7/7 and the UK-Pakistan Axis

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

Mark Curtis

After 9/11, Pakistan appeared to withdraw its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, and instead backed the Anglo–American war which destroyed the regime along with the al-Qaida bases in the country. General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime, which had taken power in a military coup in October 1999, was now seen in London and Washington as the frontline in the War on Terror. British leaders proceeded to shower praise on Musharraf for his ‘strong position’ on international terrorism and for being a ‘staunch ally’ and ‘key partner’. The Blair government’s backing of Pakistan in the face of the Taliban enemy recalled the Thatcher government’s alliance with another Pakistani military ruler, General Zia ul-Huq, in their covert war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Both Blair and Thatcher accepted at face value Zia’s and Musharraf’s pledges to return Pakistan to democracy while they merely kept themselves in power. And both Blair and Thatcher saw the Pakistani military rulers as pro-Western forces of stability in their region, claiming they were the opponents of terrorism.

The reality was that Musharraf’s regime, which lasted until the general finally resigned in August 2008 under threat of impeachment, largely empowered the radical Islamic forces in Pakistan while undermining the secular, nationalist parties – a repeat of Zia’s rule. Although the regime tried to fight foreign al-Qaida militants in the Pakistan–Afghanistan border areas at US behest, it backed or tolerated the domestic Pakistani terrorist groups in order to promote Islamabad’s long-standing goal of ‘liberating’ Indian Kashmir. Neither did Musharraf really end Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, as we see later. London’s backing of Musharraf showed again how Whitehall was prepared, in the post 9/11 world, to collude with forces allied to radical Islam. Britain’s Pakistan policy had severe consequences, contributing to the London bombings in July 2005 and to the threat of terrorism currently faced by Britain.

From October 1999 to 7/7

In the first few months following Musharraf’s coup ousting elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, British ministers were sometimes critical of the new military regime, but soon reverted to type. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said within a month of the takeover that ‘we cannot do business as normal with a military regime’ and that it was ‘important … that the international community does not provide any signal that it is willing to condone the military overthrow of a constitutional government.’ The British served notice to Pakistan that arms exports were being reviewed on a ‘case by case basis’, and for a while no exports were approved to Pakistan, although no formal arms embargo was put in place. This policy lasted for precisely eight months: in June 2000 the government started approving arms exports to Islamabad again, engaging in business as normal with the military regime.

The government saw Pakistan under Musharraf partly as an important market for arms exports, a policy that would not have been hindered by Musharraf’s long-standing relationship with Britain, including his two spells of military training in Britain before he became head of the army – evidence of the British policy of cultivating future leaders. By the end of 2000, Britain had issued 88 arms export licences to Pakistan worth £6 million. British military training continued as normal during the eight-month arms export review: government figures show that there were 36 Pakistani military officers undergoing training in Britain in 2000 and 49 in 2001. The Guardian reported that an SAS unit had been training in the mountains of Pakistan for several years. This was all before 9/11, and before Musharraf’s public declaration of support for the War on Terror, at a time when Pakistan was still the major provider of arms and other support to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

After 9/11, military relations deepened. By February 2002, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon was saying that Britain was ‘taking appropriate steps to restore our defence relationship’ with Pakistan, which involved all three armed services conducting ‘military visits, Pakistani access to United Kingdom military training opportunities, participation in bilateral exercises and visits by senior military and civilian defence officials.’ When tension mounted between Pakistan and India in early 2002 over Kashmir, raising international fears of a nuclear confrontation, British arms continued to flow to both Pakistan and India. In the eight months up to May 2002, Britain issued 125 arms export licences to Pakistan, while approving nearly 500 to India.

When Jack Straw, who had succeeded Robin Cook as foreign secretary, was cursorily challenged about British arms sales in parliament, he replied that: ‘Some of the supplies that I have approved in the past, such as de-mining equipment, have been extremely benign, albeit that they are classified as arms sales.’ This was highly misleading – the government’s own reports show that Britain was providing a range of equipment that could have aided Pakistani offensive operations, including small arms ammunition and components for both combat aircraft and combat helicopters. Straw also said at this time that ‘to the best of my recollection … I have neither seen nor approved any arms control licence in respect of India or Pakistan in the past two months.’ Straw’s memory was clearly deficient: government figures released to parliament showed that twenty-three arms export licences had been approved to Pakistan in April and May 2002. By 2007, Britain had sold around £130 million worth of arms to Pakistan since the military coup.

British and US support of Musharraf’s regime was supposedly based on its willingness to confront terrorism. The Foreign Office stated: ‘The dilemma for President Musharraf is how to tackle terrorism and extremism whilst at the same time preventing alienation of his wider domestic constituency.’ Yet Musharraf took only very limited steps to curb the extremist groups in Pakistan, largely cultivating them, and was dependent on their support for countering his major enemies, who were the more liberal, secular, nationalist parties – a strategy typical of regimes lacking popular support backed by Britain in the Middle East. Far from confronting the Islamists, the International Crisis Group noted in an April 2005 report that in Pakistan’s history, ‘the mullahs have never been as powerful as now’, and that:

‘Instead of empowering liberal, democratic voices, the government has co-opted the religious right and continues to rely on it to counter civilian opposition. By depriving democratic forces of an even playing field and continuing to ignore the need for state policies that would encourage and indeed reflect the country’s religious diversity, the government has allowed religious extremist organisations and jihadi groups to flourish’.

Musharraf’s priority, like General Zia’s in the 1980s, was to consolidate his own grip on power, and to do so he played a double game when it came to dealing with the Pakistani terrorist groups. In January 2002, for example, Musharraf delivered a major speech, pledging to clamp down on terrorism, and saying that Kashmir should now be considered a bilateral issue between Pakistan and India, thus appearing to sideline the Pakistani jihadists fighting there. This stance, together with public support for the US’ War on Terror, was enough to make the regime a direct target of the Pakistani jihadists. Yet three years later the jihadi media was still flourishing while leaders of ostensibly banned groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) appeared ‘to enjoy virtual immunity from the law’ and were ‘free to preach their jihadist ideologies’. The LET, Pakistan’s best-organised and most powerful militant organisation, was proscribed by Musharraf in 2002, but ‘no step has ever been taken to dismantle or even disarm’ it.

Moreover, the Pakistani state directly sponsored these groups. The LET was, as we saw in Chapter 9, created in 1990 with the help of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, which has supported its operations in Kashmir where Pakistan has managed an extensive infrastructure of training camps for militants since the early 1990s. The JEM, established in 2000, is also widely regarded as having been created by the ISI as a counterweight to the LET, which was viewed as having become too powerful in Kashmir. Meanwhile, another militant group, the Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), worked alongside the regular Pakistani army, then headed by General Musharraf, to seize the strategic mountain positions in the Kargil region of Indian-held Kashmir in May 1999. Although the Pakistani government formally banned the HUM in September 2001, its leaders continued to openly visit mosques and madrassas in Pakistan while reports suggested they were being protected by the ISI in safe houses.

The Blair government was perfectly aware of Pakistan’s support for terrorism in Kashmir before 7/7. Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain said in December 2000 that ‘there is still far too much evidence …over the past year to 18 months … that cross-border terrorism is actively encouraged and, indeed, at times sponsored by agencies and elements closely aligned with the Pakistani authorities.’ The timescale mentioned by Hain is interesting, since this was the period in which Britain decided to start re-arming Pakistan. By May 2002, Trade Minister Baroness Symons publicly noted Pakistan’s ‘support for terrorism in Kashmir’, telling parliament that Musharraf must stop this, as well as ‘bringing an end to cross-border infiltration and taking action to dismantle training camps in Pakistani-controlled territory’. The following month Foreign Secretary Jack Straw went even further, telling parliament that:

‘A number of terrorist organisations – including Laskhar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat Mujahideen … have been at the forefront of violent activity in the region [Kashmir] … Her Majesty’s government accept that there is a clear link between the ISID [ISI] and those groups … The fact cannot be avoided that over a period of years, successive governments of Pakistan have, through their Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, encouraged and funded terrorists – otherwise known as freedom fighters – to make incursions across the line of control as outsiders in that dispute, and to engage in mayhem and terrorism’.

Straw urged Musharraf to ‘stop supplies to militant groups’ and ‘close the militant training camps on Pakistan’s side of the line of control’. The following year, MI5 drew up a list of 100 terrorist suspects in Britain that included 40 Britons of Pakistani origin involved in the jihad in Kashmir.

Yet Pakistan’s sponsorship of this terrorist infrastructure in Kashmir did not stop, as we see later, and Whitehall applied no real pressure for it to do so – rather, it continued to arm, train and trade with Pakistan. It was Pakistan’s policies towards Kashmir and the domestic Islamist groups that combined with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to help produce the events in London on 7 July 2005.

The London bombings

The four coordinated London bombings constituted the worst single terrorist atrocity ever in Britain, killing 52 people and injuring 700. They were the first ‘successful’ Islamist terrorist attacks in the country and were conducted by four British-born Muslims, three of them of Pakistani origin living in Yorkshire, one of Jamaican origin living in Buckinghamshire. The bombings came two years after the invasion of Iraq and followed concerns voiced by some security officials that the country was likely to be attacked by ‘home-grown’ terrorists.

That the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 would inspire British Islamists to target Britain was recognised by British planners. Three months before the London bombings, the Joint Intelligence Committee stated in a classified report, leaked the following year, that:

 ‘There is a clear consensus within the UK extremist community that Iraq is a legitimate jihad and should be supported. Iraq has re-energised and refocused a wide range of networks in the UK … The conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism and will continue to have an impact in the long term. It has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the West and motivated others who were not’.

 This report followed a joint Home Office–Foreign Office analysis in 2004 – called ‘Young Muslims and Extremism’ – which was leaked in 2005. This stated that:

‘A particularly strong cause of disillusionment amongst Muslims … is a perceived ‘double standard’ in the foreign policy of Western governments (and often those of Muslim governments), in particular Britain and the US … This perception seems to have become more acute post 9/11. The perception is that passive ‘oppression’, as demonstrated in British foreign policy, e.g. non-action on Kashmir and Chechnya, has given way to ‘active oppression’ – the War on Terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam’.

This ‘double standard’ had been pointed out by Osama Bin Laden in a speech five years before 7/7, in 2000. He had said:

‘The British are responsible for destroying the caliphate system. They are the ones who created the Palestinian problem. They are the ones who created the Kashmiri problem. They are the ones who put the arms embargo on the Muslims of Bosnia so that 2 million Muslims were killed. They are the ones who are starving the Iraqi children. And they are continuously dropping bombs on these innocent Iraqi children’.

Bin Laden’s views had a degree of accuracy about them, far more so than the justifications for the London bombings put forward by the ringleader of the gang, Mohammed Siddique Khan. A few months after 7/7, the TV station, al-Jazeera, broadcast a video made by Khan on the eve of the attacks. He claimed that they had been timed to coincide with the anniversary of Britain ignoring a truce offer from Bin Laden to withdraw troops from Iraq or else face a terror campaign. But Khan also made the argument that ordinary Londoners were a legitimate target since ‘your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible.’ Khan’s view was nonsense. Rather than being ‘responsible’ for the actions of their government, most Britons were against the invasion of Iraq – 58 per cent were opposed on the eve of the invasion, according to one poll, while Air Marshal Brian Burridge, commander of the British forces, noted that ‘we went into this campaign with 33 per cent public support’. Then there was Khan’s contention that the British government was opposing ‘my people’ (i.e., Muslims), part of the current refrain of jihadist recruiters that Britain is ‘at war with Islam’. In fact, and despite this perception, it is plainly untrue that Britain has been at war with ‘Islam’, notably in light of its its alliances with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and, moreover, its regular collusion with ‘Islam’s’ most extreme adherents – indeed those like Khan.

This was the dirty secret at the heart of 7/7. The bombings were, to a large extent, a product of British foreign policy, not mainly since they were perpetrated by opponents of the war in Iraq, but because they derived from a terrorism infrastructure established by a Pakistani state long backed by Whitehall and involving Pakistani terrorist groups which had benefited from past British covert action.

The trail of the 7/7 bombers clearly goes back to Pakistan. Khan was trained in northern Pakistan in July 2003, learning how to fire assault rifles at a camp reportedly set up soon after Britain invaded Iraq. Three of the four 7/7 bombers – Khan, along with Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain – visited Pakistan between November 2004 and January 2005, while two of them, Khan and Tanweer, visited madrassas in Lahore and Faisalabad where they learned how to make explosives. The 7/7 group may also have received ‘advice or direction’ from individuals in Pakistan between April and July 2005, and it was shortly after their return from Pakistan in February 2005 that they began planning the attacks, according to official reports on the London bombings. Muktar Said Ibrahim, the ringleader of the 21 July 2005 bombing plot – the failed attempt by five British Islamists to attack London’s transport system – had been in Pakistan at a similar time as Khan and Tanweer, between December 2004 and March 2005, and had also attended a training camp there.

Moreover, it is possible that the 7/7 bombers and other would-be British terrorists were trained by the ISI. For example, Omar Khyam, a twenty-five-year old from Surrey, was the leader of a group of five men found guilty in April 2007 of a plot in Britain to explode bombs made of fertilizer. In 2000, he trained at a camp near Muzaffarabad – the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir – where, he said, he saw the ISI instructing recruits in handling explosives. Khyam’s family had a history of serving in the Pakistani military and the ISI and it was by ‘using military connections’ that he was found in Pakistan and brought back to Britain. Similarly, Dhiren Barot, a British convert to Islam who was given a forty-year jail sentence in 2006 for plotting various bomb blasts in Britain and the US, reportedly underwent ‘lengthy training in Pakistan near the disputed region of Kashmir in 1995’, learning how to use an AK-47, grenades and chemicals. These techniques might have been used in his subsequent planned terrorist activities, which included setting off a radioactive ‘dirty bomb’ and gassing the Heathrow Express train. It is possible that Bharot was trained by the ISI, given its control over camps sending jihadists into Kashmir.

A camp run by the HUM terrorist group in Mansehra, a remote area in the Northwest Frontier province near the Kashmir border, had for years taken British volunteers from the Finsbury Park Mosque for training, principally to fight in Kashmir. Khan reportedly visited this camp in July 2001 while Tanweer was trained there in handling explosives and arms. Again, there is a significant British connection. The first batch of HUM volunteers who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s was trained in camps run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, of the Younis Khalis faction of the Hezb-e-Islami group to whom Britain provided military training and Blowpipe missiles; HUM cadres were also provided with Stinger missiles by the CIA, who also trained them in their use. Britain appears to have again connived with the HUM, now renamed the HUA, during the Bosnian and Kosovan jihads, by helping to send militants to fight against Yugoslav forces.

The JEM, a Pakistani state-sponsored offshoot of the HUM, from which it split in 2000, was another militant group with whom some British bombers reportedly had contacts when visiting Pakistan. Tanweer is believed to have trained with JEM militants at the Mansehra camp mentioned above. One JEM militant told the Pakistani authorities that he had met Tanweer in Faisalabad, southwest of Lahore, in 2003. Rashid Rauf, a Briton of Kashmiri descent who was allegedly involved in the August 2006 plot to bomb Heathrow Airport, was also a member of the JEM. Another JEM militant of British origin was Mohammed Bilal, a twenty-four-year-old from Birmingham, who in December 2000 drove a car full of explosives into an Indian army base at Srinagar, killing 9 people. The JEM is known to recruit in Britain among men of Kashmiri and Punjabi descent.

Then there is the LET, also a part-ISI creation in whose camps in Pakistan hundreds of young British jihadists have also received guerilla training. Some of the 7/7 bombers reportedly had contacts with the LET when visiting Pakistan. Tanweer is said to have spent up to four months at a madrassa in Lahore run by the Markaz Dawa al Irshad (MDI), the mother organisation of the LET, and may have been recruited for the London bombings there. He also spent a few days at the sprawling MDI complex at Muridke, just outside Lahore.

The nexus of terrorist links emanating from the London bombers very clearly points both to Islamabad and to current and past British foreign policy; indeed, 7/7 was partly a case of ‘blowback’.