Qaeda based in Pakistan’s tribal areas and involved “British citizens or British residents of Pakistani heritage, something which became something of a theme for this period”. The 7/7 attack was in-keeping with this: all of its operatives (except Lindsay) were of Pakistani extraction, it originated in “plans from Pakistan”, and indeed the logistics of the plot itself “did not fundamentally differ from all the other plans that failed to come to fruition” during the mid-2000s.
What only became clear after 7/7 was that in February 2004, Khyam had spoken in person to Sidique Khan in a car bugged by MI5, and from snippets of that conversation—and the testimony of a jihadist prisoner—British intelligence was able to work out, in retrospect, once they knew what they were looking for, that Khan and Tanweer had been to Al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan. It was a month after 7/7 when Pakistan handed over the photographs of Khan as he arrived there on 25 July 2003.
Pakistan’s reluctance to proactively assist—and its efforts to appear helpful in the aftermath—are hardly surprising. After tiring of the Mujahideen groups in the early 1990s, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency had turned to the Taliban as its instrument to conquer Afghanistan, which was largely completed by 1996, and it was under the ISI’s close watch that the Taliban became entirely intermingled with Al-Qaeda and its derivatives like “the Haqqani Network”, as it did with the “Kashmiri” groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT). As Oved Lobel has explained in an in-depth report, it is analytically quite misleading to treat as autonomous “groups” what is in reality a fluid single network that shares personnel, geography, resources (everything from training camps to ammunition), and ultimately a unified command structure running through the ISI headquarters at Abpara.
Khan’s story testifies to this. Khan had, as it turned out, previously travelled to Pakistan and trained in a jihadist camp in Kashmir in July 2001, before being taken over the border to a Taliban camp near the frontlines with the final pocket of Afghan resistance, the Northern Alliance. Al-Qaeda was woven into the fabric of this ISI-run jihadist infrastructure, designed significantly for an unending ideological war with India, that ran through—and now runs through again—Kashmir and Afghanistan, which simply shifts personnel from front to front as Pakistan desires. As well as the second trip to Pakistan by Khan in 2003, it transpired there had been a third trip, between November 2004 and February 2005, on which Tanweer had accompanied him. Whether Khan and Tanweer went into Afghanistan during this trip is unclear; they certainly made contact with Al-Qaeda.
The ISI’s fingerprints had also been visible in the earlier plot that Operation CREVICE has dismantled. In court, Khyam said the ISI was threatening his family in Pakistan because “they are worried I might reveal more about them” and therefore he was “not going to discuss anything related to the ISI any more”. It was pointed out to Khyam by the judge that “inferences” would be drawn from this; he understood that, but inferences had less repercussions for him than giving evidence about the role the ISI had played in facilitating a terrorist plot on British soil.
Britain has a special place in this long-standing, transnational ISI jihadist network:
Masood Azhar, an ISI operative and United Nations-listed terrorist, toured Britain in 1993, fundraising and recruiting for the Kashmir jihad, while laying down local networks to continue the job. Some of these networks later defected to the Islamic State. Azhar had created a template for “Londonistan” in the 1990s, where jihadists set up shop in London to provide resources to insurgencies in the Muslim world. There was a de facto agreement with the British state that so long as this activity was directed abroad, the jihadists would not be interfered with.
What happened on 7/7 was a demonstration that this jihadist network ran two ways: what had been exported could come home. The realisation was slow in coming. In September 2005, Al-Qaeda released a video to Al-Jazeera of Khan’s last testament declaring his “war” on the West and praising “today’s heroes”: Usama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda’s then-deputy (now emir) Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the founder of the Islamic State movement, which was at that time part of Al-Qaeda, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian whose real name was Ahmad al-Khalayleh.
Later in September 2005, a statement from Al-Zawahiri confirmed Al-Qaeda had “launched” the “blessed raid” on London. Yet the official British government report on 7/7, released in May 2006, said: “There is as yet no firm evidence to corroborate this claim or the nature of Al-Qaeda support [for the 7/7 attacks], if there was any.” Two months later, to coincide with the first anniversary of the attacks, Al-Qaeda released the video of Tanweer’s testament, with Al-Zawahiri, showing “a terrorist training site and a map of London with areas circled as potential targets”.
Whether Lindsay, the only one of the 7/7 killers born outside of Britain, in Jamaica, had also been to Pakistan—as he claimed—remains unclear. The British government pointed to Abdullah al-Faisal, a jihadi cleric who later supported the Islamic State, as a strong influence over Lindsay, and Al-Faisal has admitted they were close.
PAKISTAN IS STILL THE PROBLEM
The 9/11 attacks had exposed the hollow “realism” of believing Afghanistan was too strategically peripheral to matter to the West and after 2001 NATO took on its responsibilities for our security in that area. Last year, a foolish and entirely needless decision was taken to stand aside and allow Pakistan’s jihadists to retake the country.
There were some positive signs in the media that Pakistan’s role in the Afghan catastrophe was finally going to covered accurately, but the general trend towards ignoring this has largely reasserted itself, as could have been predicted. Little attention was paid to the implications of several ISI officers being killed in the Al-Qaeda camps when the U.S. launched cruise missiles at them in retaliation for the 1998 East African Embassy bombings and the coverage got no better over the twenty years when anybody who wanted to know could see that Pakistan stood behind the killing of hundreds of Western troops and intelligence officers, as well as thousands of Afghans. During the NATO presence in Afghanistan, it was common knowledge among servicemen that Pakistanis were generally the commanders of Taliban units, and it is likely the old habit of embedding Pakistani Special Services Group (SSG) operatives with the Taliban-Qaeda insurgents, especially during the ISI-planned “spring offensives”, continued. Pakistan had helped Bin Laden escape in 2001, then been sensationally exposed as harbouring him ever-afterwards in 2011; the public murmurs about exactly what kind of “ally” behaved this way soon died down.
There was certainly some ignorance among Western officials about Pakistan’s game, but a lack of knowledge was never the real problem. The issue was fear, more precisely blackmail, that any challenge to Pakistan’s lawless conduct—its fundamental strategic commitment to the use of terrorism as a state policy under the protective canopy of pirated nuclear weapons—would make things even worse. As Christine Fair has put it: “Pakistan has essentially developed its bargaining power by threatening its own demise.” If the West cut off the vast aid subsidies, let alone adopted a coercive approach to try to change Pakistan’s policies, Islamabad held out the prospect of instability that would lead to terrorists acquiring its nuclear weapons, so the West kept paying Pakistan to help solve a problem it created and sustained—and had every incentive to sustain, since without the problem there would be no more cheques.
In Britain, this problem is especially acute. There are around 1.2 million British citizens of Pakistani descent and about 200,000 Pakistani nationals resident in Britain. This population concentrates in ways that give it an outsized domestic political sway, and the ISI exploits this to push its own agenda through various “community” lobby organisations and other front groups. This is a partial explanation for some of the oddities in British public “discourse” on this matter. Then there is the fact that hundreds of thousands of people travel back and forth from Britain to Pakistan every year. As the 7/7 report noted, one of the reasons Khan and Tanweer did not raise immediate red flags with their Pakistan journeys is that “extended visits to Pakistan by young men are not unusual”. Terrorists can obviously blend in easily with such a large movement of humanity.
Which returns us to the issue of Pakistani blackmail. Now that NATO is out of Afghanistan, with Western intelligence effectively blind, if and when a British citizen goes rogue, in or from Pakistan, the ISI will be there to offer a helping hand in finding them—for a price. And if Britain accepted the apparent necessity of cooperation with the ISI at a time when the ISI was killing British troops, it is unlikely this will change now. The mind-bending logic of relying on the organisation that nurtures the terrorist groups that threaten Britain will win out by bureaucratic exigency and inertia; what that ensnares Britain into giving away—whether in money or political concessions—will only become clear over time.
The aftermath of partition in 1947 left Britain closer to Pakistan—the head of the ISI until 1959 was a British General—and with a sense that Pakistan was a useful ally, delusions passed on to the American cousins as the burdens of hegemony shifted in the Cold War. There have been so many occasions in the decades since that should have prompted a rethinking—almost any day during the 2001-2021 Afghan engagement could have done it—but in the soot and ruin on London’s streets seventeen years ago the necessity of rethinking our approach to Pakistan was most clearly spelled out, not that we ever noticed.
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