By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 18, 2005
LONDON, July 18 -- Britain's position as a subordinate ally of the United States has been a "high-risk policy" that has left it vulnerable to terrorist attacks such as the recent bombings of London's transportation system, according to a briefing paper released early Monday by one of the country's most prominent foreign affairs research groups.
The British government "has been conducting counter-terrorism policy 'shoulder to shoulder' with the U.S., not in the sense of being an equal decision-maker, but rather as pillion [back-seat] passenger compelled to leave the steering to the ally in the driving seat," said the report published by Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, which has close ties to the government.
The policy, it added, "has proved costly in terms of British and U.S. military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign."
The report, written by two senior British academics who specialize in security issues, also contends that the country's intelligence services and police failed to fully appreciate the threat posed by al Qaeda because they were focused on suppressing terrorism from Northern Ireland.
Coming 11 days after the rush-hour bombings that killed at least 55 people including the bombers and injured about 700, the report is certain to fuel a slowly growing debate here over whether the attacks were the result of Prime Minister Tony Blair's close ties to the Bush administration and participation in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The government immediately responded with an angry statement from Defense Secretary John Reid that challenged and dismissed the report's conclusions.
"When this report says that we have made ourselves more of a target because of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq and our efforts to tackle al Qaeda, what alternative is it proposing?" Reid asked. "That we should stand back while others take on the terrorists?"
He added, "We make no apology for working with our international partners, including the U.S., on operations which we judge to be in the best interests of the U.K. and the world."
Immediately after the July 7 bombings of three subway trains and a double-decker bus, allegedly by three British-born Muslims of Pakistani descent and a Jamaican-born convert to Islam, political leaders rallied around Blair. But critics of the war, which has been unpopular in opinion polls here, have stepped forward in recent days to renew their call that British troops be withdrawn.
The Chatham House report contends that while Britain's armed forces and police gained invaluable experience and expertise in counterterrorism through three decades of tackling paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland, their attention was diverted from other growing threats. By the mid-1990s, it said, the intelligence services were well aware that London was becoming a base for people involved in promoting, funding and planning terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere. But, the report added, "these individuals were not viewed as a threat to the U.K.'s national security, and so they were left to continue their activities with relative impunity."
Britain's partnership with the United States put it "at particular risk" of attacks such as the July 7 bombings, the report said.
The authors -- Paul Wilkinson, a terrorism expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Frank Gregory, an international policing specialist at the University of Southampton -- said coordination and collaboration among Britain's security agencies were "impressive."
Meanwhile, a British official confirmed that one of the suspected London bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan, 30, was investigated briefly last year by the MI5 internal security service because his name came up in a probe of an alleged terrorism plot.
Khan's name reportedly was one of dozens that surfaced during the probe, but after a brief examination he was deemed not to pose a risk, the official said. Officials previously had stated that the four suspected bombers had been unknown to the security services.