Intelligence services caught out again

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Indy Politics

The second wave of attempted bomb attacks have raised fresh questions over the ability of Britain's intelligence services to prevent terrorist atrocities.

As police yesterday released CCTV images of the men claimed to have made a bungled attempt to repeat the 7 July carnage on Thursday, security chiefs were forced to admit that they had once again been taken by surprise. None of the men caught on the CCTV cameras was even known to the police, MI5 or MI6.

The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, had admitted that the first attacks, which cost 52 lives, had "come out of the blue"; now it appears that the latest series had also come as a surprise.

Sir Ian Blair, the Scotland Yard Commissioner, acknowledged: "Officers are facing previously unknown threats ... great danger." He added: "We are learning fast, but I am afraid there are bound to be casualties along the way."

Just weeks before the 7 July blasts, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) had downgraded the security threat. Leaked documents also revealed that the security service had concluded Islamist terrorists did not have the capability to mount a major operation in London at the present time.

Just as after the first bombing, the investigation into the new attacks has moved at pace. This time, the police and the security agencies stress that they have crucial evidence lacking in the 7 July bombings: unexploded devices that could yield forensic clues. However, new information also emerged quickly after the first explosions including the identities of the bombers, details of their contacts, as well as the discovery of an explosives cache. That did not stop the second set of bombing attempts.

The new wave of attacks also came on the day that Tony Blair met senior officials from the police, MI5, MI6, and GCHQ (the Government's listening post) in what was, in effect, an inquest into the failure of two weeks ago.

Officials in the security and intelligence services, as well as the police, admit that they are suffering from an information vacuum. The nationalities of the second wave of bombers is unclear, but security sources say there is no reason to believe they were not "home-grown'", like the terrorists who were responsible for the 7 July bombings.

Therein lies a significant problem for the intelligence services. Dealing with an attack by foreign Islamists - be they Moroccan, Algerian or Syrian - would have been comparatively easier. There are international databases, recognisable suspects, and tranches of information from allied services in Europe and the Middle East.

What they have faced instead appears to have been a small, autonomous cell of Britons, hitherto unknown to the authorities, who carried out a fairly unsophisticated operation. Once they had the explosives, they simply had to get off a mainline train and on to the Underground lines and buses with their deadly packages.

There is, however, a foreign link to this, and it is Pakistan that is now internationally recognised as the de facto headquarters of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. It is a country whose military and intelligence services have been accused by both the West and Pakistani opposition figures of being deeply infiltrated by the Islamist extremists.

It appears perfectly natural for young British Muslims, the majority of Pakistani descent, to return to their ancestral homes and for those who have chosen the path of militancy to meet up with extremists just as the Leeds bombers are believed to have done.

"We are looking at a totally new and menacing situation," said a senior security source.