Thursday, August 25, 2005

Not so elementary

The Evening Standard reports that bus bomber Hasib Hussain called his (by then dead) accomplices after he failed to get on a delayed train at King's Cross. Apparently he needed their advice on what to do since his train was not running and was in a flap.

I was impressed with how vivid the Evening Standard writer described the scenario - but then I realised that the reason I was reading the paper was to wile away the time while waiting for a train myself - my regular train having been cancelled due to [insert garbled Tannoy-speak here]. So he hadn't actually evoked the feeling - I was already feeling the frustration and disorientation of unreliable trains...

But ho-hum... I'm not a member of a death-cult trying to draw a flaming cross on the map of London, so by comparison I was taking this transportational setback relatively in my stride.

Anyhow, the point that grabbed me is not the absurdity of phoning your more successful colleagues for pointers when your colleagues happen to be uh, SUICIDE BOMBERS but the absurdity of the conclusions the paper reports investigators have drawn from Hussain's frantic call logs.

The Evening Standard says confidently:

"Security sources say the calls prove:"

(1) The bombers had not planned to target a bus - it was a spur of the moment act by Hussain as he wandered the streets in confusion after being unable to reach his intended target.

It may make it a reasonable speculation, but proof? There are other reasons why he may have called them. He may have had trouble setting the bomb off. He may have been having second thoughts and was trying to establish if everyone else had gone though with the plan.

(2) It is unlikely that there was an al Qaeda "mastermind" or support network - if there had been, Hussain would have called one of them for help.

This proves nothing of the sort. He may have known full well that the mastermind had already left the country and there was no point in calling him. Alternatively, contact with the mastermind may only have been through the team leader, who was now dead. And, of course, if he was suffering from doubt, he may have been phoning to see if all the others had really gone through with it.

The Evening Standard now appears to have noticed the shortcoming of this assumption themselves. In an updated story online, they point out:

"However, sources suggested the calls did not necessarily prove this as Hussain may not have known the identity of the planners, or how to contact them."

(3) The 21 July cell was part of a copycat operation which targeted three tube trains and a bus, believing that to be the original plan.

Now this is the most dangerous assumption. There are many reasons why - even if the first 3+1 method was not planned - that the second wave would follow that pattern. They might have realised how powerful an above-ground image of an exploded London icon was in terms of generating terror. They may have realised that the psychological impact of not being able to confidently switch to another form of public transport was worth reinforcing. They may have decided that in order to make it seem like a coordinated attack, they should repeat it - musicians know this trick: if you play a bum note, play it again a few more times, and then make a big show of resolving the note - that way it seems deliberate instead of a fuck-up.

This assumption is dangerous because it may colour the prosecution of the four failed bombers, and it may forestall lines of enquiry that might ultimately point to a wider conspiracy.

Indeed, the final conclusion is that these were "self-starter" terrorists, and not linked to a bigger plot. That may very well turn out to be the case, but it is not a conclusion that can be drawn from the above.

Like Mayor Ken Livingstone, who I think is taking the most sensible approach to the policing crisis of any party, I have every confidence that the London Metropolitan Police do a great job of protecting this city. But if these 'conclusions' are official (and not leaked to the ES by some of the rotten apples in the force that Livingstone suggested troll its corridors) then we are in trouble.

You don't need a deerstalker to work out that these call logs hint at much, but prove nothing.    


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