Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Seventh Report


8. A number of terrorist attacks which took place in the 1980s and 1990s should, some have argued, have provided warning of the scale of the threat posed by international terrorism. In March 1983, a suicide bomber in a pickup truck loaded with explosives rammed into the US Embassy in Beirut, killing sixty three people, including seventeen Americans. A similar attack against the US Embassy in Beirut in September 1984 killed a further twenty four people. In October 1983, 241 US Marines were killed and more than one hundred others were wounded when a truck full of explosives was detonated outside a US Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport. The US and French Embassies in Kuwait were also attacked by terrorists in 1983. In June 1996, a bomb at the US barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killed five US service personnel.

9. The use of civilian airliners to cause massive casualties was not a new concept. Pan Am flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie in Scotland in December 1988. In December 1994 an Algerian Islamic group, the GIA, hijacked an Air France aircraft which they aimed to blow up over Paris in the first suicidal hijack attempt. This was averted by the French counter-terrorism commandos, GIGN. Another plot to kill 4000 airline passengers by crashing twelve US airliners over the Pacific was defeated in 1995. The lax airport security for domestic flights in the US had been highlighted in a book published earlier in 2001.[13]

10. Al Qaeda had attacked US property and citizens during the 1990s. The World Trade Center had been the target of a bomb attack in 1993; this was intended to cause one tower to topple into the other. More than 220 people—12 Americans and the rest Kenyans or Tanzanians—had been killed, and thousands injured, when US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in 1998 by al Qaeda terrorists using trucks laden with explosives.[14] Al Qaeda had again used a means of transport—this time a boat—to attack another American target, the USS Cole in October 2000, killing 17 US sailors.[15]

The United States' responsibility

11. Why, after similar terrorist methods had been used so extensively in the past, and after al Qaeda had killed American service personnel and launched attacks against US embassies and the USS Cole, was the threat from the organisation not addressed with sufficient urgency to prevent the 11 September attacks? Paul Wilkinson told us that "intelligence failure is the heart of the reason why the Americans did not understand the severity of the threat against them. I do not think they really had any idea of the extensiveness ... of this movement and the degree to which they [al Qaeda] were training for attacks against American targets, not only in third countries, but within the United States homeland."[16]

12. Professor Wilkinson told us that it was necessary to make up a "huge deficit in intelligence about the internal organisation ... of al Qaeda, and that battle can only be won by improving the quality of human intelligence... Because there has been such a dependence on technical intelligence, particularly by our American allies, we have a big gap to fill." There was a need to "train more people who are language qualified, who have the Muslim faith, who understand the Muslim world."[17]

13. We were told during our visit to Washington in March 2002 that, while US defence spending had increased significantly since the end of the Cold War, many of the non-military aspects of the foreign affairs budget had been cut. The implication was that intelligence shortcomings may have been in part the consequence of cuts to intelligence budgets. This would support Professor Wilkinson's contention that the success of al Qaeda's 11 September attacks was a consequence of intelligence failure—human intelligence in particular.

14. It seems likely, too, that the failure to act with sufficient urgency to counter the threat from al Qaeda was a consequence of political failures, not just of intelligence shortcomings. We were told on our visit to Washington in March 2002 that warnings about airline security had been issued for years by the agencies responsible for counter-terrorism, but that such warnings were not translated into action. According to Professor Wilkinson, the commercial airlines had lobbied against increased security, despite warnings from the intelligence agencies, and this may have accounted for the ease with which the terrorists boarded the aircraft on the morning of 11 September 2001.[18]

15. Two former members of President Clinton's National Security Council have argued before and since the attacks that the failure to deal with al Qaeda was not an intelligence shortcoming, but a political one. Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin contend that, although the Administration had extensive knowledge of al Qaeda, "there was no [public] support for decisive measures in Afghanistan—including, possibly, the use of ground forces—to hunt down the terrorists."[19] Subsequent US Tomahawk missile attacks on the al-Shifa chemical plant in Sudan and on terrorist camps in Afghanistan were dismissed as the worst foreign policy blunder of the Clinton presidency, and no decisive action was taken to combat the threat from al Qaeda.

16. Professor Wilkinson gave a further explanation of the United States' failure to apprehend Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, although opportunities had arisen for the Clinton Administration to do so. The criminal justice system, he told us, has been "very often regarded as a rather cumbersome and ... ineffective way of combatting terrorism and this may explain why President Clinton turned down the offer of extradition in 1996 from the Sudanese," which in "retrospect that seems an absolutely disastrous decision because he could have been brought to justice at that time, and there was already a lot of material available on the open sources to show what bin Laden was preaching and what he was about." This "tragic mistake ... was followed up by two further opportunities that were missed—one offered by Qatar, where they offered to extradite him when he was en route from Sudan to Afghanistan ... and I believe there was also a third occasion, though the details of that are a little murkier. Nevertheless, this was a decision made on a lack of intelligence about the severity of the threat and a failure to want to take on the difficult—and it certainly was a challenging—job of using the criminal justice system to deal with him."[20]

17. In mid-May 2002, it was suggested that President Bush had been warned just over a month before the attacks that a major terrorist outrage involving aircraft was in the offing. The Bush administration has denied that the intelligence reports in July and August 2001 were sufficiently detailed for him or his advisers to have predicted that civilian airliners would be used as guided missiles. The President's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said on 16 May that, given the intelligence available, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking."[21]

18. When we visited Washington DC in November 2001, we received no indication that there had been any prior warning of the dangers of a suicidal airborne attack. However, in May 2002, the Washington Post[22] referred to a Library of Congress document, dated September 1999 and freely available over the internet since December 2001, but presumably available in Congress before that date, which stated that: "Al-Qaida's expected retaliation for the US cruise missile attack against al-Qaida's training facilities in Afghanistan on August 20, 1998, could take several forms of terrorist attack in the nation's capital. Al-Qaida could detonate a Chechen-type building-buster bomb at a federal building. Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House. Ramzi Yousef had planned to do this against the CIA headquarters."[23] It appears that warnings were indeed given but not heeded.

19. The announcement by President Bush on 6 June 2002 of a new Department of Homeland Security appears to confirm that the previous governmental structures were in some way deficient. Labelling his initiative "the most extensive reorganization of the federal government since the 1940s", the President acknowledged that "We are now learning that before September the 11th, the suspicions and insights of some of our front-line agents did not get enough attention."[24] The new Department is expected to succeed where the old multi-agency structures failed by "ending duplication and overlap". These new arrangements may have implications for the sharing of information between United Kingdom and US intelligence agencies and their success will be important to the security of the international coalition countries.

The United Kingdom's responsibility

20. Should Britain have done more to understand the threat from al Qaeda, and to warn its ally of the extent of this threat? In Professor Wilkinson's view, "we were concentrating rather understandably on the Northern Ireland spillover of violence ... and I think we had a tradition of rather assuming that, if people were not attacking British targets, really we should not give such a high priority to intelligence work on networks that were simply support networks or were seen to be supporters and sympathisers in this country." We note with concern Professor Wilkinson's assertion that France had a rather similar record until it began to suffer from the wave of GIA terrorism, and that "We, I think, did not learn from the French lessons. If we had, we would have really stepped up our monitoring of the Islamist extremist groups, and we would have been ahead of the game."[25]

21. It has become even more clear since 11 September that the United Kingdom has been a major centre for global terrorist activity.[26] It lies beyond the scope of our mandate to scrutinise the effectiveness or otherwise of Government measures to deal with the activities of terrorists within Britain's borders. However, we note Professor Wilkinson's concern that concentration on direct terrorist threats to the United Kingdom may have led the Government to pay insufficient attention to the kind of international terrorism which, as the events of 11 September demonstrate, threaten Britain's national interests and security in equally significant ways. We hope that the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee and Defence Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee will address these questions, and report as fully as possible within the limitations of a public document.

22. European countries are now beginning to share intelligence more effectively and to establish international judicial procedures to cope with terrorists. The EU is also strengthening its co-operation with the United States in counter-terrorism activities. We describe actions that have been taken since 11 September below. However, these improvements in co-operation between allies have been made "rather late in the day... in the light of the severity of the problem;" similar action also needs to be extended to countries which have al Qaeda cells within their borders.[27]

23. Britain and the US already have a particularly close intelligence relationship. Each shares a great deal of what it knows with the other. It would appear that before 11 September, both the US and the United Kingdom failed to gather or share good intelligence, or they failed to interpret it correctly, or they failed to act on it. We are not in a position to judge which was the case, or what was the cause, although we note the judgments of others such as Professor Wilkinson.

24. We asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to explain what it has done to rectify the intelligence failures which we deduce must have occurred. The FCO told us that "The Government's response to the events of 11 September—which also ranges considerably wider than the area of responsibility of the FCO—has included efforts to increase the information available to us on the terrorist threat, from wherever it might come. Increased resources have been devoted to this work. The national machinery available for responding to counter-terrorist information has been expanded."[28] The FCO memorandum does not state whether there were failures of intelligence before 11 September. We trust that if the Government's own inquiries or those of the Intelligence and Security Committee have identified any such failures, steps will have been taken to prevent their repetition.

25. The events of 11 September demonstrated clearly that a narrow definition of "national interest" is no longer sufficient. The international terrorist threat from organizations such as al Qaeda may be directed most immediately against the United States, but such attacks affect British interests and security, and may in future be directed against the United Kingdom. Furthermore, international terrorism can only be tackled through thoroughly international co-operation, and not just among Britain's traditional allies. We are convinced that the Government's efforts to achieve international counter-terrorism co-operation through existing international organizations, and in particular through the United Nations, are therefore an appropriate way to develop effective international co-operation against terrorism. Sufficient resources must, however, be provided to ensure that such measures succeed.

26. We recommend that in its response to this Report the Government state whether or not the British intelligence agencies on which the security of the United Kingdom depends have the human, financial and other resources they require to offer the best possible protection against terrorist attacks on the United Kingdom or on British posts and facilities overseas.

International treaties and other measures to counter terrorism before 11 September

27. There are twelve different multilateral conventions and protocols related to states' responsibilities for combatting terrorism.[29] None of these provides a commonly agreed definition of terrorism, and many states are not yet party to these legal instruments, or are not yet implementing them. A definition of terrorism has not been agreed by the UN General Assembly since 11 September, although the government of Australia has proposed such a definition.

28. The lack of a commonly agreed framework for tackling terrorism was undoubtedly partly responsible for the limited level of international co-operation before 11 September. Progress had, however, been made to define terrorism in international discourse, although it had not been enshrined in a treaty. Professor Wilkinson considered that it would "be very difficult to get agreement in the United Nations among all the members of the Security Council and the General Assembly" over the definition of terrorism, but there had been "an improvement in the understanding internationally of what is meant by terrorism among diplomats, among international jurists, among governments... [and the] core elements are more generally accepted than ever in my experience in working in this field. There has been an inching forward towards greater convergence," a process which was accelerated by the attacks on 11 September. We describe international co-operation in the war against terrorism in the sections below, which deal with the period since 11 September.[30]

13   Paul Wilkinson, Terrorism versus democracy: the liberal state response, London, Frank Cass 2001, pp 160-61. Back

14   See Back

15   See Back

16   Q111. Back

17   Q101. Back

18   Paul Wilkinson, Terrorism versus democracy: the liberal state response, London, Frank Cass 2001, Chapter 8. Back

19   Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, "A failure of intelligence," New York Review of Books, 20 December 2001.  Back

20   Q111. Back

21   Transcript of press briefing by National Security Advisor Dr Condoleezza Rice, The White House, 16 May 2002. See­13.html. Back

22   See­dyn/articles/A39166­2002May18.html. Back

23   See­Psychology_of_Terrorism.htm. Back

24   See­8.html. Back

25   Q112. Back

26   See for example 'Britain's al-Qaeda connections,' BBC news, 29 January 2002:- Back

27   Q100 [Professor Wilkinson]. Back

28   See Ev 106. Back

29   See Annex to this Report and Back

30   Q98. Back

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