Monday, July 11, 2005

Intelligence Officials Were Braced For An Offensive - But Lowered Threat Levels

Here's a story that will be referred to a great deal in the days to come. Additionally, it was widely reported that Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu changed his travel plans after being warned of an impending attack in the area; the Israelis have denied having any forewarning. Last November, NewsWeek reported that terrorists were planning an attack in London, and that FBI agents were avoiding the Underground.


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Intelligence officials were braced for an offensive - but lowered threat levels

Group linked to al-Qaida cites UK's Iraq actions

Richard Norton-Taylor and Duncan Campbell
Friday July 8, 2005
The Guardian

A group of terrorists, affiliated or inspired by al-Qaida, carried out the series of coordinated bomb attacks in London, intelligence officials and independent analysts said yesterday.

A group calling itself the Secret Organisation of the al-Qaida Jihad in Europe posted a claim of responsibility for the attacks, saying they were in retaliation for Britain's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The statement, which also threatened attacks in Italy and Denmark, was published on a website popular with Islamist militants, according to Elaph, a secular Arabic-language news website.

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"Rejoice, Islamic nation. Rejoice, Arab world. The time has come for vengeance against the Zionist crusader government of Britain in response to the massacres Britain committed in Iraq and Afghanistan," said the statement, which was translated by the Associated Press in Cairo.

The authenticity of the message could not be immediately confirmed. The group al-Qaida in Europe claimed responsibility for the bombs that killed 191 people on commuter trains in Madrid in March last year.

In yesterday's statement, the group said: "The heroic mujahideen carried out a blessed attack in London, and now Britain is burning with fear and terror, from north to south, east to west.

"We warned the British government and the British people repeatedly. We have carried out our promise and carried out a military attack in Britain after great efforts by the heroic mujahideen over a long period to ensure its success.

"We continue to warn the governments of Denmark and Italy and all crusader governments that they will receive the same punishment if they do not withdraw their troops from Iraq and Afghanistan."

Security, intelligence and police chiefs have been braced for an attack on London, which they regarded as inevitable.

But Whitehall's Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre (Jtac) last month reduced the threat level from al-Qaida terrorism, from "severe - general" to "substantial".

The Guardian has learned that Jtac made the decision on the grounds that the al-Qaida leadership did not have the ability to order a coordinated attack in Britain. But that did not mean a group of individuals broadly sympathetic to al-Qaida did not have the ability to mount attacks on their own initiative.

Jtac said many of its current concerns focused on individuals or groups "only loosely affiliated to al-Qaida or entirely autonomous".

Security officials insisted that the downgrading of the threat level would not have affected the response of the police and emergency services.

That was echoed yesterday by Mike Granatt, the former head of Whitehall's civil contingencies unit who now works with the communications consultancy Luther Pendragon. "The significance of threat levels should not be overstated," he said.

Anti-terrorist officials said yesterday they had no intelligence suggesting there might be an attack to coincide with the G8 summit. The difficulty of obtaining specific intelligence was only recently emphasised by intelligence officials. "The Spanish authorities knew the bomber," said one, "but they didn't have any immediate evidence of a planned attack. We have plenty like that here."

Another knowledgeable intelligence source said last week: "We keep on asking why there has been no terror outrage yet. We know it's bound to come."

Jtac - which includes officials from MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the police - is now reassessing the threat. Both the police and MI5 have been increasingly alarmed by a steady trickle of young British Muslims travelling to Iraq to join insurgent operations. But the threat from them, they believe, would come later.

"We have monitored some of them leaving, sometimes via France, but we haven't yet seen them returning," an intelligence source said last week. "Some of them have multiple identities, which makes them difficult to track."

A senior Metropolitan police source said this week: "Some of them will have been killed out there." Others will have learned a variety of terror methods - including handling weapons and explosives - though not all of that would be relevant in London.

MI5 has drawn up an extensive report on why young British Muslims become radicalised. As well as monitoring human traffic between Britain and Iraq they have been looking at the problem of young Muslims becoming indoctrinated in prison and elsewhere.

There have been two distinct groups of people involved in planning the attacks in the UK: British-born young men, often educated and middle class, who may have volunteered for training in Afghanistan and who are prepared to risk jail or death to carry out an attack; and foreign citizens, including a number from north Africa, who see Britain as the next most important target after the US and use false identities to avoid being traced, blending in with existing immigrant communities.

Police and anti-terrorist sources believe that there are around 30 or 40 of such people who have both the capability and the will to carry out attacks like those of yesterday. Some 200 have returned from training camps in Afghanistan, Chechnya, or Bosnia, and perhaps 1,000 sympathise with the notion of a "global jihad". The British-born operatives are seen as less effective and skilled and more easily identifiable.

The police believed it was only a matter of time before an attempt was made to hit London. Two weeks ago Ken Jones, the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers terrorism committee and chief constable of Sussex, warned that the UK was at risk.

"There is an inevitable targeting of the United Kingdom and UK interests abroad," he told a terrorism conference at the Royal United Services Institute.

He said those planning such attacks were "highly intelligent, educated young people".

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By AMY TEIBEL, Associated Press Writer Thu Jul 7, 7:14 AM ET

JERUSALEM - British police told the Israeli Embassy in London minutes before Thursday's explosions that they had received warnings of possible terror attacks in the city, a senior Israeli official said.

Israeli Finance Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu had planned to attend an economic conference in a hotel over the subway stop where one of the blasts occurred, and the warning prompted him to stay in his hotel room instead, government officials said.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said he wasn't aware of any Israeli casualties.

Just before the blasts, Scotland Yard called the security officer at the Israeli Embassy to say they had received warnings of possible attacks, the official said. He did not say whether British police made any link to the economic conference.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the nature of his position.

The Israeli Embassy was in a state of emergency after the explosions in London, with no one allowed to enter or leave, said the Israeli ambassador to London, Zvi Hefet.

All phone lines to the embassy were down, said Danny Biran, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official.

The ministry set up a situation room to deal with hundreds of phone calls from concerned relatives. Thousands of Israelis are living in London or visiting the city at this time, Biran said.

Amir Gilad, a Netanyahu aide, told
Israel Radio that Netanyahu's entourage was receiving updates all morning from British security officials, and "we have also asked to change our plans."

Netanyahu had been scheduled to stay in London until Sunday, but that could change, Gilad said.

11:42 AM  
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Israeli Official Denies Pre-Attack Warning

Thursday July 7, 2005 12:46 PM


Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel was not warned about possible terror attacks in London before a series of blasts ripped through the city, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Thursday.

A Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had said earlier that British police warned the Israeli Embassy in London of possible terror attacks minutes before the first explosion.

``There was no early information about terrorist attacks,'' Shalom told Israel Army Radio later. ``After the first explosion an order was given that no one move until things become clear. ``

Israel was holding an economic conference in a hotel over the London subway stop where one of the blasts occurred. Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was supposed to attend the conference, but ``after the first explosion our finance minister received a request not to go anywhere,'' Shalom said.

He said he wasn't aware of any Israeli casualties.

The Israeli Embassy was in a state of emergency after the explosions in London, with no one allowed to enter or leave, said the Israeli ambassador to London, Zvi Hefet.

All phone lines to the embassy were down, said Danny Biran, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official.

The ministry set up a situation room to deal with hundreds of phone calls from concerned relatives. Thousands of Israelis are living in London or visiting the city at this time, Biran said.

Amir Gilad, a Netanyahu aide, told Israel Radio that Netanyahu's entourage was receiving updates all morning from British security officials, and ``we have also asked to change our plans.''

Netanyahu had been scheduled to stay in London until Sunday, but that could change, Gilad said.

11:42 AM  
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The Real Target?
New intelligence suggests that Al Qaeda was planning to attack London, not U.S. financial centers, in the run-up to the presidential election. A Kerry adviser blames politics for the timing of the government's summer alert
By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball
Updated: 10:16 a.m. ET Nov. 22, 2004

Nov. 17 - The latest analysis of evidence that led to last summer’s Code Orange alert suggests that Al Qaeda operatives were plotting a “big bomb” attack against a major landmark in Britain—but had no active plans for strikes in the United States, U.S. intelligence sources tell NEWSWEEK.

The reassessment of Al Qaeda plans is the latest indication that much of the Bush administration’s repeatedly voiced concerns about a pre-election attack inside the United States was based in part on an early misreading of crucial intelligence seized months ago in Pakistan.

The new view is that there was indeed an active Al Qaeda plot underway earlier this year—one that involved coded communications between high-level operatives in Pakistan and a British cell headed by a longtime associate of September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

The plot was aimed at setting off a large bomb at a prestigious economic or political target inside the United Kingdom—in effect to make a political statement against the British government. Among the targets considered in detail by the plotters, sources say, was London’s Heathrow Airport, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.

But little, if any, any evidence has turned up suggesting that the plotters had taken any steps to attack U.S. financial targets as Bush administration officials had initially suggested. The failure to find any such evidence was a key reason the Department of Homeland Security last week relaxed the terror alert and downgraded the threat level from Orange (elevated) to Yellow (high) for financial buildings in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Officials also said that another reason for downgrading the alert was that security at the buildings had been enhanced.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge first announced the financial-buildings alert on Sunday, Aug. 1, just three days after Sen. John Kerry gave his acceptance speech at the Democratic Party convention in Boston. Ridge’s references to what he called “very specific” and “alarming” intelligence about Al Qaeda surveillance of such buildings as the World Bank in Washington and the New York Stock Exchange set off a new wave of fears about a possibly imminent terrorist attack and, in the view of some, had the effect of substantially suppressing Kerry’s “bounce” in the polls.

The disclosure days later that most of the intelligence that Al Qaeda had been “casing” the buildings was several years old prompted some Democrats at the time to express concerns that the Bush administration was hyping terror threats to promote the president’s campaign themes and frighten American voters. The Orange alert "was one of the most crimping factors that took away from whatever bounce from the convention there was," says Rand Beers, Kerry's chief foreign-policy adviser during the campaign and a former top counterterrorism aide in the Bush White House. In an interview this week, Beers also noted that there were legitimate "operational" reasons not to go public with the terror alert when Ridge announced it—namely, so that ongoing investigations into the intelligence about the financial-building surveillance could proceed in Pakistan and Great Britain. In light of that, Beers adds: "There is a plausible case to be made for political gain being the primary motivation" behind the timing of the announcement.

But Ridge, who in his original Aug. 1 announcement said the new intelligence about the financial buildings was "result of the president's leadership in the war against terror," strongly denied the allegation, saying repeatedly, "we don't do politics" in Homeland Security. Moreover, administration officials insisted throughout the campaign that the alert regarding the financial buildings was justified by the extraordinary discovery of a valuable computer archive in the possession of Mohammed Noor Khan, a suspected Al Qaeda communications operative who was arrested by Pakistani authorities. Khan is believed by Britain's M.I.-5 counterintelligence agency to have close connections at the highest levels of Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself.

In the computer's hard drive, U.S. and Pakistani investigators discovered elaborate surveillance reports—including, NEWSWEEK has learned, original video footage—of prominent U.S. financial buildings. These included the New York Stock Exchange, Prudential Insurance headquarters in Newark, N.J., and World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings only blocks from the White House in Washington.

Initial analysis by American investigators of the computer data suggested that most of the information in the surveillance reports was collected when suspected Al Qaeda operatives visited the U.S.—on the apparent instructions of leading Al Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—some time before the 9/11 attacks.

Intelligence officials said at the time that some of the surveillance reports on the U.S. financial targets may have been updated as recently as last winter and may have been accessed, or viewed by at least one computer user, as recently as last June or July. These hints that Al Qaeda operatives may have revisited the surveillance reports recently—coupled with intelligence from informants indicating Al Qaeda wanted to commit some kind of spectacular attack in the U.S. before the November election—were cited by administration officials to justify their decision to announce the public alert regarding a possible current threat to the financial buildings.

But subsequent analysis of the Pakistani computer evidence—and other evidence gathered in related raids in Britain—now puts much of that intelligence in a different light. While follow-up investigations have produced little corroboration for the idea that operatives in the United States were still working on an attack against the financial targets, the evidence gathered in Pakistan and Britain has shed important new clues to Al Qaeda’s intentions.

Evidence gathered in the two countries included messages between suspects in Pakistan and Britain in an elaborate and initially opaque makeshift code. One break in the case came when a captured suspect agreed to help investigators decipher that code. They concluded that suspects in Britain—including a key figure who is believed to have been previously involved in the surveillance of the U.S. financial buildings—were working with a computer and communications expert in Pakistan on an active plot against targets in the London area.

According to a source familiar with evidence in the investigation, the alleged plotters' plans for possible action in Britain were very elaborate and flexible. Some of the alternative targets—including Heathrow Airport and Westminster Abbey—were considered in detail by the plotters, though the evidence suggests they never settled on their final objective.

After the arrest of Khan in Pakistan, British authorities rounded up several of his suspected contacts and cohorts, including the cell's leader, Dhiren Barot, a stocky self-described former instructor in jihadi camps in Afghanistan who used the alias Esa al-Hindi, and charged them with terrorist offenses—including one which related to possible use of weapons of mass destruction. Barot is referred to in last summer’s report by the September 11 commission as an operative who was dispatched by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to New York to carry out surveillance on possible targets in this country. Britain's case against him and his alleged co-conspirators is still in pretrial stages, but lawyers for the suspects have proclaimed their innocence. British authorities have declined comment.

Some U.S. law-enforcement officers based in London, NEWSWEEK has learned, have become extremely concerned about evidence regarding possible active Al Qaeda plots to attack targets in Britain. According to a U.S. government official, fears of terror attacks have prompted FBI agents based in the U.S. Embassy in London to avoid traveling on London's popular underground railway (or tube) system, which is used daily by millions of commuters. While embassy-based officers of the U.S. Secret Service, Immigration and Customs bureaus and the CIA still are believed to use the underground to go about their business, FBI agents have been known to turn up late to crosstown meetings because they insist on using taxis in London's traffic-choked business center.

The indications that plotters linked to a big election-season terror alert actually were actively planning to attack Britain rather than the United States is at least the second revelation which seems to partly undermine administration assertions that the U.S. homeland faced a heightened risk of attack during the presidential campaign.

Shortly before the election, administration officials quietly acknowledged that at least one informant who last winter had provided lurid intelligence about a possible pre-election attack in the U.S. had apparently fabricated his allegations. Yet given the importance that waging the war on terror had assumed during the presidential campaign, administration officials apparently were reluctant to announce a lowering of the Orange-alert threat until after the election. "They would have been a laughing stock if they lowered it before the election," says Beers. Still, many U.S. officials think the threat of possible Al Qaeda attacks remains relatively high—at least until after George W. Bush's second Inauguration in January.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

© 2005


11:43 AM  

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