Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Seventh Report

The conflict in the Middle East and the War against Terrorism


152. Days after the terrorist attacks, on 14 September, the Prime Minister told the House that "now, more than ever, we have reason not to let the Middle East Peace Process slip still further but if at all possible reinvigorate it."[148]

153. The Foreign Secretary met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on 26 September, and promised to seize the opportunities presented by the crisis to "redouble" British efforts towards promoting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.[149] On 15 October, the Prime Minister held talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yassir Arafat, and called for a reinvigorated approach to the peace process in the Middle East.[150] The Foreign Secretary told us that there was an urgent need to return to a peace process, because "the conflict in the Middle East has unquestionably helped create a climate in which terrorists can both hide and breed."[151]

154. In the initial stages of the campaign, the US Administration appears to have sought to separate the issues of international terrorism and the conflict in the Middle East. In his speech to the UN General Assembly on 10 November, President Bush stated that the US would "do all in our power" to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back into negotiations. The Middle East was not linked to the war against terrorism, but instead referred to as a separate aspect of the United States foreign policy agenda. Jack Straw, in his evidence on 20 November, also quoted his US counterpart Colin Powell as stating that the war against terrorism was not the only priority of the US, that the US had "other interests too important to ignore," such as the Middle East.[152]

155. Osama bin Laden has claimed in many of his statements that one of his central objectives is to end the suffering of Palestinians. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, it was natural to ask whether links existed between al Qaeda and Palestinian militants. The representatives of the Office of the United Nations Special Co-ordinator in the Occupied Territories (UNSCO), Michael Keating and Andrew Gilmour, told us in January 2002 that they had seen "no evidence whatsoever of links between the Palestinian authority or even Palestinian fundamentalist groups and al Qaeda."[153] Mr Keating suggested to us that "the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been exploited by al Qaeda as an additional reason to explain and justify their actions, but I do not think al Qaeda is doing what it has been doing to help the Palestinians, and I do not think many Palestinians think this either. I do not think that a successful pursuit of actions against al Qaeda would in any way stop the violence continuing in the Middle East."[154]

156. Rosemary Hollis shared this view of the differences between the terrorist problem in the Middle East and al Qaeda: although, in her view, there "may be one or two Palestinians within the network... there is a distinction between that [al Qaeda terrorist campaign] and the current campaign of the Palestinians limited to ending the Israeli occupation."[155] Most of the militant Palestinian groups have a specific objective—the ending of Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state—while al Qaeda's objectives are much broader and ill-defined. Dr Hollis pointed out that, originally, the Palestinian suicide bombers were "not identified as part of the problem which was to be fought in the war on terrorism."[156]

157. However, the Foreign Secretary told us that "My sense is that actually with the suicide bombings of 1 and 2 December US sympathy for the Israelis was so profound that that was the moment at which they decided that the Palestinian suicide bombers were part of the same enemy that they were fighting themselves."[157] We asked the US Embassy for a statement of their position on the Middle East and the war against terrorism. They told us: "US policy is clear: we support a Palestinian state; we support Israel with secure borders; we support each at peace with the other. Whatever the criticisms or anti-American sentiment in the region or further afield, we shall persevere in encouraging peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict while also pursuing the war on terrorism to a successful conclusion."[158]


158. The Government of Israel has been explicit in identifying a clear link between the war against global terrorism and its own actions against armed Palestinian groups. On 23 April, Prime Minister Sharon told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that "In Afghanistan, the United States is fighting terrorism; sometimes innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire. Israel is fighting terrorism on our doorstep. We have a moral right to defend ourselves. Terrorists in Washington, Tel Aviv or any other place have no right to murder innocent civilians indiscriminately."[159] The US Administration and the British Government have also asserted Israel's right to take action against those who perpetrate acts of terror, though without linking such action to the wider war against terrorism.[160]

159. The apparent popularity in many Arab and Islamic countries of Osama bin Laden's message, which demands the removal of US influence in the Arabian peninsular, can be attributed in part to the widespread perception in the region that US foreign policy is one- sided and hurts Arab populations in Iraq and Palestine. Dr Rosemary Hollis told us that, in interviews since the late 1990s, Osama bin Laden has consistently mentioned "Palestine and injustice to Palestinians" and that he takes care to associate "security for Palestinians" with "security for the Iraqi people. These happen to be two very raw nerves across the Arab world and to a large extent across the wider Muslim community... On purely political grounds, as opposed to theological or religious in any way, the key items articulated by Osama bin Laden are sources of unrest and irritation and anger."[161]

160. The governments of many Arab and other Islamic countries have so far co-operated well in the non-military aspects of the campaign against terrorism, in the UN and elsewhere. However, the continuing conflict in the Middle East makes it more difficult for these governments to be seen to co-operate with the international coalition against terrorism, especially if the next stage of the war is to involve action against Iraq. As Ben Bradshaw told us on 23 April: "the current state of affairs in Israel/Palestine makes any idea of military action against Iraq politically in the region a great deal more difficult... The appetite [for military action against Iraq] in many Arab countries whose leaders do not have a lot of time for Saddam Hussein and, in private, would dearly love to see the back of him... is diminished by the situation in the Middle East."[162]

161. We conclude that a linkage between the conflict in the Middle East and the war against terrorism is widely perceived among populations and governments in the region. Both the US and British governments appear to accept that the conflict is a factor which severely complicates their conduct of the war, although it does not weaken their resolve. While the conflict in the Middle East requires swift and fair resolution on its own merits, this perceived linkage lends added urgency to the search for peace.

162. Events continue to move quickly in the Middle East, and we do not intend in this Report to make recommendations about how the crisis may be resolved. This Committee and the House will wish to be kept informed by the Government of further developments over the coming weeks and months.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt

163. For the war against terrorism to succeed in the long run, many of the new allies must address internal problems affecting their economies and societies. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are key allies for the United States, yet these countries have also been shown to be sources of terrorism: fifteen of the nineteen terrorists on 11 September held Saudi passports, and Muhammad Atta, the suspected mastermind, was Egyptian. We heard from many people during our March visit to Washington, and also from one of our witnesses, Dr Rosemary Hollis, that the involvement of so many Saudi citizens in the 11 September attacks had provoked something of a crisis of confidence in Saudi Arabia: the "al Saud are considering very seriously what the state of play is in the kingdom, whether there were some trends which they previously thought were a domestic matter which they could handle which have turned out to have a foreign agenda against the United States and they are now faced with the crisis that they need to


164. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Islamic countries are experiencing escalating demographic growth and social change, factors which create an environment conducive to the growth of extremism.[164] In Saudi Arabia, the dominance of the education system by the conservative clerics and the absence of a modern banking system are impeding economic development. Professor Fred Halliday told us that the "biggest problem in the Muslim world is unemployment, which people do not talk about. We devote far too much to Jihad and Sharia and not enough about jobs and corruption."[165] Opinion polls suggest an alarming level of support for Osama bin Laden's cause.[166]

165. It was very disappointing that the Saudi government would not see the Prime Minister on his regional visit in early October 2001, and that they would not allow the international coalition to use the Saudi bases for missions to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden's main stated reason for his anti-American activities is the presence of US troops in the holy land of Saudi Arabia during and after the Gulf War, a presence that continues. These troops were and are there to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi attack.

166. Dr Hollis suggested that a dangerously high level of popular discontentment in many Arab countries contributed to the growth of anti-Western groups such as al Qaeda. The relative quiet of the "Arab street" in the war against terrorism was a sign political of repression: "all forms of assembly in almost every Arab country are forbidden, so to assemble and demonstrate ... is very difficult to do."[167] As a consequence of the absence of political liberties, dissent is focused in the mosque or through the Internet. Dr Hollis argued that al Qaeda activism and terrorism should be interpreted as "an expression that ultimately emanates from the Arab street." Instead of looking for revolution and an expression of widespread discontent, we should be looking out for "the creation of new al Qaeda type, anti-United States, anti-Western ... activists [and] militants."[168]

167. The West's allies in the Islamic world need to address their internal problems, which appear to contribute to the popularity of Islamic extremism. We recommend that the Government consider carefully how to help allies in the Islamic world to address the social, economic and political conditions that have led to the growth of Islamic extremism among their populations.

The United States' Nuclear Posture Review

168. In early March 2002, the Bush Administration's Nuclear Posture Review statement was leaked. The Los Angeles Times reported that the "Bush administration has directed the military to prepare contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against at least seven countries and to build new smaller nuclear weapons for use in certain battlefield situations, according to a classified Pentagon report. The secret report, which was provided to Congress on Jan. 8, says the Pentagon needs to be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Libya. It says the weapons could be used in three types of situations: against targets able to withstand nuclear attack; in retaliation for attack with nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons; or 'in the event of surprising military developments.'"[169]

169. In a news release, the Pentagon stated that it "would not comment on selective and misleading leaks;" the Nuclear Posture Review is "required by law" and is "a wide-ranging analysis of the requirements for deterrence in the 21st century." In a press conference on 11 March, Vice President Dick Cheney described the Nuclear Posture Review statement as "a regular report to the Congress on the overall state of our capabilities and gives some idea of the directions we would like to move in in the future¼ the notion that I have seen reported in the press that somehow this means we are preparing pre-emptive nuclear strikes against 7 countries I believe was¼ a bit over the top." The US Embassy in London told us that "The Department of Defense continues to plan for a broad range of contingencies and unforeseen threats to the United States and its allies."[170]

170. The Government's position on first-use of nuclear weapons is set out in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review:

"Britain has repeatedly made it clear that we will not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-weapon State not in material breach of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations, unless it attacks us, our Allies or a State to which we have a security commitment, in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State."[171]

171. The question then arises, whether the US or the United Kingdom would countenance using nuclear weapons first against a non-nuclear state in possession of—or harbouring terrorists in possession of—not just nuclear weapons but any weapon of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical or biological. We recommend that in its response to this Report the Government state clearly what is its policy on first use of nuclear weapons, with particular reference to dealing with the threat posed by chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.


172. The destruction of deep cave complexes, such as those apparently used by al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan as troop shelters, arms dumps or as factories for the production of chemical or biological weapons, requires the deployment of huge force. In March, there were reports that the US was considering development of a new generation of "bunker buster bombs".[172] These would be tactical nuclear weapons, for use on the battlefield, rather than long-range strategic nuclear weapons, possession of which is limited by international treaty.

173. The development of a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons in response to the terrorist threat would have implications for arms control policy and would have to be conducted in such a way as to comply with existing treaty obligations, for example under the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. We recommend that in its response to this Report the Government set out its policy on the development of new tactical nuclear weapons.

Weapons of mass destruction and terrorism

174. The Government has been clear from the beginning of the campaign that preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is part of the war against terrorism. In October 2001, the Government stated that its "wider campaign" objectives would be pursued through "renewed efforts to bear down on Weapons of Mass Destruction proliferation."[173] It also noted that the United Kingdom could be a target of terrorist attack.[174] The Prime Minister had earlier said that "we know that [the terrorists] would, if they could, go further and use chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction."[175]

175. George Tenet, the director of the CIA, stated in March 2002 that terrorist groups worldwide "have already access to information on chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons via the Internet, and we know that al Qaeda was working to acquire some of the most dangerous chemical agents and toxins. Documents recovered from al Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan show that bin Laden was pursuing a sophisticated biological weapons research programme."[176]

176. We share the British and US governments' concern about the threat of WMD falling into terrorists' hands. Our predecessor Committee, in its Report on Weapons of Mass Destruction, stated that "the possibility that a terrorist organisation might obtain possession of a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon is a matter of the utmost concern [and] has horrific potential" and was told by the FCO that "one hundred kilograms of anthrax released from the top of a tall building in a densely populated area could kill up to three million people."[177] The attacks of 11 September highlighted the crucial importance of strengthening international controls over the nuclear, chemical and biological materials that could be used to create weapons of mass destruction. We conclude that the Government was right to highlight in grave but measured terms the threat of weapons of mass destruction attack by terrorists, including the threat to the United Kingdom.


177. The House of Commons Defence Committee has cited evidence that, although terrorist organisations are unlikely to have obtained the technology to launch nuclear explosions, they may have been trying to obtain radiological materials which, when combined with conventional explosives, can produce radiological contamination.[178] In his evidence to the Senate Armed Services Committee on 19 March 2002, the Director of the CIA also said that al Qaeda "may be pursuing a radioactive dispersal device—what some call a 'dirty bomb.'"[179] He went on to state that "we are concerned about the possibility of significant nuclear technology transfers going undetected."[180]

178. Our predecessor Committee noted the problems associated with proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials, and non-compliance with the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.[181] North Korea and Iraq remain potential sources of nuclear materials for terrorists, as do black markets in Pakistan and China. The Russian Government's degree of control over nuclear materials also gives cause for concern. According to the CIA director, "Russian entities continue to provide other countries with technology and expertise applicable to CW, BW, nuclear and ballistic and cruise missile projects. Russia appears to be the first choice of proliferant states seeking the most advanced technology and training."[182] The fear is that these materials may also become available to terrorists.

179. Mr Stephen Wright, Director of Security Policy, FCO, told us on 20 November that before and since 11 September the FCO had been "in touch with the Russian authorities about risks of terrorism in the WMD field... [to] discuss with them (within the limits of state security that they impose and we impose) the safety of nuclear materials in Russia... since 11 September those discussions and the degree of frankness has somewhat improved because there is no doubt about the political commitment of the Russian government to combatting these threats."[183] Despite the "enhancement of political commitment," Mr Wright told us that the problems of controlling weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from Russia and other sources remain extremely "difficult to get at."[184]

180. In our Report on British-US Relations, we noted "the crucial importance of co-operative threat reduction programmes in preventing further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction" and recommended that "in view of the US Administration's proposal to cut the Department of Energy's funding for Co-operative Threat Reduction programmes, ... the Government continues to stress to the US the utmost importance it attaches to such programmes and reports to the Committee on progress to establish an international financing plan for them."[185] This recommendation remains of central importance in the war against terrorism and we have therefore requested further information from the Government on CTR and related programmes, which we will report to the House.

181. We recommend that the Government continue to urge the international community to do its utmost to prevent nuclear, biological and chemical weapons materials getting into the hands of terrorists.

182. We also welcome the agreement of the new NATO-Russia Council (NRC), which was signed on 28 May 2002 in Rome. We hope that the NRC will ensure even greater co-operation between Russian authorities and NATO members towards controlling the leakage of nuclear materials.


183. The House of Commons Defence Committee heard evidence on the dangers of terrorists obtaining chemical weapons materials, and this is detailed in their recent Report to the House.[186] The US CIA director also gave evidence before the US Senate Armed Services Committee on the threat from chemical weapons in March 2002, in which he argued that China's export of CW-related materials to Iran was a particular source of concern.[187]

184. In addition to the Defence Committee's conclusions, we note the important role played by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in monitoring and helping states to destroy CW stockpiles. According to NATO, the world's declared stockpiles of 70,000 tonnes of chemical weapons and more than 8 million munitions have been inspected by OPCW inspectors, and the four countries that have declared possession of chemical weapons are all actively engaged in their destruction, although one of them—Russia—has encountered problems caused by limited funding for CW destruction programmes.[188]

185. The OPCW has also faced difficulties recently because of the removal of its director, José Bustani. We merely note here the importance of the OPCW for the international control of chemical weapons. We recommend that the Government do its utmost to ensure that the new director of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is able to act independently, and for the benefit of all member states of the Organisation.


186. The threat from bio-terrorism was highlighted on 12 October 2001, when the first of a series of incidents of anthrax contamination was reported in the United States. These incidents, in which anthrax spores were packed into envelopes and delivered by the postal service, continued throughout October and November. By 14 November, twenty two cases of bio-terrorism anthrax had been identified by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These attacks prompted speculation that the next phase of the terrorist attacks would be through the large scale use of biological agents.

187. Fortunately, the spate of anthrax attacks that took place in the United States at the end of 2001 appears to have ceased. Yet the threat of biological weapons attack remains severe, as evidenced by the Government's sensible precaution of acquiring large stocks of smallpox vaccine. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which bans the development, testing, production and stockpiling of bacteriological (biological) and toxin weapons, came into force in 1975. However, there are currently no agreed procedures to verify compliance with the Convention, and this accounts for the weakness of international controls over biological agents. The United Kingdom has played a leading role in negotiations among an ad hoc group of states, which has met twenty three times since 1995 to strengthen the BTWC through inclusion of a legally-binding verification protocol.

188. In our Report on British-US Relations, we noted the United States' rejection in July 2001 of the draft BTW verification protocol.[189] This rejection led to suspension of the Ad Hoc Group's negotiations for 2001. The process was not seen as viable without the engagement of the United States.

189. We have previously encouraged the Government to bring the United States back to negotiations towards an international BWC verification protocol.[190] We therefore welcome publication by the FCO on 29 April 2002 of a Green Paper on strengthening the Convention.[191] It is our intention to hear evidence on the Green Paper later this year. Meanwhile, we restate the conclusion from our Report on British-US Relations, that the only way to establish whether states are developing biological and toxin weapons is to establish a mandatory, on the ground challenge inspection system to verify compliance to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Improving states' control of biological and toxin agents is a necessary component of international co-operation to ensure that they do not fall into the hands of terrorists. We commend the Government for publishing its Green Paper on strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and recommend that it continue its efforts to persuade the United States to agree an effective verification regime.


190. The Ministry of Defence Document Defending against the threat of Biological and Chemical Weapons, published in July 1999, states that "the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office hold the responsibility for co-ordinating the response to the terrorist threat to the UK itself and our interests overseas respectively."[192] We recommend that the FCO set out clearly and fully in its response to this Report its specific responsibilities for preventing weapons of mass destruction attacks against the United Kingdom, its citizens and its interests overseas.

191. Terrorist groups are unlikely to advertise their attempts to possess or to develop weapons of mass destruction, but information on their intentions may nonetheless be gathered by good intelligence work. Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) and the Secret Intelligence Service are agencies for which the FCO is responsible. We recommend that the FCO, through these agencies, ensure that the highest priority is given to identification and prevention of attack on the United Kingdom or on British interests overseas by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction.

148   Official Report, 14 September 2001, col. 604. Back

149   FCO website, 26 September 2001, cit.11 September 2001: the response, House of Commons Library Research Paper No. 01/72, 3 October 2001. Back

150   BBC news, 15 October 2001,'Blair urges mid-east progress': Back

151   Q18. Back

152   Q20. Back

153   Q115. Back

154   Q133. Back

155   Q158 Back

156   Q158. Back

157   Q170. Back

158   See Ev 103 (US reply), para 19. Back

159   See Back

160   See for example President Bush's press conference with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 10 June 2002, available at­1.htm; Tony Blair, Official Report, 10 April 2002, Col. 26 Back

161   Q139. Back

162   Q255. Back

163   Q149 [Rosemary Hollis]. Back

164   CIA Director George Tenet told the US Senate Armed Services Committee on 19 March 2002 that "We have already seen-in Afghanistan and elsewhere-that domestic unrest and conflict in weak states is one of the factors that create an environment conducive to terrorism. More importantly, demographic trends tell us that the world's poorest and most politically unstable regions-which include the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa-will have the largest youth populations in the world over the next two decades and beyond. Most of these countries will lack the economic institutions or resources to effectively integrate these youth into society." Back

165   Evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee on British-US Relations, 30 October 2001, Q11. Back

166   A Saudi survey taken shortly after the September 11 attacks reported that 95 per cent of educated Saudi men between the ages of 25 and 41 backed bin Laden's cause. Source: Council on Foreign Relations, Back

167   Q150 [Rosemary Hollis]. Back

168   Q150 [Rosemary Hollis]. Back

169   Los Angeles Times, 9 March 2002. Back

170   See Ev 105 (US reply), para 50. Back

171   Strategic Defence Review, London, The Stationery Office, July 1998, para 31. Back

172   The Independent, 19 March 2002. Back

173   See Back

174   See Back

175   Official Report, 14 September 2001, col. 606. Back

176   Worldwide threat-converging dangers in a post 9/11 world. Testimony of Director of Central Intelligence George J Tenet before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 19 March 2002. Back

177   See Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1999-2000, Weapons of Mass Destruction, HC 407, para 123. The warning about anthrax was given in a FCO paper issued on 4 February 1998, entitled UN Special Commission (UNSCOM)Back

178   See Second Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2001-2002, The threat from Terrorism, HC 348, para 69. Back

179   Worldwide threat-converging dangers in a post 9/11 world. Testimony of Director of Central Intelligence George J Tenet before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 19 March 2002. Back

180   Ibid. Back

181   See Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1999-2000, Weapons of Mass Destruction, HC 407, especially paras 57-58. Back

182   Worldwide threat - converging dangers in a post 9/11 world. Testimony of Director of Central Intelligence George J Tenet before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 19 March 2002. Back

183   Q27. Back

184   Q27. Back

185   See Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2001-2002, British-US Relations, HC 327, para 103. Back

186   See Second Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2001-2002, The threat from Terrorism, HC 348, para 55ff. Back

187   Worldwide threat - converging dangers in a post 9/11 world. Testimony of Director of Central Intelligence George J Tenet before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 19 March 2002.  Back

188   See Back

189   See Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, 2001-2002, British-US Relations, HC 327, paras 91-99. Back

190   Ibid. Back

191   Government Green Paper "Countering the threat from biological weapons", 29 April 2002: Back

192   See Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 20 June 2002