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House of Commons

Thursday 4 October 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock, notice having been given by Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Earlier meeting of the House in certain circumstances).


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Coalition against International Terrorism

Mr. Speaker: Before I call the Prime Minister, I have a short statement to make about security. In the light of recent events, security measures have been stepped up. Access to the Palace, both on foot and by vehicle, will be more strictly controlled. A primary element of this process will be the photographic identity pass, which Members should carry at all times and produce on request. Vehicles will be subject to search and Members are advised to allow sufficient time for their journeys, bearing in mind the likely delays on arrival at the House.

As Members may have observed, arrangements are in place for an armed response to an incident or intrusion should this prove necessary. This is in addition to the Palace of Westminster security force. Our own officers will continue their duties to control access to assist Members and visitors.

The House will understand that I cannot go into further detail, and I am not prepared to take questions about our security arrangements. I am sure that Members will give the security force their full support and co-operation.

9.35 am

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for recalling Parliament on a second occasion so that the House can consider developments since we last met. Then the scale of the 11 September tragedy was still unclear. Even today we do not yet know the precise numbers of those feared dead, but a bleak picture has emerged: there are up to 7,000 victims, including many British victims and others from 70 different countries. Many were Muslims. It cannot be said too often: this atrocity appalled decent Muslims everywhere and is wholly contrary to the proper teaching of Islam; and we condemn unreservedly also racist attacks on British Muslims here, most recently at an Edinburgh mosque. These acts are without any justification whatever and the full force of the law will be used against those who do them.

I pay tribute again to all those in America who have been involved in dealing with the human consequences of the attacks—the rescue services and medical workers who worked tirelessly and with devotion in the most harrowing conditions imaginable. I pay tribute also to our own consular staff in New York and London and to the family counsellors and Metropolitan police officers who have supported relatives of the British victims; and above all, I pay tribute to the relatives themselves. Those I met in

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New York, still uncertain finally of the fate of their loved ones, bore their grief with immense dignity, which deserves the admiration of us all.

Since 11 September, intensive efforts have taken place here and elsewhere to investigate these attacks and to determine who is responsible. Our findings have been shared and co-ordinated with those of our allies and they are clear. They are: first, that it was Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda, the terrorist network which he heads, that planned and carried out the atrocities on 11 September; secondly, that Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda were able to commit these atrocities because of their close alliance with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which allows them to operate with impunity in pursuing their terrorist activity.

I will later today put in the Library a document detailing the basis for our conclusions. The document covers the history of Osama bin Laden, his relations with the Taliban, what we know of the acts of terror that he has committed and some of what we know in respect of 11 September. I enter a major caveat, however: much of the evidence that we have is intelligence and highly sensitive. It is not possible without compromising people or security to release precise details and fresh information that is daily coming in, but I hope that the House will find it useful at least as an interim assessment. The Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats have seen the full basis for the document on Privy Council terms. For myself and all other Ministers who have studied the full information, we have absolutely no doubt that bin Laden and his network were responsible for the attacks on 11 September. That was also the unanimous view of the NATO members who were taken through the full facts on 2 October. Much more of the evidence in respect of earlier atrocities can be released in greater detail since it is already subject to court proceedings, and this in itself is powerful.

Indeed, there is nothing hidden about bin Laden's agenda. He openly espouses the language of terror; has described terrorising Americans as

and in February 1998 signed a fatwa stating that

As our document shows, he has been responsible for a number of terrorist outrages over the past decade: the attack in 1993 on US military personnel serving in Somalia, 18 of whom were killed; in 1998, the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which 224 people were killed and more than 4,500 injured; attempted bombings in Jordan and Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium, thankfully thwarted; and the attack on the USS Cole nearly a year ago which left 17 crew members killed and 40 injured.

The attacks on 11 September bear all the hallmarks of a bin Laden operation: meticulous long-term planning; a desire to inflict mass casualties; a total disregard for civilian lives, including those of Muslims; multiple simultaneous attacks; and the use of suicide attackers.

I can now confirm that of the 19 hijackers identified from the passenger lists of the four planes hijacked in America on 11 September, at least three have already been positively identified as known associates of bin Laden, with a track record in his camps and organisation. The

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others are being investigated still. Of the three, one has also been identified as playing key roles in both the east African embassy attacks and the USS Cole attack.

Since the attacks, we have obtained the following intelligence: shortly before 11 September, bin Laden told associates that he had a major operation against America under preparation; a range of people were warned to return to Afghanistan because of action on or around 11 September; and most important, one of bin Laden's closest lieutenants has said clearly that he helped with the planning of the 11 September attacks, and has admitted the involvement of the al-Qaeda organisation. There is other intelligence which we cannot disclose of an even more direct nature indicating guilt.

The closeness of bin Laden's relationship with the Taliban is also plain. He provides them with troops, arms and money to fight the Northern Alliance. He is closely involved with their military training, planning and operations. He has representatives in their military command structure. Forces under the control of bin Laden have fought alongside the Taliban in the civil war in Afghanistan.

For their part, the Taliban regime have provided bin Laden with a safe haven within which to operate, and allowed him to establish terrorist training camps. They jointly exploit the Afghan drugs trade. In return for active al-Qaeda support, the Taliban allow al-Qaeda to operate freely, including planning, training and preparing for terrorist activity. In addition, they provide security for the stockpiles of drugs.

In the face of this evidence, our immediate objectives are clear. We must bring bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to justice and eliminate the terrorist threat that they pose, and we must ensure that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorism. If the Taliban regime will not comply with that objective, we must bring about change in that regime to ensure that Afghanistan's links to international terrorism are broken.

Since the House last met, we have been working tirelessly and ceaselessly on the diplomatic, humanitarian and military fronts. I can confirm that we have had initial discussions with the United States about a range of military capabilities with which Britain can help and have already responded positively. We will consider carefully any further requests and keep the House informed, as appropriate, about such requests. For obvious reasons I cannot disclose the exact nature of our discussions, but I am fully satisfied that they are consistent with our shared objectives.

I believe that the humanitarian coalition to help the people of Afghanistan is as vital as the military action itself. Afghanistan was, of course, in the grip of a humanitarian crisis even before the events of 11 September. Four years of drought, on top of more than two decades of conflict, have forced millions of people to leave the country, and have left millions more dependent on international humanitarian aid.

Last week the United Nations launched an appeal for $584 million to meet the needs of vulnerable people in and around Afghanistan. The appeal covers the next six months. The international community has already pledged sufficient funds to meet the most immediate needs. The British Government have contributed £25 million, nearly

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all of which has already been allocated to UN and other agencies. We have also made available a further £11 million for support for the poorest communities in Pakistan, especially those most directly affected by the influx of refugees. I know that President Bush will shortly announce details of a major US programme of aid.

I, along with other Ministers, have been in detailed consultation with the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, and other leaders. Kofi Annan has now appointed Lakhdar Brahimi to be his high-level co-ordinator for the humanitarian effort in and around Afghanistan. We will give Mr. Brahimi all the support that we can, to help ensure that the UN and the whole international community come together to meet the humanitarian challenge.

I can tell the House that action is already in hand to cope with additional outflows of refugees. UNHCR is working with the Governments of the region to identify sites for additional refugee camps. The first UNHCR flight of relief supplies, including tents donated by the British Government, arrived in Iran yesterday. A second flight will depart at the end of this week, carrying more tents, plastic sheeting, tarpaulins and other materials, so that we can provide essential shelter for refugees.

We are also stepping up the effort to get food into Afghanistan before the winter snows begin. A UNICEF convoy carrying blankets and other supplies left Peshawar for Kabul on Tuesday. A World Food Programme convoy carrying more than 200 tonnes of wheat arrived in Kabul on Monday. Further convoys have left for Afghanistan from Pakistan and Turkmenistan.

We will do whatever we can to minimise the suffering of the Afghan people as a result of the conflict, and we commit ourselves to work with them afterwards, inside and outside Afghanistan, to ensure a better, more peaceful future, free from the repression and dictatorship that are their present existence.

On the diplomatic front, over the past three weeks the Foreign Secretary and I and other Ministers have been in intensive contact with foreign leaders from every part of the world. In addition, the Foreign Secretary has visited the middle east and Iran. I have visited Berlin, Paris and Washington for consultations with Chancellor Schroder, President Chirac and President Bush, respectively. Later today I will travel to Moscow to meet President Putin.

What we have encountered is an unprecedented level of solidarity and commitment to work together against terrorism. This is a commitment that spans all continents, cultures and religions, reinforced by attacks like the one on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in Srinagar which killed more than 30 innocent people. We have already made good progress in taking forward an international agenda. Last week the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1373. That makes it mandatory for all states to prevent and suppress terrorist financing and requires the denial of safe haven to those who finance, plan, support or commit terrorist acts.

The European Union, too, has taken firm action. Transport, Interior, Finance and Foreign Ministers have all met to concert an ambitious and effective European response: enhancing police co-operation; speeding up extradition; putting an end to the funding of terrorism; and strengthening air security.

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We are also looking at our national legislation. In the next few weeks, the Home Secretary intends to introduce a package of legislation to supplement existing legal powers in a number of areas. It will be a carefully appraised set of measures—tough, but balanced and proportionate to the risk that we face. It will cover the funding of terrorism. It will increase our ability to exclude and remove those whom we suspect of terrorism and who are seeking to abuse our asylum procedures. It will widen the law on incitement to include religious hatred. We will bring forward a Bill to modernise our extradition law. That will not be a knee-jerk reaction, but I emphasise that we need to strengthen our laws so that, even if necessary only in a small number of cases, we have the means to protect our citizens' liberty and our national security.

We have also ensured, in so far as is possible, that every reasonable measure of internal security is being undertaken. We have in place a series of contingency plans, governing all forms of terrorism. These plans are continually reviewed and tested regularly and at all levels. In addition, we continue to monitor carefully developments in the British and international economy. Certain sectors in Britain and around the world have inevitably been seriously affected, though I repeat that the fundamentals of all the major economies, including our own, remain strong. The reduction of risk from terrorist mass action is important also to economic confidence, as 11 September shows, so there is every incentive in that respect also to close down the bin Laden network.

Three weeks on from the most appalling act of terrorism that the world has ever witnessed, the coalition is strong, military plans are robust, the humanitarian plans are falling into place and the evidence against bin Laden and his network is overwhelming.

The Afghan people are not our enemy, for they have our sympathy and they will have our support. Our enemy is Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network, who were responsible for the events of 11 September. The Taliban regime must yield them up or become our enemy also. We will not act for revenge. We will act because we need to for the protection of our people and our way of life, including confidence in our economy. The threat posed by bin Laden and his terrorism must be eliminated. We act for justice. We act with world opinion behind us and we have an absolute determination to see justice done and this evil of mass international terrorism confronted and defeated.

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