MI5 said Iraq “exacerbated the threat from international terrorism”

By David Morrison | Stella Rimington, the last but one head of MI5, was interviewed by Decca Aikenhead in The Guardian on 18 October 2008. She asked her about the effect of Britain’s invasion of Iraq on the terrorist threat to Britain:

I ask Rimington what importance she would place on the war, in terms of its impact on the terrorist threat. She pauses for a second, then replies quietly but firmly: ‘Look at what those people who’ve been arrested or have left suicide videos say about their motivation. And most of them, as far as I’m aware, say that the war in Iraq played a significant part in persuading them that this is the right course of action to take. So I think you can’t write the war in Iraq out of history. If what we’re looking at is groups of disaffected young men born in this country who turn to terrorism, then I think to ignore the effect of the war in Iraq is misleading. [1]

Decca Aikenhead seemed to be surprised at this forthright assertion by an ex-head of MI5 of a causal connection between Britain’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and the heightened terrorist threat to Britain. She commented:

These might not be unremarkable views for most Guardian readers – of whom Rimington is one. But according to Rimington, they are widely held within the intelligence service – much more so than most members of the public, and perhaps particularly Guardian readers, ever suspect.

Official MI5 view

In fact, it is the official view of MI5, and has been for several years, that such a causal connection exists. I know that because I read it on MI5’s website in July 2005, at the time of the London bombings. There, on a page entitled Threat to the UK from International Terrorism, I read:

In recent years, Iraq has become a dominant issue for a range of extremist groups and individuals in the UK and Europe.

I was astonished to read this since it acknowledged that al-Qaeda activity was, at least in part, a reaction to Western interference in the Muslim world, rather than driven by an evil ambition to destroy our way of life in the West, as our political leaders kept telling us.

At that time, Prime Minister Blair was (understandably) trying to deny the existence of a connection between the invasion of Iraq and the bombings in London on 7 July 2005, lest somebody accuse him of having blood on his hands. That was not an unreasonable accusation, given that, having been warned in advance by the intelligence services that the threat from al-Qaida “would be heightened by military action against Iraq” (see Intelligence & Security Committee report of 11 September 2003 [2], Paragraph 126), he chose to make Britain a less safe place by invading Iraq in March 2003.

I made considerable efforts to draw the attention of The Guardian and other newspapers to the extraordinary fact that the words coming out of the Prime Minister’s mouth were at variance with what was published on the MI5 website. This seemed to me to be newsworthy. But to no avail. To the best of my knowledge, this plain, publicly stated, view of MI5 was never quoted in the columns of The Guardian, until a letter by me was published on 3 July 2007 [3]. That Guardian readers are ignorant of MI5’s view on the issue is due to the failure of Guardian journalists to bring it to their readers’ attention.

International Terrorism: Impact of Iraq

Lest there is any doubt that the intelligence services have long held the view that invading Iraq increased the terrorist threat to Britain, listen to this from a Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessment entitled International Terrorism: Impact of Iraq dated April 2005, extracts of which were published in The Sunday Times on 2 April 2006:

Iraq is likely to be an important motivating factor for some time to come in the radicalisation of British Muslims and for those extremists who view attacks against the UK as legitimate.

There is a clear consensus within the UK extremist community that Iraq is a legitimate jihad and should be supported. Iraq has re-energised and refocused a wide range of networks in the UK.

We judge that the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism and will continue to have an impact in the long term. It has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the West and motivated others who were not.

Some jihadists who leave Iraq will play leading roles in recruiting and organising terrorist networks, sharing their skills and possibly conducting attacks. It is inevitable that some will come to the UK. [4]

Blair’s blowback

Even Tony Blair eventually acknowledged that his military adventures in the Muslim world had produced “blowback”. Here’s is what he said in his resignation speech in Sedgefield on 10 March 2007:

Removing Saddam and his sons from power, as with removing the Taliban, was over with relative ease. But the blowback since, from global terrorism and those elements that support it, has been fierce and unrelenting and costly. [5]

The Guardian has yet to report this confession by the former Prime Minister that he has made Britain a less safe by his military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and, in the process, he has caused the deaths of around 400 British soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis.

Crucial point erased

Today, the MI5 website still has a page about “international terrorism” [6], but you won’t find a word about Iraq on it. The previous plain statement by MI5 that there was a causal connection between Iraq and the risk of terrorism in Britain was removed some time since June 2007, when I last saw it there. Now al-Qaeda’s motivation is described in the following terms:

The terrorists draw their inspiration from a global message articulated by figures such as Usama bin Laden. The message is uncompromising and asserts that the West represents a threat to Islam; that loyalty to religion and loyalty to democratic institutions and values are incompatible; and that violence is the only proper response.

It doesn’t quite go so far as to say that al-Qaeda is out to destroy our way of life in the West, but the crucial point — that al-Qaeda terrorism in the West is a response to Western interference in the Muslim world — has been erased.

Jacqui Smith speaks
Fresh from her ignominious defeat in the House of Lords on 42-day detention on 13 October 2008, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, made a major speech on “the threat of international terrorism” to Britain on 15 October 2008 [7]. Like the MI5 website today, her speech omits to mention British intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as a motivating force for al-Qaeda activity in Britain. In a 3,000-word speech, she provided the following penetrating analysis of what drives al-Qaeda to commit terrorism: “They want a reordering of global political structures and a separation of faith groups …. and to subvert our institutions.”

Most of her speech was taken up with detailing the measures she was taking to counter al-Qaeda in Britain. Four regional counter-terrorism policing hubs, in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds have been established and a fifth one is on the way on the M4 corridor. These are tasked “not only to investigate conspiracies and terrorist operations but to understand radicalisation and radicalisers and to tackle them effectively”.

Several Government departments are also involved in countering “radicalisation”: the Department for Children Schools and Families in providing advice to teachers on how to deal with signs of radicalisation; the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in working with student bodies and higher and further education to do something rather similar; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in considering what impact the issue of counter radicalisation should have on their programmes; ditto the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health; the Department of Justice is addressing the problem of radicalisation in prisons; and, last but not least, the Department for Communities and Local Government is working on the Preventing Violent Extremism plan. And she holds “a Weekly Security Meeting with senior representatives from each of these Departments and others across Whitehall to discuss their work and the current threat with the police and the security and intelligence agencies”.

How any of this is meant to reduce or prevent “radicalisation” in circumstances in which the main driver — the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq — is still going on is not clear. Withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan would certainly diminish, and perhaps eliminate, the threat to Britain from al-Qaeda. In other words, if we ceased spending money and blood invading Muslim countries, we wouldn’t need to spend money protecting the British homeland from terrorism emanating from the Muslim world in response — and blood would not be spilled on our streets when the protection proves to be fallible.

[1] The Guardian
[2] Intelligence & Security Committee (pdf)
[3] The Guardian
[4] The Times
[5] Labour website
[6] MI5
[7] Home office.