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Just weeks ago a task force of British police, some armed and others in chemical protection uniforms, raided an East London working home and arrested two brothers — shooting one. It was part of an alleged "terrorist plot" to use the deadly substance ricin on an unsuspecting citizenry. It was also a fiasco, with no terrorist plot, no ricin, and no crime, except the shooting of an innocent man.
Yet now the public is asked to give grateful thanks to these same law enforcement officers who have, in the words of politicians and officials from both sides of the Atlantic, foiled another "terrorist plot". This one, based mainly in the similar London suburb of Walthamstow, would have caused "mass murder on an unimaginable scale" in "Britain’s 9-11" at a time of "the most severe threat since the end of the second world war." Worse than Hitler!
We await the release of more facts about the 21 (or 23, or 24) young men and one (or two) young women who intended to blow up in mid-air nine (or 10 or 12) transatlantic airplanes "soon" or in the "next few days" or just "imminently". The two-score young Muslim Brits allegedly were preparing liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks, but actually nitroglycerin (or nitormethane, or triacetone triperoxide). However, one of these was so unstable it was likely to fail (as it did in another plot) or smelled so pungent a patrol dog would sniff it at half a mile, or was "almost impossible" to mix on an airplane.
Then we were told the British police had been tracking this plot for a "year" or "several months" but decided to pounce on the alleged perps last Wednesday because of "information" from a "source" in Pakistan. Why then? A good question, especially as we were also told none of the intended terrorist travellers had yet purchased an airline ticket. Odd…for at this time of year in Britain transatlantic tickets are not immediately available — unless these were going to be First Class terrorists, perhaps comparing their last-minute arrangements over drinks in the VIP lounge?
But we must not be flippant about what president Bush called the "Islamic fascist" threat, which included, according to the Sunday Times of London, the Al-Quaida terrorist group leader in Britain, who was (allegedly) among those arrested. There have of course since 9-11 been terrorist attacks in several countries that killed hundreds of people of a dozen or more nationalities.
Yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the authorities, from police to secret service agencies, the military, civilian security forces, and politicians including national leaders and those of cabinet rank, behave in these times in such a way as to erode any confidence or trust not only in their efficiency, but their good faith. It is almost as if they were encouraging the conspiracy theorists.
Indeed, the Arab press immediately expressed suspicions of official motives and explanations. Their media are poorly reported in Britain and America, so here is a summary offered by an Arab journalist colleague from the Al Quds al Arabi newspaper in London (from the Arabic):
(The latest terror plot) "is mostly intentionally exaggerated news. The aim is to serve the political goals of the Blair-Bush duo in their war against what they call ‘Islamic terror’.
"UK government spokespeople claimed in the past that they unveiled terror cells and Blair has been using the policy of frightening his people every time he is faced with a political campaign against his policies of supporting the genocide of Arab and Muslim people. He and his accomplice Bush, desperately want to shift world attention from their fascist policies of conducting daily massacre against Arab and Muslim people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.
"If it was a real terror plot as claimed by UK police, then Blair is responsible for putting his people in the danger zone because he runs with his accomplice Bush a fascist terror war against the children of Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, thus creating the best environment for extremists.
"If the UK police have been following up this plot for months, as was announced, why did they wait for such a long time to announce it — until just when the majority of British public opinion was standing against Blair-Bush support of the Israeli aggression against Lebanon? We doubt the UK police claims because we know very well that faking such plots is a very easy practice by the USA and UK governments, who also faked the plot that Iraqi had arms of mass destruction.
"If these claims prove correct, we denounce those involved, who should be punished severely. But the real responsibility is on Bush-Blair, the axis of fascism and evil, who are targeting Arab and Islamic countries in their new crusade … "
Nothing here claimed as fact is inaccurate. The opinions are a curious reversal of what Bush and Blair say about Muslim extremists (note the "evil axis"), but turned upon them. The allegation of fakery is posed — not stated as fact — but such a notion, held by many, earns little or no space in British-US media. Not even if you replace the word "fakery" with, for instance, "gross exaggeration." So this media presentation is no worse than what is offered by the English-language mainstream press; it could be argued that at least it also presents an alternative view.
Actually the "Blair-Bush duo" has been on vacation during the alleged plot disclosure. Blair’s stand-in, the minister for home affairs, John Reid, spoke in London in a manner that the Arab newspaper would find familiar. He said police had caught the "main players" in the plot, without using the word "alleged" and thus possibly jeopardizing any trial by "prejudging" the evidence in Britain’s far stricter rules of criminal justice proceedings. He also dismissed with contempt the charge that Britain’s recent foreign incursions into Muslim nations had exacerbated extremist hatred of its policies.
More suspiciously, he suddenly changed his mid-week schedule to deliver an extraordinary speech, on Wednesday itself. Instead of an address about immigration and the justice system, he switched to "protecting the public" from "fascists with unconstrained capability" because of their "access to modern chemical, biological, and other means of mass destruction." He could have been talking about the new case — but the arrests did not happen for another 12 hours. No official explanation was offered for the changed speech but "something changed" a ministry spokesman admitted, without saying what.
Reid is responsible for the police forces of Britain, and under his jurisdiction were the disgraceful events of two months ago in the neighborhood of Forest Gate, East London. The two brothers arrested were later released and no charges were brought. The police who shot and wounded one have been exonerated. Also exonerated is the police officer who shot and killed an innocent Brazilian immigrant aged 27 on a subway train after an earlier "terrorist" raid in London last year. The man’s parents are being forced to seek justice over their son’s death through a private legal action. Meanwhile, the police officer in charge of the death raid has put in for her promotion, which is under "consideration."
The record gets worse. It is an established and much criticized fact in the US and elsewhere that the most suspicious kind of tips on alleged crimes come from a committed "informant" who clearly has reason to gain from the information. In the Forest Gate case the tip was from an informant, as it was in Wednesday’s arrests. Overall, the Guardian of London reported recently, of the 701 people arrested under Britain’s Terrorism Act since the September 11 2001 attacks, half have been released without charge and only 17 convicted. Only three of those cases relate to allegations of Islamist extremism. The US conviction record over 9-11 is even worse.
Add to this a lawyers’ consensus that conspiracy charges are the hardest to prove and the riskiest to bring, with their strong potential for misuse. The reason is simple: Conspiring means mostly talking ("planning" police would call it) and that can mean something serious and intentional, or speculative and without possible completion. Yet in London’s new case, conspiracy is likely to be the main grounds for any prosecution (although already one person has been released).
Not only the Arab papers but anyone with a cynical eye on politics in London and Washington cannot fail to notice how convenient was the timing of this raid. The bloody fiasco of Israeli aggression in Lebanon was removed from the headlines just as they became the worst. And, as Al Quds noted, mounting British protest and parliamentary threats of an official inquiry, were swept away for the rest of the week.
Britain’s Tony Blair has also, like George W. Bush, already exploited fear of terrorism to pass repressive new legislation severely threatening or curtailing traditional personal and civic freedoms. He is currently seeking to extend to 90 days the period — already lengthened once to 28 days — during which terrorist suspects can be detained. Blair was prevented from doing that by his parliament, but now perhaps the mood might change…
A few Muslim journalists in London have been permittted to voice some concern over Britain’s racial politics. One in the Sunday Times, Navid Akhtar, who investigated young Muslims’ attitudes for a British television channel. He countered Reid’s claim that terrorist attacks prior to 9-11 invalidated the charge of British foreign policy as an aggravation of Islamic anger.
He pointed out that most of those arrested seemed to be "fully integrated" into British society. Two were even converts. Most were also in their young to mid-twenties, so that "they have been caught up in the war on terror for much of their adult lives. They have seen their fellow Muslims being killed in wars conducted by their own government and they feel responsible….and live in a dual reality."
As a consequence, "a number of disillusioned youngsters feel more attached to the global community via the internet than they do to their immediate community on the ground."
This makes immediate nonsense of Reid’s argument about British-American foreign policy. Yet the divisions of society come not from just that. They are spurred by the repellent enthusiasm with which the forces of "homeland security" pursue their dubious trade — appearing almost to rejoice in the mayhem they believe is leveled against them.
Policemen in Britain usually avoid rhetoric and go to lengths to be dull even about the most spectacular crimes. They "detain" someone who "may help us in our inquiries" as they say about an arrest in a horrific ax murder. Their bold claims and extravagant talk in this case are grounds alone upon which to be deeply suspicious of the official version and the motives of those promoting it.
CHRISTOPHER REED usually reports from Japan but is in England on a visit. He can be contacted at email@example.com