Britain - Labour's "terrorist" scare mongering turns into a dangerous farce

Sept/Oct 2006

On 10 August, just as Israeli troops were staging their massive land invasion of south Lebanon with Blair's benevolent support, the biggest terrorist scare ever seen in Britain was launched by his government.

Round-the-clock news bulletins announced the discovery of an "apocalyptic terrorist plot" aimed at "detonating liquid bombs on at least ten transatlantic flights". During the night, a dozen "terror suspects" had been arrested in several high-profile raids carried out by the police and secret services in various locations around the country - a number which was soon to reach 26.

Meanwhile, security measures were raised to the highest level allowed by existing anti-terrorist legislation across British airports. Not one "terrorist suspect" was caught in the process, neither on that day nor over the week that followed, before the security alert was progressively scaled down. But during that period, hundreds of thousands of passengers were treated like would-be criminals by heavy-handed police, who were throwing their weight around as if their day had finally come, while overstretched staff, who were not quite clear as to just what they were meant to be doing, had to deal with enormous queues of bewildered, and often angry, passengers. Although the government's own "intelligence" said that only transatlantic flights were under threat, most of the thousands of flights which were cancelled were to other destinations: the air traffic system was simply incapable of coping with the long delays imposed on every single aircraft by the series of additional screening and searching operations introduced as part of the security measures. As a result passengers were left stranded for days and tens of thousands of pieces of luggage went missing.

In short, this government's anti-terrorist mania had only managed to cause the most "apocalyptic" chaos ever seen in British airports! This "security" show business was not just completely unnecessary. It was also totally ineffective, as was demonstrated by a journalist who managed to hide among a crew of luggage handling workers in order to prove how easy it was to plant a device on a departing plane. To all intents and purposes, this was security gone insane!

Compared to this, the states of emergency declared at the height of the worst Irish Republican bombing campaigns look like garden parties! And yet the Irish Republicans had well-organised military machines, which proved capable of striking at the highest level of army and government spheres as well as in the most tightly controlled areas of the City - unlike the loose "terrorist network" dreamt up by MI5 bureaucrats for the benefit of Labour ministers.

There is, however, some logic to this madness - in fact, a whole series of very rational, albeit cynical calculations on the part of Labour ministers, who, for the occasion, kept reminding the public of the "dangerous" world in which we are living.

Indeed, how very convenient for such a "plot" to have materialised out of the blue, at the very moment when the government was facing heavy criticism for its complacent support of Israel's slaughter of the Lebanese population, in the name of the "war on terror"! How very convenient as well, at a time when the British army's mission in Afghanistan was turning out to be not the "humanitarian rebuilding" of the country it was meant to be, but a ruthless operation of repression against forces opposing western occupation! How convenient, when the government was preparing to smuggle, once again, through Parliament, reinforced extrajudicial powers for the Home minister, which had been thrown out last year!

And this is not to mention the many skeletons in Labour's cupboard that the government would prefer to be forgotten. Such as, for instance, the scandal of the recent legal whitewashing of the police over its role in the cold-blooded murder of Jean de Menezes, last year. Or last June's botched up raid in Forest Gate, in East London, in which 250 police swamped a street in the small hours of the morning, shot one of the two brothers they had come to arrest in the shoulder, only to be forced to release both of them, because they had found no trace of the "chemical weapons" that they were after!

To say the very least, this "liquid bomb plot" was a once-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck for Blair - far too much so, to be genuine!

Such manipulation of public opinion may appear extraordinarily twisted, especially considering the consequences it had at British airports and the anger this caused among Blair's best friends in the City - like Ryanair, which is now suing the government in order to be compensated for its losses.

But who will forget another cynical manipulation of public opinion - the famous "dossier" on Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" - which was brandished by Blair, and even defended tooth and nail by his government long after it had been exposed as a crude pack of lies, in order to justify sending the troops against Iraq? Why would a government capable of producing such a fabrication as an excuse for its participation in the killing of tens (and by now, hundreds) of thousands of Iraqis, shy away from resorting to the same methods today?

And indeed, even in recent episodes in Blair's domestic "war on terror", there are already plenty of examples of such fabrications.

The "ricin plot" and the invasion of Iraq

Probably the crudest among these episodes, is the so-called "ricin plot". On 5 January 2003, nine "terrorist suspects" were arrested, accused of preparing the mass poisoning of Londoners with a substance known as ricin. There was not a shred of evidence produced by the police and MI5 for the actual existence of such a "plot", although police press statements did assert that ricin had indeed been found at one of the premises they had searched during the raids leading to the arrests.

Over the following 27 months, while the CPS and police were preparing their case, the official line remained the same: there was no doubt as to the culpability of the "suspects" since poison and "other evidence" had been found on the premises. In the meantime, the 9 accused remained in Belmarsh prison, waiting for their trial.

When the trial finally opened, at the end of 2004, heavy political pressure was applied to ensure that the accused would be sentenced. So, for instance, the former home secretary David Blunkett was quoted saying: "Al-Qaida is seen to be, and will be demonstrated through the courts in the month to come, to be actually on our doorstep and threatening our lives. I am talking about people who are and about to go through the court system. The reference to the "ricin plot" trial was so transparent that the trial judge felt it necessary to write a letter of protest to the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith.

During the trial, which lasted an unprecedented 6 months, the jury heard some very revealing testimonies. For instance, professor Alistair Hay, a biochemical expert, testified on the official documents released by the defence research facility at Porton Down, which had tested the alleged traces of ricin that the police claimed to have found during the searches. These documents showed that on 8 January 2003, only 3 days after the arrests, the police had been told by scientists that no trace of ricin had been found in the samples. Besides, added professor Hay, the case of the prosecution, alleging that the accused planned to kill people by smearing ricin on door handles in Holloway, made no sense whatsoever: "They could not have killed people; ricin is not absorbed through the skin" said Hay.

In other words, for over two years, the government and police had carried on maintaining the fiction of this "ricin plot", in the full knowledge that it was plain lies!

Ultimately, the only "evidence" produced by the prosecution in this trial was based on a "confession" made by another man, while he was detained in an Algerian jail. Given the record of Algerian prisons on torture and the impossibility of getting this man to testify, the jury finally threw the case out unanimously in April 2005. Thereafter, a second trial involving 4 other defendants was dropped when the CPS declined to produce any evidence against them.

In the end, 8 of the 9 "suspects" were acquitted after having spent 27 months in jail for no other purpose than to serve as pawns in the games played in high government and police spheres.

Of the 9 defendants, only one, Kamel Bourgass, was eventually sentenced. But the only real case against him was that he had stabbed to death a policeman while attempting to escape - for which he got a life sentence in a previous, unrelated trial. Although Bourgass' involvement in a "plot" was never proved, he was declared guilty. And the trial judge insisted that he was "the prime mover in a terrorist operation involving the use of poisons and explosives and intended to destabilise the community in this country by causing destruction, fear and injury. The then head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist unit, Peter Clarke, added: "This was a hugely serious plot because what it had the potential to do was to cause real panic, disruption and possibly even death" Thus was perpetuated the legend of the "ricin plot", which is still often referred to, today, as a "landmark in the war on terror in Britain"!

There was, therefore, a deliberate manipulation of public opinion in the high profile given by the government to the so-called "ricin plot" from January 2003 onwards. Blair, his ministers and the various law-enforcement appendages of the state machinery conspired to make up and keep afloat this ridiculous horror story in order to substantiate what they called the "terrorist threat" and boost the credibility of their "war on terror".

It is worth recalling the context in which this whole story started - the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. At the time, not only were Saddam Hussein's alleged "weapons of mass destruction" at the centre of US-British official propaganda, but there was also the idea that Saddam Hussein's regime had close links with Al-Qaida and that, if left unchecked, it could hand over some of its weapons, especially chemical and biological weapons, to "global terrorists". Since then, of course, even the US political establishment has changed tack: earlier this month, a US Senate commission finally came to the conclusion that, after all, Saddam Hussein had never had anything to do with Al-Qaida.

But, in early 2003, substantiating such alleged "links" was considered useful by the British and US governments to get public opinion to support the invasion they were preparing. Whether London officials stumbled on a false confession extracted from a prisoner under torture, on which they built this whole "plot" story, or whether they made it up from scratch, is immaterial. The fact is that within less than a month of the "plot" being allegedly foiled, the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell was referring to it in front of the UN Security Council, arguing that the ricin allegedly discovered both in Iraq and London proved the link between Saddam Hussein and "international terrorism" - i.e. Al-Qaida. The "ricin plot" fabrication had served its purpose!

What is behind the "liquid bomb plot"?

The latest "liquid bomb plot" bears a great deal of resemblance to the "ricin plot". According to official sources, its discovery was based on a "confession" made by a British citizen in a Pakistani jail. Given the record of Pakistan - similar to that of Algeria in this respect - and the close relationship between the Pakistani secret service, the ISS and its British counterpart, this, in and of itself, makes this whole business suspicious.

But there are many other rather strange aspects to the way this alleged "plot" has been dealt with. For instance, while it was presented as a "national emergency" requiring the grounding of a huge number of aircraft at British airports for almost a week, Downing Street revealed that the operation had been discussed between Bush and Blair 4 days before emergency measures were taken and the "plotters" arrested - not much of an emergency, after all, since it could wait for another 4 days!

Likewise, while flights were cancelled due to the delays caused by multiple body searches and luggage screening before boarding, and passengers were banned from taking onboard anything outside themselves and their clothes, the authorities suddenly changed their minds. They kept security measures at the same level but they unbanned duty-free goods bought at the airport, following remonstrations by the Association of Duty-Free Resellers. According to the ministry, duty-frees were safe since they had already been screened. Except, of course, that anything can be bought at duty-free shops: not "liquid explosives", maybe, but certainly razor blades and similar objects which can be turned into offensive weapons. Quite obviously, the profits of Labour's big business friends were considered far more important than the threat of the "plot" it had allegedly discovered!

The nature of the "plot" itself remained shrouded in the deepest secrecy, surrounded by a continuous flow of contradictory statements. So, for instance, with the famous "liquid explosive". Initially, this was presented by official statements as an unstable explosive which, because it only needed to be shaken in order to explode, did not require a detonator (which would have been easily spotted by x-ray scanners). Except, of course, that such a story did not hold water: if it was so unstable, the explosive might have exploded while being shaken by chance on the conveyor belt of a hand-luggage x-ray scanner, for instance, thereby missing its target. Within less than 2 days, police officials had to change their story. In fact, they changed it three more times before finally arriving at the vaguest and least controversial version they could find, by speaking of an "explosive device made of several innocuous, untraceable elements which can be assembled and detonated rapidly without being noticed. But even this version was challenged by a number of explosive experts who argue that such a device would necessarily need chemicals, such as concentrated acids, which are noticeable while they are used, because of the fumes they generate. In any case, what these inconsistent versions of the story showed, was that police officials did not a clue as to the real nature of the famous explosive - assuming they were not making it up, as it went, which seems most likely to be the case.

As to the 26 "suspects" arrested in connection with this alleged "plot", 6 have been released without charge, 17 have been charged over their participation in the plot, 1 on other terrorist charges and 2 are still being questioned at the time of writing, just over a month after their arrest. Strangely enough - or rather, significantly enough - the police have still to announce the discovery of any piece of equipment, bomb or bomb-making equipment linked to the accused. Normally when such discovery is made, it is announced with much fanfare in order to underline the efforts of the police. But there has been no such thing, except the announcement that one of the "suspects" had been discovered to possess illegally a pistol with 10 rounds of ammunition and a silencer. But then, if every British weapons enthusiast keeping a pistol without licence was to be treated as a dangerous terrorist, the number of jails would have to be doubled, at the very least!

To summarise what can be concluded from what is known about this so-called plot, it is worth quoting an article written for the Guardian(18 August) by Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who was sacked from his job for having exposed the brutality of the country's dictatorship, and therefore someone who knows the working of the state machinery inside out. This is what he had to say on this issue "(..) Unlike the herd of security experts, I have had the highest security clearance; I have done a huge amount of professional intelligence analysis; and I have been inside the spin machine. And I am very sceptical about the story that has been spun. None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not have passports. (..) What is more many of those arrested had been under surveillance for more than a year - like thousands of other British Muslims and not just Muslims, like me. Nothing from that surveillance had indicated the need for early arrests. (..) In all of this, the one thing of which I am certain is that the timing is deeply political. This is more propaganda than plot. More than 1,000 British Muslims have been arrested under anti-terrorist legislation, but only 12% have been charged. That is harassment on an appalling scale. Of those 12% charged, 80% were acquitted. Most of the few convictions - just over 2% of the arrests - are nothing to do with terrorism. And Murray concluded his article by saying: "Be very wary of politicians who seek to benefit from terror. Be sceptical, very, very sceptical"

A permanent apparatus of mass deception

Indeed, despite the enormous chaos it has caused, there is every reason to think that this alleged "liquid bomb plot" conceals a much bigger and much more real plot on the part of the government to deceive the population of this country into believing that it is under siege by "global terrorism".

Whether the leading spheres of the state turned a mole hill into a mountain for opportunistic reasons, or whether they fabricated the whole story from beginning to end, does not make an inch of difference. The fact is that they are prepared to go out of their way to lie, forge evidence and frame so-called "suspects" for the sake of achieving their political aims. We saw this time and again in the past. We saw this before the political settlement in Northern Ireland, with frame-ups such as the Birmingham Six. We saw this in the run-up to the Iraq war with the "ricin plot" and Blair's "dossier". And this is what we are seeing again today.

It is one of the features of the state machinery of the capitalist class that it includes, in addition to its regular army and police, shadowy cohorts of "experts" - like the secret services, Special Branch, certain sections of the Home Office, Foreign Office and, in fact, sections of most Departments - thousands of people who specialise in the "dirty tricks" business, that is everything which is on the margin of the law or outright illegal. Most people expect these "experts" to operate outside Britain. And they certainly do, as the numerous coups engineered by MI6 in Third World countries have shown in the past. But, in fact, the main focus of their work is in Britain itself, where their job is to protect the interests of the capitalist class, whether by engineering shifts in public opinion according to government needs, or to watch those who might threaten, or just expose, the interests of the capitalist class - political organisations, trade unions, campaigns, etc...

During the Cold War, particularly from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, it was this "dirty tricks" department which was in charge of feeding red-baiting stories in the news. This helped to create a climate which allowed the British capitalist class to embark on all kinds of military ventures in pursuit of its imperialist interests, from Malaysia to Korea, Aden, Kenya, etc.., in the name of "fighting the red threat".

Today this red-baiting has disappeared, only to be replaced with the scarecrow of Blair's "global terrorism". But at a time when the assumed terrorists, originating from the Middle East, appear more as victims than attackers, because of the West's bloody wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, etc.., the government has to keep brandishing this modern scarecrow in order to keep it in everyone's mind and maintain a climate which is conducive to its plans.

What these plans are, we can only guess. Apart from the obvious opportunistic reasons mentioned at the beginning of this article, there may be others - a more aggressive stance towards Syria and/or Iran, who knows? - but only the future will tell.

Fighting the dangers ahead

In the meantime, what really matters is that the working class sees through this propaganda and does not fall into the trap of going along with Blair's terrorist scare mongering.

Because none of this is designed to protect the interests of the working people in this country, least of all their livelihoods. If this government was so concerned about containing the potential for an increase of terrorist activity in Britain, it would start by withdrawing its troops from the countries in which their weapons are generating the hatred of millions of people.

But, in addition, one should never take it lightly when the state machinery of the capitalist class starts increasing its repressive powers. The definition of "terrorism" in the various anti-terrorist bills passed since 9/11 is sufficiently vague to include anyone who aims at changing the nature of the political regime in Britain - and this could very well come to embrace socialists, revolutionaries and even trade-union activists in periods of militant struggle. The extraordinary powers that are now in the hands of the Home Secretary as part of the "war on terror" - those of imposing what amounts to indefinite house arrest without any judicial recourse - could very well be applied to working class activists one day.

During the Cold War, one of the functions of the red-baiting engineered by the state was to isolate the more militant working class activists, and more specifically the Communist Party and the various organisations which were linked to it, like CND, whose members were under the surveillance of the Special Branch and MI5. No-one should believe for one second that, with the end of the Cold War, the state machinery has ceased to be a bulwark of capitalist interests against the working class. The rhetoric may have changed, but not the function. And any reinforcement of this state machinery will inevitably come at the expense of the working class.

Finally, the singling out and harassment of Muslims, but more generally of people of non-European origin, by the police and the justice system, and their scape goating in the name of the "war on terror", raises a danger for the working class. It is a recipe for inflaming racist prejudices and dividing the ranks of workers.

Blair, who is so keen on his own version of "multiculturalism", is making a big show of his efforts to "engage" Muslims and to get their leaders to tackle the "problem of extremism" within their ranks. So Ruth Kelly, the Communities and Local Government secretary, is in charge of maintaining a "channel of partnership" meeting with Britain's Imams and help them in this task - which is a rather strange choice given Kelly's membership of Opus Dei, which could be described, in Blair's language, as an "extremist" Catholic movement. How these Imams, who thrive on the recent resurgence of the Muslim religion thanks to the Western policies in the Middle East, can be expected to do this, is another question!

In any case this is no solution for the working class for whom the issue is not one of religion, but one of class unity across all origins and creeds, against the capitalist class. It is the responsibility of the working class movement to counter the reactionary policies of this Labour government, by opposing its anti-terrorist legislation as well as its imperialist ventures. No amount of scare mongering should be allowed to undermine class solidarity - this fundamental value of the working class movement.