The government’s anti-terror measures have already attracted accusations that they propose a form of internment without trial, deportation to countries that use torture, and a vague new crime of “glorifying” terrorism. But they also reveal a disturbing willingness to make use of intelligence material that is simply false.
The bill being rushed through parliament includes the proscription of 15 “terrorist” organisations. One of them is the Islamic Jihad Union. This is claimed to operate in the dictatorial central Asian state of Uzbekistan, until recently a key US ally in the “war on terrorism”. But the statement made last week by Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, included one seriously misleading explanation as to why this group was being banned, and she relayed one straightforward falsehood.
“I have been assured,” she told MPs, “that the group would cause a threat to British interests overseas … The intelligence on which the home secretary reached his decision was from our own sources, so I hope that that reassures members that the matter has been scrutinised properly.”
“There was an explosion in Uzbekistan that killed nine people who were involved in the construction of portable improvised explosive devices”, she elaborated. “Over the following three days, there was a series of shoot-outs and suicide bombings that were carried out in Tashkent, Bokhara and Uzbekistan, leaving about 25 dead and 35 wounded.”
Ms Blears was trotting out the Uzbek government version of events in March 2004. But this string of alleged suicide bombings does not appear to have been anything of the kind. As Britain’s ambassador, I visited the site of each of the bombings within a few hours – or, in one case, minutes – of the alleged explosion.
The physical evidence on the ground did not coincide with the official explanation. For example, each suicide bomber was alleged to be using explosives equivalent to 2kg of TNT. But nowhere, not even at the site of an alleged car bomb, was there a crater, or even a crack in a paving stone. In one small triangular courtyard area a bomb had allegedly killed six policemen. But windows on all sides, at between 10 and 30 metres from the alleged blast, were not damaged; nor was a tree in the middle of the yard. The body of one of the alleged suicide bombers was unmarked, save for a small burn about the size of a walnut on her stomach.
A full account of my investigations of these bombings is to appear in my forthcoming book: one reason, perhaps, why the Foreign Office will seek to block its publication. There is no more reason to believe this version of events in March 2004 than to believe the Uzbek government’s version of the Andijan massacre in May this year. What is more, as ambassador I sent back the details of my investigation to London, and the Joint Terrorism Assessment Centre (Jtac) agreed with my view that there were serious flaws in the Uzbek government account – agreeing with my view that the US was wrong to accept it. I concluded then, and still believe now, that these events were a series of extrajudicial killings covered by a highly controlled and limited agent-provocateur operation.
Why then is this Uzbek government propaganda now being uncritically relayed to the Commons by Hazel Blears? The false information she relayed to MPs is the assurance that the intelligence on the IJU is from our own sources. There was no intelligence material from UK sources on the above events. The UK has no intelligence assets in central Asia. We are dependent on information given to us by the United States’ CIA and NSA. There was information from the NSA. We had NSA communications intercepts of senior al-Qaida figures asking each other if anyone knew what was happening in Tashkent (no one did). Despite the only intelligence we had indicating plainly that al-Qaida was not involved, Colin Powell immediately went on the record in Washington to support the US’s ally, stating specifically that Uzbekistan was under attack from Islamist militant forces linked to al-Qaida. Almost certainly MI6 and MI5 happily accept this nonsense, as it suits their own agenda. But if they pretend that they have independent information, that is a lie.
I am greatly concerned that ministers are prepared to push a security service agenda so uncritically. I am sad but far from astonished that they are so seemingly cavalier with assurances to troubled MPs. There was little time for debate and no opportunity to vote individually on which organisations should be banned.
I am not, in a practical sense, concerned by the proscription of the Islamic Jihad Union. The evidence that this organisation exists at all is extremely tenuous, and if it does it is almost certainly the fruit of an Uzbek agent-provocateur operation. But I am greatly concerned by the glib repetition of propaganda by British ministers. It was the manipulation of dud intelligence for political purposes that led us into Iraq. And was that not a factor in the present wave of terrorism that we face in London?
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