Updated April 13, 2006
Lost in the media hubbub over Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, and Karl Rove's role in disclosing the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame, was a brief item reported by ABC News on July 14. In a follow-up to the London bombings of July 7, investigative reporter Brian Ross disclosed that maps of the London subway system, and names linked to a cell in Luton, England, where the July 7 bombers set out on their mission, had been found on the computer of Pakistani computer technician Naeem Noor Khan, who was arrested a year ago. What even Ross's report did not highlight, however, was that, like Valerie Plame, Khan had been providing intelligence to US authorities when his identity was revealed directly or indirectly by the Bush administration, in an action apparently timed for maximum political impact. The disclosure compromised terrorist investigations in progress in Britain and elsewhere, possibly including individuals who would eventually participate in the London attacks.
In an operation code-named Crevice, 700 British police officers conducted two dozen raids in southern Britain, seizing 1,300 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and arresting eight British-born ethnic Pakistanis and a naturalized Briton born in Algeria. (Ammonium nitrate can be used to make explosives, such as those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.) Operation Crevice, one of the largest counterterrorism operations in Britain in recent history, was startling in its revelation that native Britons had allegedly formed a terrorist sleeper cell with the intent of mounting an attack in Britain.
American officials provided the Pakistani intelligence service with a profile of a person of interest. The man spoke Urdu, Arabic, and English with a British accent. He was based in Karachi, but traveled to tribal areas by car or motorcycle. He was believed to be planning some kind of operation against the US or Western targets.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that the public's confidence in Bush to manage the terrorist threat had deteriorated 13 points from the April 2004 poll, and that the public trusted Kerry and Bush equally on the issue (which represented an 11 point drop in support for Bush and a 9 point gain for Kerry).
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, officials apparently identified their target's family first, and then the man himself. By outward appearances, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan seemed an unlikely terrorist. He grew up in a middle class family, and attended an engineering school in Karachi. His father is the senior purser with the Pakistani International Airlines, and his mother teaches botany.
On July 13 Noor Khan went to the Lahore airport, thinking he was going to pick up a package from his father. Instead in a joint operation with Britain, and at the request of the CIA, the 25-year old computer technician was arrested by Pakistani security officers. The Pakistanis did not announce the arrest or inform the press. A Pakistani official quoted in the New York Daily News said, "His arrest was kept secret and he was made to remain in touch with his contacts. During his detention, he regularly communicated through E-mail with the Al Qaeda operatives in Britain and other countries. That helped us to identify them."
Perhaps aware of the Post/ABC poll, but certainly not the Noor Khan investigation, John B. Judis, Spencer Ackerman & Massoud Ansari wrote in the July 19, 2004 New Republic of the likelihood of a "July Surprise" -- the announcement of the killing or capture of a major terrorist figure timed for maximum political effect. Judis et al. noted that since the spring of 2004 US officials had placed increasing pressure on Pakistan to do more in the war on terrorism. Public signs included visits to Pakistan by CIA Director George Tenet, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca, State Department counterterrorism chief Cofer Black, and a top CIA South Asia official. Privately, the report asserted, Pakistani officials had been told that they needed to produce high-value targets (HVTs) before the November election.
"The Musharraf government has a history of rescuing the Bush administration. They now want Musharraf to bail them out when they are facing hard times in the coming elections," a source in the Pakistani Interior Ministry, responsible for internal security, told The New Republic. All of the sources for the article insisted on anonymity; under the Pakistani official secrets act, leaks to the press can be punished by up to ten years in prison. An official who works under the director of the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) told The New Republic that US officials had discussed "the last ten days of July" as the optimal time, and that "it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any] HVT were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July." Those dates, of course were the first three days of the Democratic National Convention. The article was dismissed in some quarters as a conspiracy theory.
On July 24, eleven days after Noor Khan was arrested, acting on information from him and other sources, Pakistani police and commandos arrested Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. Ghailani had been indicted in 1998 for what US officials said was a central role in the bombings that year of US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed more than 200 people. According to a UN report, Ghailani spent a number of years in West Africa, helping al Qaeda participate in the diamond trade.
Ghailani's arrest was announced in Pakistan on July 29 by interior minister Faisal Saleh Hayyat, just hours before Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry made his acceptance speech.
Pakistani intelligence services continued to monitor Noor Khan's email traffic as he corresponded with members of al Qaeda, including a cell in London, and passed along information to British intelligence.
Investigators came to regard him as the al Qaeda "communications chief" -- a key figure in an al Qaeda communications network. He would meet periodically with al Qaeda operatives in the tribal regions of Pakistan, and then transmit messages from them in coded email messages or using other covert methods via the Internet.
Apparently some time after Ghailani's arrest intelligence officials discovered that Noor Khan's computer contained detailed reconnaissance reports on buildings in Manhattan, Newark, and Washington, prepared in 2000 and 2001. They were described by officials as separate documents for each target, each about 20 pages long, written in "perfect English."
During the week of the Democratic National Convention, the Bush administration decided to announce a heightened security alert for the establishments listed on Noor Khan's computer, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge made the announcement on August 1. Ridge's announcement was followed by a background briefing for reporters. The Washington press corps made frantic efforts to find the source on which Ridge's action was based. The Boston Globe obtained confirmation from a CIA analyst that an al Qaeda figure had been arrested, but would not identify Noor Khan.
On August 2, the New York Times made public Noor Khan's name, mentioning both US and Pakistani sources. A description of Khan's activities was credited to a Pakistani intelligence official. For the record, "A senior United States official would not confirm or deny that Mr. Noor Khan had been the Qaeda figure whose capture led to the information," but the Times story also referred to several other officials at the background briefing.
At an appearance in New York on August 4, Ridge strongly rejected claims that the timing of the arrest announcement was political. "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security," Ridge said.
As reported by Reuters, and repeated by University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole, the name Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan had been given to the press "on background" by a Bush administration official. In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on August 8, 2004, then National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice confirmed this:
BLITZER: Let's talk about some of the people who have been picked up, mostly in Pakistan, over the last few weeks. In mid-July, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan. There is some suggestion that by releasing his identity here in the United States, you compromised a Pakistani intelligence sting operation, because he was effectively being used by the Pakistanis to try to find other al Qaeda operatives. Is that true?
RICE: Well, I don't know what might have been going on in Pakistan. I will say this, that we did not, of course, publicly disclose his name. One of them...
BLITZER: He was disclosed in Washington on background.
RICE: On background. And the problem is that when you're trying to strike a balance between giving enough information to the public so that they know that you're dealing with a specific, credible, different kind of threat than you've dealt with in the past, you're always weighing that against kind of operational considerations. We've tried to strike a balance. We think for the most part, we've struck a balance, but it's indeed a very difficult balance to strike.
Rice's office subsequently claimed that she was just repeating Blitzer's statement back to him, and had misspoken. On August 17 the Times credited "Pakistani sources" for the information. The same day Salon.com published an essay by Husain Haqqani, a scholar Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who served in the Pakistani governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, also locating the source of the leak in Pakistan.
The first leak of [Noor] Khan's name, according to well-informed, reliable sources in the region who spoke on condition of anonymity, came from Pakistani officials in Islamabad -- who perhaps were motivated by eagerness to show off their success in arresting al Qaeda figures or, more ominously, by a desire to sabotage the penetration of al Qaeda that [Noor] Khan's arrest had made possible. A second Pakistani leak to Reuters, blaming the Americans as the source of the leak, served to absolve the Pakistanis of any responsibility in breaking up new al Qaeda cells -- an important move domestically.
Whether or not the Bush administration is using its ties with Pakistani intelligence for political purposes, the timing of Pakistan's stepped-up anti-terrorist effort, and the high-level publicity given to it, have led to similar questions about Musharraf's intentions in domestic politics. The general had promised to take off his military uniform by the end of the year, and Bush administration officials were hoping to use that as a fig leaf for touting the regime as having completed its "transition" to civilian, democratic rule. If Musharraf instead decides not to relinquish his role as chief of the army, he needs to demonstrate his indispensability in the war against terrorism with renewed vigor. That way he might be able to avert the criticism that would be certain to come his way for breaking his promise to give up his uniform.
According to the Daily News, Noor Khan was "E-mailing his comrades" up to the moment that his cover was blown. The British had been using Noor Khan to help further investigations of terrorist cells in Britain, and were preparing indictments. With Noor Khan's name released to the public, those investigations were compromised, and British officials were forced to move against their suspects before they were ready. On August 3, 2004 British officials rounded up a total of 13 suspects in the London suburb of Willesden. Five additional suspects, apparently tipped off by news of Noor Khan's arrest, fled and escaped capture. Because the arrests were premature, two of the captured suspects had to be released because of lack of evidence, and two others could be charged only with minor immigration violations.
Among the nine remaining suspects was Issa al-Hindi, one of the FBI's top 25 wanted terrorists. Al-Hindi had apparently been sent to New York in 2001 to identify possible targets, and, along with an explosives expert, had met with Noor Khan in Lahore in March 2004. American officials released al-Hindi's name, information about his connection to Noor Khan, and his role in surveying the New York Stock Exchange and other targets in New York.
Bush administration officials took to the airwaves, lauding their own efforts to halt terrorism. Frances Townsend, the president's adviser on homeland security, told Fox News on August 8, "It's a big moment; and it's also very visible, and that's okay. People ought to feel good about the fact. What we're seeing now are the dividends based on the president's counterterrorism policies."
The British domestic intelligence agency, MI5, and home secretary, David Blunkett, had not wanted al-Hindi's name made public, believing that it would complicate the case against him. They were also furious at the detailed information that was either disclosed publicly by the Bush administration, or unearthed by reporters following up on the administration disclosures. "I could have appeared a dozen times last week on radio and television, but I turned down the offers," Blunkett wrote in The Observer (UK) "I would have merely added to the speculation, to the hype, to the desire for something to say for its own sake. In other words, to feed the news frenzy in a slack news period.... Is that really the job of a senior cabinet minister in charge of counterterrorism? To feed the media? To increase concern? To have something to say, whatever it is, in order to satisfy the insatiable desire to hear somebody saying something? Of course not. This is arrant nonsense."
On August 9, 2004 CNN reported "after [Noor] Khan's name was revealed, government sources told CNN that counterterrorism officials had seen a drop in intercepted communications among suspected terrorists." This, noted University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole, suggested that al Qaeda and related groups were taking greater care with their electronic communications, which would make it more difficult to monitor them.
USA Today reported that, according to Pakistani officials, " [t]he disclosure to reporters of the arrest of an al Qaeda computer expert allowed several wanted suspects from Osama bin Laden's terror network to escape."
Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, in England for a meeting with British security officials, apologized for the leaking of intelligence about alleged terrorist suspects, calling the August events "regrettable."
On July 7, 2005 three explosions in the London subway system and one on a double decker bus killed more than 50 people and injured more than 700. By July 12, British detectives announced that the bombings had been carried out by British-born men, at least three of whom died in the attacks. The names of two bombers, Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Mir Hussain were released by police, and newspapers identified a third as Muhammad Sidique Khan. The fourth bomber was subsequently identified as Jamaican-born Germaine Lindsey .
On July 14, French interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy told reporters that the July 7 bombers were connected to the group arrested in March 2004 as a part of "Operation Crevice." (Charles Clarke, the British home secretary, disputed the remark, although he may have been responding to a bad translation stating that Sarkozy claimed the July 7 bombers had been arrested in 2004.) A French intelligence official also suggested in an interview with Liberation that one of the five terrorists who had escaped the raids of August 3, 2004 was Muhammad Sidique Khan.
The same day ABC News reported that Naeem Noor Khan's laptop had contained "plans for a coordinated series of attacks on the London subway system...." The information had been dismissed at the time of Noor Khan's capture, because it was outdated. According to Alexis Debat, a former official in the French Defense Ministry who is now an ABC consultant, "It is very likely this group was activated last year after the other group was arrested." "Security officials tell ABC News they have discovered links between the eldest of the London bombers, Muhammad Sidique Khan, 30, and the original group in Luton," the ABC report said.
The following day the Associated Press reported that names on Noor Khan's computer matched a "suspected cell of young Britons of Pakistani origin, most of whom lived near Luton, where the alleged suicide bombers met up on their way to London shortly before the attacks." The New York Times reported that July 7 bomber Germaine Lindsay might also have had a connection to the 2004 plot.
Exactly two weeks after the July 7 attacks, four attempted bombings took place in London. Three were in the subway system and a fourth on a double decker bus. None of the devices exploded, leaving significant evidence for investigators. By July 25 five people had been arrested in connection with the failed bombings. They were eventually identified as Yassin Hassan Omar, Ibrahim Muktar Said, Ramzi Mohamed, Osman Hussain, and Manfo Kwaku Asiedu. The first three were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy; Aseidu was charged with conspiracy; Hussain was arrested in Rome and his extradition to the UK is being sought.
As of August 2, senior counterterrorism officials insisted to the Guardian (UK) that there is no evidence that a single "mastermind" is responsible for the July 7 bombings and the failed July 21 attacks. Authorities have not ruled out communications or other connections between the two groups, but there is no evidence, as yet, of telephone communication. Investigators believe that Sidique Khan was one of two of the July 7 bombers who traveled to Pakistan, ostensibly to attended religious school.
The headline that the mainstream media missed is that that Sidique Khan may have been named by Noor Khan, but escaped capture in Britain because Noor Khan's name was leaked to the press -- directly or indirectly to try to gain back a few percentage points in popular support for Bush's handling of terrorism. But Husain Haqqani has a deeper interpretation:
For the Bush administration to have risked playing politics with the timing of arrest of terror suspects is a disturbing enough possibility. More disturbing is the prospect that the initiative to gain political advantage from these arrests came not from the Bush administration but from the Musharraf regime. By subcontracting the hunt for bin Laden to an authoritarian ally who has a special interest in the flow of economic and military benefits resulting from this contract, the administration may be giving that ally a powerful say in America's political agenda whose effect is to undermine the war against al Qaeda.
Rice, Condoleeza. Interview. CNN Late Edition. Wolf Blitzer, Anchor. CNN. 8 Aug. 2004.
Waldman, Amy and Eric Lipton "Rounding Up Qaeda Suspects: New Cooperation, New Tensions, New Questions" NY Times 17 Aug. 2004
Jehl, Douglas and David Rohde "Captured Qaeda Figure Led Way To Information Behind Warning" NY Times 2 Aug. 2004
Haqqani, Husain "Subcontracting the hunt for bin Laden" Salon.com. 17 Aug. 2004
"Bush, Iraq and the War on Terror" Washington Post-ABC News Poll. 21 Jun. 2004
Judis, John B., et al. "July Surprise?" The New Republic 19 Jul 2004
Cole, Juan "The Outing of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan: State of Play" InformedComment 18 Aug. 2004
"U.S. leak 'harms al Qaeda sting'"
CNN.com. 9 Aug. 2004
Cole, Juan "Bush Administration outing of Khan Enabled 5 al-Qaeda Cell Members to Escape Capture" Informed Comment 9 Aug. 2004
Tourancheau, Patricia "Sarkozy drops a clanger in Bruxelles", Liberation 14 Jul. 2005. Cited and translated by Mark Rogers at rmfr.com.
"Pakistanis Check al-Qaida Link to London Bombings" Associated Press. 15 Jul. 2005.
Ross, Brian "London Bombers Tied to Al Qaeda Plot in Pakistan" ABC News. 14 Jul. 2005
Norton-Taylor, Richard "US apologises for terror news leaks" Guardian (UK) 17 Sep. 2004
"Leak allowed al-Qaeda suspects to escape" USA Today 10 Aug. 2004
Siemaszko, Corky "U.S. rapped for blowing spy's cover" New York Daily News 7 Aug. 2004
Sciolino, Elaine and Don Van Natta Jr. "2004 British Raid Sounded Alert on Pakistani Militants" NY Times 14 Jul. 2005
Van Natta, Don, Jr. and Stephen Grey "Investigators Are Clear Who Carried Bombs, but Have Far to Go to Explain More" NY Times 18 Jul. 2005
Jehl, Douglas And Richard W. Stevenson "New Qaeda Activity Is Said To Be Major Factor in Alert" NY Times 4 Aug. 2004
"London Bombings News Roundup" Scoop (NZ). 8 Jul 2005
"London Attacks" BBC. Updated 15 Aug. 2005.
Norton-Taylor, Richard and Duncan Campbell "The inquiry so far" Guardian (UK) 2 Aug. 2005
"Should we be afraid?" Sunday Herald (Glasgow) 8 Aug. 2004
Chossudovsky, Michel "The Pakistani Connection: The London Bombers and 'Al Qaeda's Webmaster'" GlobalReseach.ca. 30 Jul 2005
A copy of the official report on the July 7, 2005 London bombing was leaked to The Observer (UK). According to The Observer, the report concludes that the attack was "planned on a shoestring budget from information on the internet," with "no direct support from al Qaeda", although two of the bombers visted Pakistan. (April 9, 2006)