MIM: The arrest of the London bombing mastermind who was under surveillance and the escape of another failed London bomber to Italy 5 days after the attacks points to some alarming security failures.
Tangled web that still leaves worrying loose ends
The arrest of Haroon Rashid Aswat sets numerous questions, say Richard Woods, David Leppard and Mick Smith
Three weeks after the first London bombings, British and American security sources are giving markedly different versions of how much was known about the bombers before the attacks and who masterminded them.
According to US intelligence sources, a man now being held in Zambia is Haroon Rashid Aswat, a Briton of Indian origin who has links to a convicted Al-Qaeda terrorist. They believe he assisted or masterminded the London attacks.
But British investigators, examining whether telephone calls were made between the London bombers and Aswat before the attacks of 7/7, caution that the calls may have been made to a phone linked to Aswat, rather than the man himself.
Some of the mobile phones used by the 7/7 bombers have been recovered from the scenes of the explosions. Even though they are badly damaged, forensic telecommunications experts have had some success in recovering vital data relating to outgoing calls, text messages and voice mail.
Those details are allowing investigators to draw up a network of "concentric circles" around the four dead men, an exercise that has already led them to identify some of those who may have helped the bombers.
This weekend it appears that several calls from Aswat's mobile telephone were made to the bombers in the days before the attacks. It is likely that the American National Security Agency — which has a powerful eavesdropping network — was monitoring the calls. If contacts between the bombers and Aswat are proved, it could be a painful blow for British security officials.
In the weeks before the attacks Aswat, according to American officials, was under surveillance in South Africa and US authorities wanted to arrest him for questioning.
The South Africans are believed to have relayed the request to British authorities who were reluctant to agree to him being seized because of his status as a British citizen. The US, it is claimed, wanted to take control of Aswat using a process known as "extraordinary rendition", which would bypass the normal extradition process and may have resulted in him being flown to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba or a country that allows torture.
However, questions are also being asked about whether the British did not wish to have Aswat arrested because he was seen as a useful source of information. To some, British intelligence is too willing to let terrorist suspects run in the hope of gathering useful leads and other information.
In the weeks before the London attacks a man said to be Aswat may have entered the UK, though British security officials think this may be a case of mistaken identity.
What seems clearer is that he either slipped his surveillance or was allowed to move on from South Africa. He was seized in Zambia on July 21, according to the Foreign Office, the day the second wave of would-be suicide bombers struck. On Friday, British officials had yet to be granted access to him.
As a potential mastermind of the London attacks, Aswat has connections and a past that are almost too neat a fit. Now 31, he was brought up in Dewsbury, near Leeds, where Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the London bombers, lived. He left the area 10 years ago and is believed to have travelled to training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is said to have told investigators in Zambia that he was once a bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden.
When Aswat returned to Britain he attended the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, which was a hotbed of radicalism in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Reda Hassaine, an Algerian journalist who worked as an informant for the British and French security services, witnessed Aswat recruiting young men at the mosque to the cause of Al-Qaeda.
"Inside the mosque he would sit with the new recruits telling them about life after death and the obligation of every Muslim to do the jihad against the unbelievers," said Hassaine last week. "All the talk was about killing in order to go to paradise and get the 72 virgins."
Aswat also showed potential recruits videotapes of the mujaheddin in action in Bosnia and Chechnya.
"He used to tell them look at your brothers, the mujaheddin. All of them are now in paradise living next to the prophet," said Hassaine.
"He was always wearing Afghan or combat clothes. In the evening he offered some tea to the people who would sit with him to listen to the heroic action of the mujaheddin before joining the cleric for the finishing touch of brainwashing.
"The British didn't seem to understand how dangerous these people were."
Among the extremists who attended the mosque were Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber", and Asif Hanif, a British suicide bomber who blew himself up in a Tel Aviv bar in 2003 killing three others and injuring 60.
While Aswat was closely connected with the Finsbury Park mosque, he was sent to America to meet a known Al-Qaeda activist. US investigators accuse him of being one of the "co-conspirators" of Earnest James Ujaama, who co-operated with US authorities after being charged in 2002 for planning to recruit and train jihadists in the US.
Aswat is said by US investigators to have travelled from London to Oregon in November 1999 to meet Ujaama and scout out a potential jihad training "ranch". In the end the conspirators did not proceed with it.
There are other concerns. If Aswat knew the London bomber Khan, it would also link him to a group uncovered last year who allegedly were planning a large bomb attack. Under Operation Crevice, police arrested eight men after finding a large quantity of explosive material in a garage in west London.
During that investigation, Khan's name surfaced on the periphery, but he was deemed no threat and not pursued. Some US investigators now claim another name also surfaced during Operation Crevice: that of Germaine Maurice Lindsay. He became another of the 7/7 bombers — and US authorities claim he was also on a watch list of suspected terrorists when he caused carnage at King's Cross.
However, British security sources deny Lindsay's name cropped up in Operation Crevice. And investigators say there is no hard evidence of what role, if any, Aswat played in the London attacks. Scotland Yard sources say he is not considered a priority in their criminal investigation into the July 7 and July 21 attacks. But senior Whitehall officials do not rule out the possibility there my be links to one or more of the bombers.
"I don't think the evidence is conclusive either way," one official was reported as saying in the US.
Senior Whitehall officials also deny "any knowledge" that he might be an agent for either MI5 or MI6.
The differences between the US and British agencies are symptomatic of a simmering distrust. Leaving aside the differences over Aswat, some aspects of the attacks increasingly point to an organising mind beyond the immediate bombers.
For five days after the first attacks, enough bomb-making material to kill scores of people sat in a car at Luton station before police discovered it. There was at least one completed explosive device and about 15 other items.
That finding remains a worrying loose end in the investigation. Why would the four bombers, intent on killing themselves, leave behind so much material in a car for which they had bought a seven-day parking ticket? A number of hypotheses are possible. The bombers may have bought the parking ticket in order not to arouse suspicion, and they may have chosen not to carry all the explosives they had prepared.
Another possibility is that the bombers were duped and had intended to return to their car. Were they told to plant their bombs in the belief they were timed to explode later than they did? Alternatively, was there a fifth bomber who dropped out at the last moment and abandoned his explosives and the car? Or was explosive material left behind deliberately for other terrorists to collect? Late last week, Scotland Yard was still refusing to say exactly what type of explosive was used in the 7/7 and 21/7 attacks on the grounds that doing so might prejudice its investigations.
But experts believe both sets of bombers used home-made explosives concocted from readily available household products.
Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan police commissioner, warned that the 21/7 attackers were not "the B team", despite the failure to detonate their bombs fully. "They made one mistake. We are very, very lucky."