The aircraft bomb plot and Iraq: a fine pair of slanders

The foiling of the UK terrorists’ plot to bomb aeroplanes in mid-air between Britain and the US (still cautiously referred to in the Guardian and elsewhere as the “alleged” plot) has prompted the emergence into the daylight of two particularly unpleasant slanders, one new and specific to the bomb plot, the other old and discredited but seemingly impossible to kill off.

The new and specific slander is the allegation that there wasn’t really any plot at all: that the whole thing is a deliberate invention by the government, the police, the security service and other conspirators, designed to distract media and public attention from the government’s unpopular stand on Israel-Lebanon and to supply a spurious justification for yet another assault on our civil liberties by “Dr” Reid and his power-hungry friends.

We needn’t spend much time on this ludicrous accusation. You need to be an especially glassy-eyed conspiracy theorist to believe that such a huge deception, involving so many public servants of whom a clear majority are plainly honourable and conscientious men and women, could ever hope to survive the inevitable inquiries and investigations without being quickly unmasked. Raking up old allegations of security service incompetence or worse — de Menezes, ricin, Forest Gate, and so on — and pointing to the absence so far of anyone being charged, blithely ignores an inconvenient reality: a terrorist suspect may well be arrested and questioned, but eventually released without charge, for several possible reasons which in no way demonstrate that the original suspicions were misplaced. For example, there may be irrefutable evidence which confirms the guilt of the suspect but which can’t be used in court (e.g. because its use would compromise a vital informer, or because it depends on hearsay or telephone intercepts, or because it would alert other terrorists still under investigation, or because it has enabled the police to recruit a new informer). Could those who believe that the latest plot against the aircraft is a fiction, or a deliberate misrepresentation of some harmless fantasy, be the same people as those who believe that the CIA organised the destruction of the Twin Towers, that the moon landing was filmed in a studio in Nevada, and that JFK was assassinated by agents of LBJ? I’m especially sorry to see my friend and former colleague Craig Murray joining this group of eccentrics and obsessives, earning himself a  magisterial rebuke and rebuttal from the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

The second and older slander is the assertion, cropping up once again all over the place, that (in the words of Jon Henley in the Guardian of 16 August 2006) Tony Blair “famously [sic] insists that there is no connection at all between the actions of his government in Iraq and the threat to the UK from international terrorism.” Well, no, he  doesn’t, actually, and never has, however ‘famous’ the allegation that he does. He is even on the public record as stating that he has never said such a thing. Here is an extract from his answer to a question at his press conference on 26 July 2006:

Q. …how then can you still deny that there is at least the very possibility that Iraq played a contributory factor into fomenting the extremism amongst some Muslim youths that found its ultimate expression in an act of terror?

Prime Minister: …I read occasionally that I am supposed to have said it is nothing to do with Iraq, in inverted commas. Actually I haven’t said that. If you go back and look at the comments I have made over the past couple of weeks, what I do say is this, … of course people are going to use Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed if you look at what a lot of these terrorist statements say they use both Iraq and Afghanistan incidentally. Often people just talk about Iraq, but they use both of them. They will use Iraq to try and recruit and motivate people. They will use Afghanistan. Before Iraq and Afghanistan, and 11 September, which happened before those two things, they used other things. But I think most people understand that the roots of this go far deeper… And I want to make one thing very clear to you. Whatever excuse or justification these people use I do not believe we should give one inch to them, not in this country and the way we live our lives here, not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in our support for two States, Israel and Palestine, not in our support for the alliances we choose, including with America, not one inch should we give to these people. [My emphasis — BLB]

Those (and there are many of them in addition to Mr Henley) who persist in claiming that Blair has denied any connection between the UK role in Iraq and Islamic extremist terrorism in the UK have a plain obligation to give us chapter and verse for their allegation. Perhaps the evidence exists somewhere: Blair is by no means always consistent. But I haven’t been able to track it down, and until someone produces it, I shall continue to believe that this is one rare charge on which Blair has the right to be acquitted.  I suppose I can’t blame Jon Henley, the Guardian and other editorialists, and all the other card-carrying members of the leftish commentariat, for having failed to read, learn and inwardly digest at least two of my earlier Ephems blog posts, on 28 August and 2 September 2005, in which I dealt at my usual inordinate length with both the accusation and also the fallacious and dangerous conclusions that too many commentators have tried to draw from it. 

Why do I find myself defending the appalling Blair all of a sudden?  (No, don’t tell me.)

Incidentally (my favourite opening of a final paragraph), here’s a question to be pondered by those who think that if Britain’s Iraq policies and actions had been different, the atrocities of 7/7 and the “alleged” plot to bomb US-bound aircraft in the past weeks would not have occurred (and that if the government now reversed our Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon policies, there would be no more terrorist activity in the UK): how do you explain the botched terrorist attack on regional trains on 31 July this year — in Germany?


11 Responses

  1. Rob says:


    I have this worrying sense that I am becoming a troll, which I’d rather not be, so please let me know if I am.

    Your view on the airline plot thing seems to be, sometimes guilty people go free, so we shouldn’t infer from the fact that a whole load of people went free after previous announcements of our salvation from terrorist threat that there wasn’t actually a genuine terrorist threat. To which I retort, sometimes innocent people go free too, so we shouldn’t infer from the fact that some of the people who went free could be for all we know guilty that they are. Or to put it another way, I’m not particularly comforted by claims which bear a worrying resemblance to, trust the government and forget about the presumption of innocence, particularly when all the publicly available evidence of court proceedings is that the government’s anti-terrorist information is rather bad.

    On the Blair thing, you miss the point – which may not be valid, but nonetheless is what the people who make it are trying to get at. The idea is that governments have a responsibility to ensure their citizens’ safety, and that, in going to war in Iraq, Blair violated that responsibility by giving an obvious propaganda victory to various Islamist terrorist groups. Blair doesn’t deny that Islamist terrorist organisations have used Iraq as a propaganda tool: what he denies – and may be perfectly entitled to – is that he is partly responsible for their having that propaganda tool.

  2. Brian,
    Are you really surprised that some people are a touch cynical about the timing of these arrests?
    I’m not going to respond to your classic "straw-man" argument – the whole thing is a fiction-and to be fair to Craig Murray, I don’t think he supports that idea.
    But there is surely enough evidence from Hutton and Butler that  Blair’s political appointees played a significant role in  Security Services meetings. Alistair Campbell was present at some meetings and he was responsible for suggesting "amendments" to the "Dodgy" Dossier. Many of us have not forgotten the intentionally misleading "45 Minute" warning.
    However, I’m not prepared to jump to conclusions. Wait and see whether all the chaos over the last week is justified by what the police find.
    By the way I think you’re wide of the mark about charges. From the police leaks about what they’ve dug up, you would have to be a pretty poor prosecutor not to be able to have a  good shout at some conspiracy charges.

  3. Derek Tonkin says:

    You may well be right that Tony Blair has never denied that our policies on  Iraq, and indeed on the Middle East generally, have contributed to the radicalisation of young Muslims in this country. Cherie Blair has already acknowledged Palestinian radicalisation. But whenever her husband is asked the specific question on Iraq, he dodges it, as dodge it he must, because to acknowledge something which is obvious to us all would be to admit that his policy on Iraq was wrong, and this, like almost any senior politician, he could  never bring himself to do. I suspect that if Jeremy Paxman were to ask him the simple question : "Do you think your policy on Iraq has contributed to the radicalisation of young Muslims in this country", he would obfuscate in exactly the same way that he did on 26 July 2006, though without the distraction of needing to say that he denied saying that he had denied anything. Paxman could repeat the question a dozen times, and (recalling that celebrated interview with Michael Howard) he would never get a straight answer. The very fact that Tony Blair is so loath to admit the obvious is itself infuriating to some.

    On the bomb plot, I cannot help wondering whether the timing of the announcement might have been politically inspired. I hope I am wrong. I only sense that the plot was not at an advanced stage, and that the threat was no more "imminent" than the discredited intelligence about the alleged threat of a 45 minute warning Iraqi nuclear attack. But we would be prudent to wait and see who is charged and what evidence is produced. The leaks so far – a suitcase of bomb making equipment and some "martyr" videos – could be significant, or not at all. How many young Muslims in this country, I wonder, have already made "martyr" videos for no other reason than their immense frustration?


  4. Brian says:

    I can find absolutely nothing in the three courteous comments so far that invalidates anything in my post.  Rob's assertion that a prime minister' has a duty to ensure his citizens' safety by not adopting policies that give "an obvious propaganda victory to various Islamist terrorist groups" encapsulates with dazzling clarity the very proposition that seems to me so obviously unacceptable and misconceived, namely the idea that our foreign policies should be influenced, even marginally, by fear of increasing the risk of domestic terrorism — exactly the suggestion that Blair expressly and rightly denounced in the press conference quoted in my post.  Tony (not Blair!) re-hashes the reasons for condemning the gross and deliberate misrepresentation of the intelligence on Iraqi WMD, which has no obvious relevance to the recent aircraft bomb plot story, since in the case of Iraq the intelligence was clearly labelled as unreliable and unsubstantiated by the intelligence community:   the political sin lay in the politicians' claim that it was safe and reliable.  Derek's reference to the 45 minute warning is similarly irrelevant to the points I made; and his accusation that Blair resorts to obfuscation when asked if his Iraq policies have contributed to the radicalisation of British Muslims seems to me to be compehensively demolished by Blair's absolutely clear reply to that very question in the press conference that I quoted.

    On allegations that the revelation of the aircraft bomb plot and its timing was politically inspired and that it has been misrepresented for political reasons, I entirely agree with Derek's comment that "we would be prudent to wait and see who is charged and what evidence is produced."  I hope the conspiracy theorists will take that advice, which is indeed implied by everything I wrote in my original post.

    No question of trolling arises here, as far as I'm concerned, but the professional sceptics and Blair-bashers (present company not, I hasten to say, included) will have to do better than this!

  5. Brian,
    All I suggested was that the wholesale deception by HMG over Iraq was one of the reasons why people often have a cynical response when served up with the sort of presentations we saw from Reid and his side-kick last week.
    You may not understand that response, many people do.

    Brian replies:  Tony, I understand the response very well, and fully expected it, even down to some of the names of those who would come up with it the moment the tiny rubber hammer hit their knees.  I merely observe that the two situations are so utterly different in so many material respects that the analogy is quite without merit.  The sceptics could yet turn out to have been right, unlikely although it seems.  But they have no basis for their scepticism at present.

  6. Rob says:


    "exactly the suggestion that Blair expressly and rightly denounced in the press conference"

    well, then he does deny that he bears any responsibility, which is precisely the point these people are making. Now, you clearly don't agree with the critique, so presumably you support his denial of any responsibility, but you can't support it, and then claim it doesn't exist. On the bomb plot thing as well, if you're merely saying we should withhold judgement, then you're considerably less far from the people you call conspiracy theorists than you initially seemed: they want us to withhold judgement on whether or not there has been a plot until we can see the evidence, part of which, in the current political climate, means emphasising that just because the some organ of the state says it is so, it doesn't mean it is the case, typically by drawing on evidence that it hasn't always been the case in the past.

    Brian replies: Rob, I think this is playing with words.  Accepting responsibility for doing everything possible and legitimate to ensure the safety of your country's citizens is not the same thing as surrendering to blackmailers' demands for changes in your foreign policy motivated purely by the fear that if you don't change those policies in the ways demanded, the blackmailers will carry out their threat to murder their innocent fellow-citizens.  The logical consequence of your accusation against Blair — that he has failed to carry out his responsibility for ensuring our security by refusing to give in to the demands of terrorists for policy changes that are not otherwise necessary or desirable — is to advocate and justify the flabby appeasement of any minority group that's cynical and brutal enough to blackmail the government.  It's to Blair's credit that he has explicitly refused to give an inch to that kind of blackmail.  As to the bomb plot, I have simply pointed out that the allegations and suspicions instantly voiced by the conspiracy theorists are (a) inherently implausible, (b) without any basis in evidence so far available, and (c) manifestly premature.  (My own view is that they are also (d) more than slightly batty, but that's more subjective, so I'm content to leave it at (a), (b) and (c).)

    As we're beginning to go round and round in circles here, I'll happily leave it to you lot to have the last word.  I stand by my post! 

  7. Dan Goodman says:

    I personally think it's hypocritical of Blair that he is quite happy to do away with basic civil liberties which partly constitute the foundation of our democracy as a response to terrorism, but he's not willing to give an inch on foreign policy which is anyway largely not supported by the population.

    A thought experiment – in which of these scenarios should Britain bear in mind the possible implications in determining its foreign policy?

    (1) The foreign policy upsets a nuclear armed nation
    (2) The foreign policy upsets a nation which sponsors an organisation with access to nuclear technology
    (3) The foreign policy upsets a nation which sponsors a large and well armed international terrorist organisation

    In case (1) the threat is obvious – nuclear retaliation. Any nation would bear this threat in mind in deciding their foreign policy, you don't want to mess too badly with people who can hit you with nukes. In case (2) the threat is the same, but by proxy. What do you do in this situation? In case (3), the threat is of a smaller order, but qualitatively the same as in case (2). A related point – if we really are engaged in a 'war on terror' then shouldn't our foreign policy be influenced by its likely effect on this war?

    I don't suggest any answers here, because I believe the government is right not to change their foreign policy as a direct reaction to terrorism. I think their foreign policy should be different because as it stands its wrong, and that is the reason to change it. I wonder though if the argument that you must not take into account the possible terrorist threat is correct. If the terrorists are truly a small bunch of extremists this is one thing, but when large swathes of people become radicalised by your policy, does this still hold?

    Brian replies:  Dan, these are ingenious and challenging questions.  Part of the answer to them is that beyond a certain (ill-defined) point, a difference of degree between the magnitude of the different threats faced by a government becomes a difference in kind.  There's really no comparison between action in response to a threat of annihilation by a hostile nuclear super-power on the one hand, and the threat of terrorist bombings of trains or aircraft by a small discontented minority of one's own citizens on the other.  In the latter case the minority has alternative means available in our democracy of seeking to bring about change in government policy by exclusively peaceful means.  In the former case the UN Charter is an attempt to discourage powerful nations from using the threat of force to promote their policy aims, but as we all know, in the last resort there is no way that a sufficiently determined superpower can be prevented from ignoring its obligations under the Charter if it wants to do so.

    The other answer to all your questions is that anyone — individual or government — faced with the demand by a blackmailer to change their behaviour in specified ways, or face the prospect of a violent attack, has many options for dealing with the threat that are vastly preferable to the one illegitimate option of surrendering to it.  Exactly how one should respond to such threats and demands without surrendering to them depends, obviously, on the nature of the demands and on the nature, status, vulnerability and credibility of the blackmailer.  But even partial surrender is a reliable way of ensuring that even more radical demands, and even more spine-chilling threats, will soon follow.

  8. Derek Tonkin says:


    You say that Blair's reply is "absolutely clear" on my charge of obfuscation. With respect, all that Blair says – and I agree 100% with him – is that terrorists and extremists will seek to exploit every situation in the Middle East to further their nefarious cause. But I am still in the dark about what Blair himself actually believes on the charge that British policies in the Middle East are making many Muslims in Britain (and Christians, Buddhists, Jews and people of every faith and section of society) very angry – regardless of the machinations of terrorists and extremists.

    Do you think that Blair believes this, or that he does not believe this? My belief is that he does, but for political reasons won't and can't say so. But I may well be wrong.  Blair believed that WMD existed in Iraq long after most thinking people had concluded that they did not – that is, if you believed him.


    Brian replies:  Derek, I take your point, although I continue to think that Blair's reply at the press conference represents a clear acknowledgement that there is indeed a link between some Muslims' anger over aspects of UK foreign policy and their resort to terrorism.  It seems to me however that he is justified in refusing to say anything that could be construed — as it would be, in spades — as acceptance of a causal link between the two.  The moment he can be quoted as having implied, even indirectly, that an act of terrorism has been caused by (e.g.) the UK's participation in the invasion of Iraq, he becomes acutely vulnerable to the charge of having been responsible, i.e. to blame, for the terrorism.  His critics already come very close to making this monstrous accusation, without Blair having given them the slightest excuse for doing so, by condemning him for failing to change his foreign policies in order to appease the terrorists and thus make Britons at home safer.  (Ming Campbell, of all people, tied himself up in pathetic knots this morning in the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 by trying both to say this and to say the opposite in the same breath.)   I'm afraid it's the unscrupulous manipulation and misrepresentation by a ravenous media and the anti-Blair lobby (to which I belong!) of anything that a controversial prime minister says in order to use it as ammunition against him that makes Blair and other political leaders cautious to the point of apparent obfuscation in what they say.  I don't believe he can be blamed for that, especially when he has made his position clear — and his clarification continues to be ignored by the media.

  9. Rob says:

    "Accepting responsibility for doing everything possible and legitimate to ensure the safety of your country’s citizens is not the same thing as surrendering to blackmailers’ demands for changes in your foreign policy motivated purely by the fear that if you don’t change those policies in the ways demanded, the blackmailers will carry out their threat to murder their innocent fellow-citizens."

    So presumably if someone plausibly threatened that if the British government did X which was otherwise of small benefit they would kill hundreds of thousands of British citizens, the British government should do it anyway. Like it or not, sometimes the costs of acting against the wishes of people prepared to inflict enormous amounts of harm is, whatever the merits of that action in the absence of that threat, make that action wrong. If you admit this, as you seem to do in your reply to Dan above, there doesn’t seem to me to be any principled point at which you can stop and say that threats no longer matter when considering what to do (which isn’t the same thing as saying they are decisive when considering what to do). That makes it a question of (mostly) assessment of the seriousness of the threat – i.e., the harm it will do if carried out – in which case presumably rather than refusing to acknowledge its existence, Blair should say something like, I weighed up the risks, and decided it was worth it anyway.

    Your position on this also strikes me as probably being inconsistent with your argument, made in relation to ex-Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, that promises extracted by blackmail – in that case, that provided by the threat of massacring his population – ought to be kept: if we ought not to give into blackmail, then I’d expect that promises extracted by it lack the force they are typically associated with. Also, I never said that I agreed with this particular accusation – it strikes me, for example, that anyone who thinks that it needs to be the case that the Iraq War has increased the threat of terrorism against British citizens to make the Iraq War a stupid and immoral thing to have done probably hasn’t been paying enough attention to what’s been going on in Iraq – against Blair – although I do think that, in general, the principle it calls on is valid. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, anyone who thinks that some sacrifices in terms of liberty are required by the threat of terrorism probably shouldn’t oppose this attack, since their reasoning will surely be very similar: both rely on the idea that threats alter the costs of various options and that ought to be taken into account when deciding which one to take, despite the fact that those facing the choices involved are not those directly imposing the costs.

  10. Why is it a ‘ludicrous assertion’ to say that a government that lied to the nation in order to plan and wage aggressive war,  and that has ruthlessly attacked civil liberties, due process and the rule of law, should concoct a plot with the sole purpose of frightening the populace into accepting police state legislation and aggressive war? 

    It’s happened before you know.  Germany in the 30s being one example.

  11. Tom says:

    I apologise if I am prolonging this debate to the point of boredom, but, as I have only just come across it, I will inject my two pen'oth then shut up.
    There are many gradations between having a distant, non-causal relationship with something and being its sole cause. Blair chooses to ignore these shades of meaning, presumably for the reasons Brian gives. I can understand that he does not want to say anything that can be used by the media to imply blame. But this seems to me to fall far short of Blair, who is after all a skilled communicator and has addressed the question on many occasions,'making his position clear'. The furthest he has gone was in the example quoted by Brian, where, by implication, he accepts that Iraq has 'something to do' with acts of terror. Previously, he simply and robustly denied that his policies had caused global terrorism or made terrorism worse (see speeches 21 March 2006 on global terrorism and 26 May 2006 at Georgetown on the Downing Street website.) To give an analogy, when asked if by opening the door he wasn't fanning the flames, he simply says 'I didn't light the match.' I suppose there are also degrees of obfuscation ranging from 'not making absolutely clear' to 'rendering totally unintelligible'. You can debate whether or not Blair made the correct
    political decision, but from the charge of (aggravated) obfuscation I don't think there is any escape. Now I'll shut up.

    Brian adds:  Please don't shut up, Tom:  by all means continue to contribute to discussion of these important issues.  Although I have no time at all for Blair (probably a war criminal, an assailant on our historic civil liberties unparalleled in our lifetimes or, probably, for centuries before them, the greatest single obstacle to the restoration of Britain's reputation in the world as a champion of peace and the rule of law), nevertheless I think it important to confine our criticisms of him to the issues where he is plainly and demonstrably in the wrong.  Heaven knows, or would if there was one, there are plenty of them.  But I simply don't believe that the record shows that he has ever sought to deny that US and UK foreign policy actions such as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (or the failure to find a solution to the other conflicts around the world involving Muslims) have angered and inflamed Muslims in Britain and elsewhere, or that they have been exploited to incite and justify murderous terrorism. He has freely acknowledged that this is so.  What he does deny is that these western actions and failures are the cause of terrorism:  and he denies that if Iraq and Afghanistan had never been invaded and the other conflicts had been successfully resolved, there wouldn't have been any Islamic terrorism.  On both points he is plainly right. He has also stressed the central point that it would be intolerable for any government to shirk taking action on policies that they believe to be right and necessary just because of a fear that by doing so they will provide ammunition for the recruitment of terrorists and specious arguments used by terrorists to justify murder.  I have looked again at the two speeches which you quote as evidence that he is guilty of obfuscation on these issues, but I find the contrary: clarity and consistency, including consistency with what he said in the press conference quoted in my post.  I will put the relevant extracts in a new post shortly (they are too long to quote here), but for those interested the full texts of the two (important and undeniably impressive) speeches are to be found here and here.  

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