Did the government properly consider the likely impact of its involvement on the terrorist threat to the UK?

“these are dangerous weapons, particularly if they fall into the hands of terrorists who we know want to use these weapons if they can get them.”
Tony Blair 11 March 2003

One of the reasons that the government gave for its renewed determination to tackle the issue of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (wmd) was concern, after the events of September 11 2001, that wmd might fall into the hands of terrorists. However, it has been suggested that the invasion made a terrorist attack on Britain more likely and that the government ignored this risk.

It is necessary to look at what the advice was given to the government on these two issues at the time and what has actually happened since the war. On the issue of whether wmd might fall into the hands of terrorists, because Iraq did not possess wmd before the invasion, it is clear that a policy based, in part, on this possibility was flawed. But it is necessary to remember that the assumption within both the intelligence services and the government was that Iraq did possess wmd and to examine what advice was given on the basis of this assumption as to the likelihood of those weapons falling into terrorist hands. On the question of whether the invasion made a terrorist attack more likely, it is necessary to examine what advice was given prior to the invasion and what assessment was made of this issue subsequently.

Following the war, there have been a number of attempted terrorist attacks on Britain. In July 2005 a series of co-ordinated suicide attacks were carried out on London’s public transport network. One of the bombers cited Britain’s foreign policy as a reason for this.

What advice did the intelligence services give the government about the risk that Iraq’s wmd would fall into the hands of terrorists?

 

It appears that ministers’ stated concern that terrorists could obtain Iraq’s wmd was not based on assessments from the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).

According to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) September 2003 report (pdf file) the JIC issued an assessment “International Terrorism:War with Iraq” on 10 February 2003. According to the ISC:

In their assessment International Terrorism:War with Iraq, dated 10 February 2003, the JIC reported that there was no intelligence that Iraq had provided CB materials to al-Qaida or of Iraqi intentions to conduct CB terrorist attacks using Iraqi intelligence officials or their agents.

At a public hearing on 20 July 2010, Eliza Manningham-Buller, who was head of MI5 at the time of the invasion, gave evidence relating to her assessment of the terrorist threat from Iraq before the war and the impact of the war on the terrorist threat to the UK from Al-Qaeda.

Manninham-Buller told the Inquiry that the theory that Saddam Hussein “would probably have brought together international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in a threat to western interests” was a “hypothetical” one. She said: “It certainly wasn’t of concern in either the short term or the medium term to my colleagues and myself.”

What consideration was given to the risk that participation in the invasion would increase the terrorist threat to Britain?

 

The Inquiry will need to consider what advice ministers were given about the risk that participation in the invasion would increase the terrorist threat to Britain and how, if at all, this affected the policy.

It is known that on at least one occasion the JIC warned that participation would increase the terrorist threat. There is little evidence that ministers who were involved in preparing for military action against Iraq considered the possibility that this might heighten the terrorist risk to the UK. There is however evidence that the question of the impact of the war on the UK’s muslim communities was raised by other ministers.

 

What advice did the intelligence services give the government about the risk that participation in the invasion would increase the terrorist threat to Britain?

According to the ISC’s September 2003 report (pdf file), in its assessment “International Terrorism:War with Iraq” on 10 February 2003:

The JIC assessed that al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.

The JIC also assessed that any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, not necessarily al-Qaida.

In July 2009, Manningham-Buller revealed that she warned ministers and officials that an invasion of Iraq would increase the terrorist threat to Britain. She told the Guardian: “I said it as explicitly as I could. I said something like, ‘The threat to us would increase because of Iraq’.”

 

What assessment did ministers and officials make of the risk that participation in the invasion would increase the terrorist threat to Britain?

Blair told the ISC that he had been aware that participation might increase the terrorist threat but that he considered the danger that terrorists might obtain wmd to be a reason to take action against Iraq.

One of the most difficult aspects of this is that there was obviously a danger that in attacking Iraq you ended up provoking the very thing you were trying to avoid. On the other hand I think you had to ask the question, ‘Could you really, as a result of that fear, leave the possibility that in time this developed into a nexus between terrorism and WMD in an event?’. This is where you’ve just got to make your judgement about this. But this is my judgement and it remains my judgement and I suppose time will tell whether it’s true or it’s not true.

Did participation in the invasion increase the terrorist threat to Britain?

 

It is clear that since the war, Britain has been subject to attack from terrorists more often than previously and in many cases those terrorists have cited the invasion of Iraq as a reason for their actions. The Inquiry will need to assess whether the increased frequency reflects an increased tendency to attack Britain (rather than a higher success rate) and whether there is any causal relationship with the war.

The Inquiry has published the April 2005 JIC assessment: INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM: IMPACT OF IRAQ. This states in its first key judgement:

The conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism and will continue to have an impact in the long term. It has confirmed the belief of extremists that Islam is under attack and needs to be defended using force. It has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the West and motivated others who were not.

With regard to attacks on Britain specifically, the JIC judged that:

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.

In each case, it needs to be seen that the invasion of Iraq was identified as an exacerbating factor or “major additional motivation”, rather than the sole reason for any terrorist attack on the UK. In fact the JIC stated that:

While we have no evidence to show that attacks outside Iraq since the war started have been motivated by the war alone, in some cases we judge that it has been a major additional motivation.

 

One comment to this article

  1. jeremy streeten

    on January 9, 2010 at 12:21 pm -

    The Chilcot Inquiry is perhaps the last opportunity we, the Nation, have to distance ourselves from the deceit and incompetence which led us into war. It is not fashionable to listen to what terrorists say, but the London Bombers in their video statements did make it clear that it was our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan that motivated them. And one of them argued that we deserved such attacks because we had voted for a government which “continues to oppress our mothers, children, brothers and sisters in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya.”. I believe the Inquiry needs to say to the World – and in particular the Muslim World – “We did not vote for this. There has been a grave mistake, a failure of our democratic system. We are sorry.” Only then will our streets start to become safer.