Statewatch News online: Terror, security and the media - Martin Bright in "The Observer"

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"Terror, security and the media"

The following excellent "Observer Special Report" was put online this week. It describes how UK security and intelligence agencies brief journalists whose stories are then used against "suspected" terrorists - especially the nine people being held indefinitely in the high security Belmarsh prison under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. Writing in the Observer on 21 July Nick Cohen wrote that sources cited as "Whitehall" and "security" sources were often the unofficial press officers of MI5 (internal security) and MI6 (overseas intelligence agency). He went on to say:

"The PRs have set up a wonderfully self-justifying system. They talk to journalists on condition of anonymity.... MI5 then uses the reports of its own briefings as independent corroboration of the need for internment"

Terror, security and the media by Martin Bright

The Observer's Home Affairs editor Martin Bright gave evidence last week to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission case of the nine men who have been detained without trail for over seven months. Asked to assess the media reports of the terrorist threat, on which the Secretary of State's case relies, his evidence casts light on the rarely discussed topic of how the security services seek to influence the media. Observer Liberty Watch campaign

Sunday July 21, 2002


I have taken a close interest in Islamist community in Britain for several years in my professional capacity as Home Affairs Editor of the Observer. I have also studied the rise of political Islam in north Africa as a graduate student at the School of Oriental Studies at London University. By Islamist, I mean individuals who believe that political action should be guided by the Muslim faith and who are often in opposition to the regimes of their home countries. Islamism is an extremely diverse movement in which I would include militant extremists such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation as well as groups and individuals who wish for peaceful, democratic reform and would condemn terrorism in all its forms. There are Islamist opposition groups in all parts of the Arab and Muslim world, many of which are persecuted by the ruling government. Many Islamists therefore flee to Western countries as refugees.

Precisely because of this diversity and a general ignorance about Islam in the West, it has been all too easy for the police and security services to lump together genuine political dissidents and, in some cases, merely ordinary Muslims with individuals most people would regard as terrorists. Since the events of September 11, this confusion has increased as Western security agencies have become more dependent on intelligence from countries within the Arab and wider Muslim world, who have used the occasion to target dissident members of their domestic Islamist movements who have found refuge in the West.

I would not claim any special expertise in Islamic theology or modern political movements in the Islamic world, although, as a student of Islamic history, I probably have a greater knowledge than most reporters who write on the subject. I have also interviewed most of the high-profile Islamists based in Britain. I conducted a lengthy interview with Saudi dissident Khalid al-Fawwaz shortly before he was arrested in 1998 in connection with the African embassy bombings, I was the first British journalist to interview Abu Qatada, the Palestinian/Jordanian scholar who has been linked to several terrorist suspects across Europe since September 11 and I was the first British journalist to interview Abu Hamza, the controversial imam at Finsbury Park mosque in north London.

I have also written several articles opposing the new terrorist legislation introduced by the Labour government. I believe that terrorism is a crime that should be punished severely by the courts, but I do not believe that people should be persecuted for their beliefs especially when, as is the case with many Islamists, they are beliefs that are little understood.

General comments on the material

The material I have seen falls into three main categories: a small number of government documents including one Security Service document; court documents from the trials of various suspected terrorists and press cuttings about Islamist terrorism. By far the largest proportion of documents fall into the third category and I shall concentrate most of my comments on these.

The press cuttings taken as a whole are intended to suggest the following:

1. That there is a serious threat to international security from Islamic extremists

2. That Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement is at the centre of a loosely allied international Islamic terror network

3. That Egyptian Islamic Jihad has effectively merged with al-Qaeda

4. That there is a 'British connection' to this network

5. That there is a threat to Britain that justifies the imposition of a state of emergency

It strikes me as odd that press cuttings should be used in this way as evidence. As someone who has worked on this subject for several years, I know from long experience how difficult it is to discover real hard facts about the nature of the Islamist threat. Information usually comes from one of three sources each of which is compromised in its own way. The first source is the Islamist dissidents themselves, who would not describe themselves as terrorists even if they are committed to the violent overthrow of certain regimes. The second is the regimes these dissidents oppose and which believe them to be terrorists. Many of the individuals concerned in these cuttings are refugees in this country and have been allowed to stay precisely because the evidence provided by their home countries has not stood up to scrutiny. The third is the British intelligence services and the police, whose off-the-record briefings form the basis of many of the cuttings contained here.

Much of the information contained in the press cuttings is almost absurdly circular. Information from intelligence briefings from foreign or the domestic services becomes common currency and is then repeated by journalists who are starved of any real information. Reputable journalists report the denials of the Islamists themselves, but the fact that someone denies being a terrorist is never considered to be much of a story. As increasing numbers of dissidents have been rounded up in Britain and elsewhere it has become increasingly difficult for journalists to check their stories properly by talking to people who really know about the world of extreme Islamic politics. We have therefore been thrown back on an increasingly narrow set of sources: essentially the police and the intelligence services.

Another difficulty in assessing this material is that I have no way of knowing what status the Security Service gives to the information contained in the articles. Does that fact that they have been presented to the court mean that they believe every word contained in them is true? Or do they simply believe that any smear against an Islamist is a useful smear? I shall proceed on the basis that the information contained in the articles is taken seriously by the intelligence services and is thought to be largely accurate. I shall also proceed on the basis that any comments attributed to 'security sources', 'Whitehall sources', 'intelligence sources' or 'Home Office sources' have been accurately reproduced.

The selection itself is revealing. Taken as a whole, there appear to be two themes that emerge. Firstly, that Britain faces an Islamic terrorist threat that justifies the introduction of a state of emergency and secondly that members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) involved in international atrocities have been based in Britain at some point. But it is perhaps worth remembering that there has never been a major Islamic terrorist attack on the British mainland or British interests abroad.

How it works

Until very recently the British intelligence services didn't officially talk to newspapers at all. Certain favoured journalists who had connections to people who worked in the services were passed information from time to time if it was thought useful to put it in the public domain. Sometimes the stories that resulted were true and sometimes not. In recent years, after intense pressure, MI5 and MI6 instituted a new system whereby each service has an unofficial press officer who talks to the media. Most organisations then designate a journalist who will deal with each service. They are then given a telephone number and the name of the individual intelligence officer. In the case of the Observer, I deal with MI5. Although some newspapers or individual journalists may hold 'special relationships' with individuals within the intelligence establishment, as far as I know, the same MI5 'press officer' deals with all my opposite numbers on other national newspapers for everyday briefings. This individual has no expertise in Islamic or Arab affairs and simply acts as a conduit for those who deal with the Islamic terrorist threat within the Security Service. Natalia Garcia has asked me to elaborate further on this relationship, but this is not possible without identifying the individual involved or jeopardising the Observer's lines of communication with the intelligence services.

Most journalists agree that this is less compromising than the old system, but it is far from ideal. Any conversations remain strictly off-the-record and, for the most part, any quotes are attributed to 'sources'. Since September 11 newspapers, including the Observer, have become increasingly reliant on these briefings for information. Most journalists feel that, on balance, it is better to report what the intelligence services are saying, but whenever the readers see the words 'Whitehall sources' they should have no illusions about where the information comes from. In the period immediately following the events of September 11 and up to the new internment legislation, these journalistic briefings were used to prepare journalists for what was to come. Immediately before the men were taken into custody I was not alone in being told that the choices had been very carefully made and that these men constituted a 'hardcore'.

From the cuttings provided, it is easy to spot where other such briefings have occurred, but I will give just one example. I have chosen it because of the impeccable reputation of the journalists concerned. It is from an article entitled 'MI5 searches for terror cells based in Britain' by Paul Lashmar and Chris Blackhurst in The Independent on 16 September 2001, less than a week after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Lashmar and Blackhurst are two of our most respected investigative journalists and were, at the time, in charge of investigations for the Independent. The article shows that even journalists as experienced as they are were forced to fall back on intelligence sources when assessing the Islamist threat in Britain. They report that at least three terrorist cells linked to Bin Laden are at large in Britain and that the UK has been a major base for Bin Laden's operations. They add that there are believed to be dozens of terrorists in Britain associated with Bin Laden. One 'intelligence source' is then quoted as saying 'There is no reason why what happened in America couldn't happen in Britain or any European country. The terrorists are in place, and there is very little to stop them.' A source, this time from 'Whitehall' adds: 'The problem is, these groups are amorphous and hard to identify until the they commit a terrorist act.' This is terrifying stuff and the two journalists concerned were right to report what was said to them - indeed, it is hard to imagine anything that was more in the public interest. But it seems a little disingenuous of the intelligence services to present this as independent evidence of the threat, when the journalists are simply reporting what they have been told. It is particularly difficult when it would appear that they contradict themselves when talking to other journalists.

How serious is the threat?

I have been told by 'Whitehall sources' in recent weeks that Britain comes third in al-Qaeda's list of targets after the United States and Israel. I have no way of knowing if this is true and there appears to be no evidence of specific threats. What I do know is that al-Qaeda's rhetoric as seen in the various fatwas, interviews and statements from its leadership suggests that the United States and Israel are the main focus of its attention. Apart from general threats against 'allies of the United States', I found only one serious threat to British people in the thousands of words from al-Qaeda documents in the bundles. The first came in a statement issued on October 10 2001 on al-Jazeera TV by al-Qaeda spokesman Abu Ghaith. It followed allied air strikes on Afghanistan. He orders British and American troops to leave the Arabian peninsula and adds: 'We also say and advise the Muslims in the United States and Britain, the children and those who reject the unjust US policy not to travel by plane. We also advise them not to live in high-rise buildings and towers' I have no doubt that this threat has been taken very seriously by the security services, but how far al-Qaeda has the capability to carry it out it not known.

The evidence in provided in the bundles is contradictory. A government statement dated October 4 2001 said that the UK and UK nationals were potential targets. 'Al Qaeda retains the capability and the will to make further attacks on the US and its allies, including the UK.' But this appears to go against briefings given to the British press at Scotland Yard at the end of September 2001. As reported in the Independent on September 29 2001 'threat assessments carried out by the security services have concluded that there is no evidence of a plot to commit a major attack on a British target. They have also told ministers that most of the key British-based supporters of Mr bin Laden have been either extradited or arrested.'

There is a world of difference between a generalised threat and an imminent risk of attack and, in their selective briefings, the intelligence services can't seem to make up their mind which it is we are facing.

I should also add that within Islamist and wider Arab circles it has always been understood that the British authorities have traditionally taken a tolerant line towards Islamist dissidents. Much to the irritation of the French government and many middle eastern regimes, until recently it has been accepted that opposition figures were welcome as long as they committed no crimes on British soil. It was believed that such figures were a useful source of intelligence and the more cynical commentators believed they also acted as protection against attack - a kind of Islamist human shield. I do not know if this has genuinely been the strategy of our intelligence services in the past, but it strikes me as an eminently shrewd one. It also demonstrated a respect for freedom of expression and freedom of worship that are at the heart of British ideas of democracy.

Martin Bright is Home Affairs Editor of The Observer and was called as an expert witness by Tyndall Woods Solicitors who are acting for two of the detainees. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission case continues next week.

Terror, security and the media by Martin Bright. the Observer, Sunday 21 July 2002
Of course it's true: After all, it was MI5 who told us, Nick Cohen, the Observer, Sunday 21 July 2002

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