UK Politics

Stella performance

On Tuesday Stella Rimington said this:

“Since I have retired I feel more at liberty to be against certain decisions of the Government, especially the attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy.

“It would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state.”

On Wednesday this was widely reported:

Eight Islamic extremists plotted to cause civilian deaths from a terrorist attack on an “unprecedented scale” by using bombs disguised as soft drinks to blow up transatlantic planes, a court heard yesterday.

The men were “almost ready” to carry out the co-ordinated suicide attacks by smuggling the devices on to seven jets when they were arrested in August 2006, Woolwich crown court was told.

Peter Wright, prosecuting, said two ringleaders, Abdulla Ahmed Ali and Assad Sarwar, acted on directions from masterminds in Pakistan. The plan involved transforming 500ml Lucozade and Oasis bottles into bombs and detonate them in an attack which would “reverberate across the globe”, the jury heard.

“These men were indifferent to the carnage that was likely to ensue if their plans were successful. To them the identities of their victims was an irrelevance by race, colour, religion or creed. What these men intended to bring about together and with others was a violent and deadly statement of intent that would have a truly global impact.”

Stella Rimington’s predictions about terrorism have a track record:

Since 11 September, some of Dame Stella’s critics within MI5 have blamed her for the failure of British intelligence to keep track of Islamic terrorists. They say she diverted resources towards in Northern Ireland and organised crime, particularly drugs.

In 1994 Dame Stella disbanded the special unit known as G7, a “joint section” set up with MI6 to monitor Islamic terrorism. As a result, when the threat from Osama bin Laden began to become apparent in 1998, vital experience and continuity had been lost, her critics said.

Since the comments have noted that it may be unfair on Stella Rimington to suggest she should have foreseen in 1994 the threat that Jihadist terrorism would later become, despite the World Trade Centre bombing of 1993, it is worth noting that her own staff did protest at the time of the decision. So some in the intelligence community did have insight into the risks, even if she did not:

When groups such as Islamic Jihad began attacking non-Israeli targets in the wake of Israel’s invasion of the Lebanon in 1982, a small unit known as G7 was established as a ‘joint section’ by MI5 and its sister agency, the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

This made good sense: the Islamic fundamentalist groups, though based abroad (normally MI6 territory), had supporters and infrastructure in Britain, the province of MI5. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network is typical of this pattern – the fax claiming responsibility for the attacks on US embassies in 1998 came from a shop in north London.

Against the protests of G7’s staff, Rimington disbanded it. The consequence, intelligence sources say, was that some known and previously monitored operatives disappeared from view: ‘When it became clear just how great the threat posed by bin Laden was, we were in a difficult position. Scrapping G7 was a very foolish move. Instead of having a cadre of experienced case officers, we were virtually starting from scratch.’