The 7/7 Coroner Lady Justice Hallett has criticised the procedures of an overstretched MI5 that could have led to the bombers slipping through the net. She accepted however that there was “simply no evidence at all that the security service knew of, and therefore failed to prevent, the bombings on 7/7”. But she added she felt unable to accept the assurances of a senior MI5 officer, known
only as Witness G, “that all is now well.” The cropping of the photographs of Tanweer and Sidique Khan would have disgraced a photoshop trainee. Key MI5 Witness G wasn’t in post at the time at the time of the attacks. Why was he put forward to the inquest? His lack of first hand involvement could raise suspicions that it allowed MI5 to evade greater exposure.
She said that Witness G had to visit retired desk officers at their homes to discover as best as he could what they had done and why.
“In this respect, therefore, I still have a concern. I should like the Director General [of MI5] to allay that concern given the possibly dire consequences of a flawed decision which cannot be properly supervised.
Peter Taylor, the BBC’s authority on terrorism from loyalist and republican terrorism to al Qaida, gives
examples of gaps in MI5’s relationship with Special Branch that have improved since 7/7.
Crucially, MI5 did not initially share one vital piece of intelligence with West Yorkshire special branch. I first got an inkling of this several years ago when a special branch officer told me that MI5 had followed Shehzad Tanweer and Mohammad Sidique Khan up the MI to Leeds and Dewsbury – the heart of West Yorkshire’s patch – but never informed the local special branch about it.
Subsequently, an even more senior officer in West Yorkshire police told me about the omission as an illustration of how MI5 was not sharing intelligence at the time. He described how MI5 officers were housed in the same building as special branch but operated behind a locked door
After the 7/7 bombings, lessons were learned. Regional counter-terrorist units, already in the pipeline, were accelerated and set up in West Yorkshire and elsewhere. MI5 and special branch officers worked side by side; there were no more locked doors. That was all in the past. West Yorkshire police describes this as “a stronger working relationship”, and in her report Lady Justice Hallett notes that intelligence liaison between MI5 and the police has changed “beyond recognition”.
The successful disruption of the subsequent plot to blow up transatlantic airliners with liquid bombs is testimony to how intelligence-sharing has now dramatically improved.
Let’s hope these lessons have been learned in NI. Whatever might be the part to be played by communities and political parties, when it comes to tackling rejectionist republicans, it is
this relationship that matters more than pressure for greater MI5 accountability.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London