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Proving the link between British foreign policy and domestic terrorism

Despite explicit warnings from MI5, politicians are still refusing to acknowledge how the UK’s role in the Iraq invasion led to terrorism at home

This month three leading British politicians from different parties have committed themselves to the same self-seeking and potentially lethal fallacy.

Each claimed that British foreign policy made no contribution to the risk of terrorism against British people.

Predictably, the three included Tony Blair, who has never acknowledged the consequences of his decision to join our country to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

On 6 July, the eve of the 10th anniversary of the London bombings, he was interviewed on LBC radio by his former Cabinet colleague, Tessa Jowell. She asked him: “What do you say to those people now who say that the causes of 7/7, and indeed subsequent terrorist attacks, can all be traced back to our involvement in the invasion of Iraq?”

Blair gave a rambling reply. “One of the most important things to do is to look at things in the bigger context. I mean, 9/11 in New York was probably the first really large-scale terrorist attack and obviously we had certain foreign policy responses to that. The problem is that even those countries that didn’t, for example, participate in Iraq at all - like France - are now subject to these attacks. You see them most recently in Tunisia but you see even countries like Belgium or Norway, who are countries who have no real foreign policy presence, are also subject to this.

“At a certain point we have got to realise that this is a global problem. You see it in Africa, you see it in the Far East, you see in Central Asia and, of course, you see it in the Middle East. And the only way of dealing with it ultimately is for people to come together, whatever their faith background, and say we're united against this terrorism and to say we're not going to allow anyone to excuse themselves by saying that the slaughter of totally innocent people is somehow a response to any decision by any government. It’s the responsibility of those who carry out those acts of terrorism and those who incite them.”

Logical fallacy

We will turn shortly to the honesty of this reply, but note here that it contains a clear logical fallacy. The fact that other countries have suffered terrorist attacks for other reasons does not refute the proposition that the Iraq war made terrorism more likely in Britain. One could equally argue (as did tobacco companies for many years) that because some non-smokers die of lung cancer smoking does not increase the risk of lung cancer.

Blair was followed on 17 July, by Liz Kendall, the only one of Labour’s four leadership candidates willing to campaign as his heir.

Interviewed by the Evening Standard she said that it was “totally and utterly wrong” to suggest that terrorist atrocities were caused by British foreign policy. She added: “As if the world is divided into adults and children. Nobody makes anybody behead someone and put the picture on the internet. Nobody makes somebody take a Kalashnikov and kill two of my constituents [victims of the Tunisian beach atrocity].”

This is another confused argument. Ms Kendall makes a fair but obvious point in suggesting that British foreign policy gives no one any excuse to commit evil by terrorism. But again, this does not refute the suggestion that our foreign policy might make such evil more likely.

Most important, David Cameron on 20 July announced a five-year strategy against terrorism. His speech included this convoluted passage which echoed Tony Blair’s denial of the role of the Iraq war. “When people say ‘it’s because of the involvement in the Iraq war that people are attacking the West’, we should remind them: 9/11 – the biggest loss of life of British citizens in a terrorist attack - happened before the Iraq war.” Of course, but yet again this has no relevance to the question of whether that war, and subsequent foreign policy, have added to the risk of terrorism.

Blair, Kendall and Cameron, and all their followers, should consider the evidence of Baroness Manningham-Buller to the Iraq inquiry five years ago. They have no need to wait for the distant day when the inquiry report is published because this evidence was clear and unequivocal.

As Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, she was the director general of MI5, the UK’s domestic intelligence agency, from October 2002 until April 2007, that is, for a few months before the US-UK invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and for four years afterwards while the US and UK were occupying the country.

On 20 July 2010, she gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot.  She was asked, “To what extent did the conflict in Iraq exacerbate the overall threat that your service and your fellow services were having to deal with from international terrorism?” She replied: “Substantially.”

Later, she said there was hard evidence of the increased threat, for instance, “numerical evidence of the number of plots, the number of leads, the number of people identified, and the correlation of that to Iraq and statements of people as to why they were involved”. 

She told the inquiry that because of this, even though MI5’s budget had been increased in 2001 and in 2002, “By 2003 I found it necessary to ask the prime minister for a doubling of our budget. This is unheard of, it's certainly unheard of today, but he and the Treasury and the Chancellor accepted that because I was able to demonstrate the scale of the problem that we were confronted by.” 

So, let there be no doubt about it, according to the director general of MI5 at the time, al-Qaeda activity in Britain increased “substantially” because of Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq.  This activity included the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 52 people were killed and more than 700 were injured.

Immense energy has been devoted to the issue of whether Tony Blair misled Britain’s parliament and people about the threat from Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. (See for example, David Morrison’s pamphlet Iraq: Lies, Half-Truths & Omissions, published in November 2003.)

It is equally important, however, to consider whether Blair misled them by suppressing the warning he had received from the UK’s intelligence services that the threat to Britain from al-Qaeda was likely to be “heightened” by the proposed military action against Iraq. This warning was contained in a formal assessment by the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in February 2003, entitled International Terrorism: War with Iraq. This sought to evaluate how al-Qaeda related groups would react to the impending US-UK invasion of Iraq.

Iraq war 'heightened threat'

Aspects of this assessment came into the public domain in September 2003, when the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published its report, Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction – Intelligence and Assessments. In paragraph 126, this ISC report stated: “The JIC assessed that al-Qaeda 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.”

Blair didn’t tell the House of Commons of this intelligence warning, when he moved the war motion in the House of Commons on 18 March 2003.

A significant part of the prime minister’s case that day was that there was “a real and present danger” that chemical and biological weapons would find their way from Iraq to al-Qaeda or associated groups unless Iraq was disarmed of these weapons. However, he omitted to tell the House of Commons that the JIC assessment he had received a few weeks earlier warned that “in the event of imminent regime collapse there would be a risk of transfer of such material, whether or not as a deliberate Iraqi regime policy” (ISC report, paragraph 126).)

In her evidence to the Iraq inquiry, Manningham-Buller confirmed that the government was warned in advance that there was likely to be a “heightened” threat from al-Qaeda as a result of British participation in the invasion of Iraq. She agreed that her judgment prior to the invasion was that “a war in Iraq would aggravate the [terrorist] threat from whatever source to the United Kingdom” (p31) and that “there wasn't any particular controversy amongst the intelligence agencies about that judgment” (p32).

This was communicated to the government through JIC assessments and, in her case, directly to the home secretary (who was David Blunkett at the time) to whom the head of MI5 reports. If ministers read JIC assessments, she said, “they can have had no doubt” that, in the opinion of the intelligence services, the projected invasion of Iraq would increase the threat to Britain from al-Qaeda.

Warning borne out by events

As we have seen, this warning by the intelligence services was amply borne out by events after the invasion.

Manningham-Buller was asked by Sir Roderic Lyne (former ambassador to Moscow, and a member of the Iraq inquiry committee) “how significant … a factor was Iraq compared with other situations that were used by extremists, terrorists, to justify their actions?”

She replied: “I think it is highly significant … By 2003-2004 we were receiving an increasing number of leads to terrorist activity from within the UK and the – our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people, some British citizens – not a whole generation, a few among a generation … saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam.

“So although the media has suggested that in July 2005, the attacks on 7/7, that we were surprised these were British citizens, that is not the case because really there had been an increasing number of British-born individuals living and brought up in this country, some of them third generation, who were attracted to the ideology of Osama bin Laden and saw the West's activities in Iraq and Afghanistan as threatening their fellow religionists and the Muslim world.

“So it undoubtedly increased the threat and by 2004 we were pretty well swamped – that's possibly an exaggeration – but we were very overburdened by intelligence on a broad scale that was pretty well more than we could cope with … ” 

So, there is no doubt whatsoever that al-Qaeda activity in Britain increased “substantially” as a result of Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq – and that our security services correctly predicted this effect.

MI5 website says ‘Iraq a dominant issue’

When London was bombed on 7 July 2005, the rest of the political establishment joined Tony Blair in asserting that it was wrong to think that the bombers had been motivated by the invasion of Iraq. Remarkably, at the same time, a page on the MI5 website, headed "Threat to the UK from International Terrorism," stated straightforwardly: “Iraq is a dominant issue for a range of extremist groups and individuals in the UK and Europe.”

This simple message remained in plain sight on the MI5 website for the next couple of years. It would be interesting to know who removed it, and why.

Blair’s near admission

It is worth noting that Tony Blair came very close to admitting the relationship of the Iraq war and terrorism in his resignation speech on 10 May 2007 in his Sedgefield constituency. According to the Guardian’s report he said: “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.”

The term “blowback” is one of those modern euphemisms (led by “collateral damage”) used to sanitise the effects of modern warfare. But it shows recognition by Blair that the slaughter of innocent people on 7 July 2005, and on other occasions, was a consequence - albeit unintended - of US-UK military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A vital judgment

It is vital for all current British politicians to recognise that the Iraq war made domestic terrorism more likely and a far greater problem to our police, our armed forces and our security services – and that any subsequent military interventions could have the same consequences.

Such recognition in no way excuses or legitimises terrorism of any kind, from any source.

Still less does it mean that our foreign policy should be governed by the fear of domestic terrorism.

However, it does mean that policymakers should consider the additional risk of terrorism from any proposed action, and present an honest assessment of that risk to Parliament and the British people.

That is an essential step to restoring British foreign policy to its proper role of serving British interests. For too long this has been abandoned in the increasingly desperate pursuit of British “influence” or a “special relationship” with the United States or a seat at some imagined “top table” of nations. These nebulous objectives were the real reasons for our participation in the Iraq war and occupation, which brought the British people nothing but debt and danger and dishonour and death.

- David Morrison has written widely on the deception perpetrated by the British government to induce the British public to support military action against Iraq . He is the author with Peter Oborne of A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran published in April 2013. More of his writing is available at

- Peter Oborne was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He recently resigned as Chief Political Columnist of the Daily Telegraph. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class; The Rise of Political Lying;and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo Credit: British soldiers in Iraq (AFP)

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