Times of London U.S. Editor Gerard Baker on the new threat of terrorism in the UK, and how Britain might react to it.
HH: Joined now by Gerard Baker. He is the United States editor for the Times of London, also a contributor to the Weekly Standard. Gerard, welcome back, always a pleasure to speak with you.
GB: Thank you, Hugh, my pleasure.
HH: Your paper had a huge story yesterday which I cannot believe is not getting more press. It begins, “Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq are planning their first large-scale terrorist attacks on Britain and other Western targets with the help of supporters in Iran, according to a leaked intelligence report.” Gerard Baker, first of all, are you surprised that the story is not generating more interest?
GB: Yeah, a little bit surprised. I mean, one of the problems is there is, a lot of this information does tend to come out especially in Britain, and there’s…I have to be perfectly frank with you here and say that the standards, sometimes, of some British newspapers are not necessarily always as high as others. I’m not in any way suggesting that my colleague who wrote this article was in any way, his integrity is in any way to be impugned, but part of the problem is that there is so much stuff that comes out, and it’s so, some of it is not particularly well-sourced or well backed up, that people tend to kind of just say well, I’m not sure what to believe. So I read this article, and it seems to me a pretty serious article, and there’s a lot of stuff there. But I think there’s a slight tendency people have to discount some of the things that appear in some of the British papers, quite frankly because there’s too much of it.
HH: After the controversy surrounding intelligence related to WMD, I’m also wondering whether reports by papers of…for example, this leaked report from British intelligence comes from the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center…
HH: …based at MI5’s London headquarters, that there’s a tendency to dismiss intelligence leaks. Is that part of the indifference being displayed today?
GB: Yeah, I think there is. I mean, there’s a question mark, obviously, about the credibility of some of the intelligence. We’ve had some problems, famously with Iraq, but to be really honest, with lots of other issues, too. I mean, Britain has had some of its own intelligence problems, although the British, we like to think that our intelligence has been very good over the years. We’ve had some big problems with it, whether actually it was in the Cold War, or to do with the IRA. So then, there’s also the sense that people with an agenda may be putting this material out. So for all of these reasons, there is a kind of, you know, people treat this stuff with caution when it comes out, although again, as I say, I know you’ve read it, and you look at it, and it seems pretty compelling stuff.
HH: Two parts of the report that was viewed by your reporter at the paper, one, spy chiefs warn that one operative, al Qaeda operative, said he was planning an attack on “a par with Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” in an attempt to, “shake the Roman throne,” a reference to the West. Another plot could be times to coincide with Tony Blair stepping down as prime minister, an event described by al Qaeda planners as a change in the head of the company. First of all, what’s your best understanding of when Blair will retire?
GB: We think that’ll be some time…well, it will certainly be sometime in the summer. The likely betting is he wants to stay on, the G8 Summit in Germany, I think, is in early July, and the expectation is that he’ll stay on beyond that, but not much beyond that. So most people are thinking he’ll be gone…he’ll probably announce it in the next month or so when he’s going to go, but then will actually depart sometime in July, or possibly August.
HH: Okay, so that gives about six months for MI5 and the rest to catch up with whoever is doing this plotting. What is the confidence level of most British in their intelligence agencies?
GB: It’s…again, it’s been damaged, as obviously has been the case in the United States by the intelligence failures over Iraq. I mean, that’s been, that clearly has been damaging, and remember, Britain was, you know, sometimes the British like to think and like to give the impression that they were sort of somehow kind of led down the garden path by the Americans, by the CIA and the other U.S. intelligence agencies on Iraq, and that actually, the good old British actually were just misled. Actually, the British intelligence was as firmly convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and indeed was the source of some of the more contentious, of course, some of the more contentious claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, most notoriously, the famous, the ill-fated 16 words that President Bush used in his state of the union address in 2003. So that has been, so there is a credibility problem with British intelligence. There’s no question about that. Against all of that, however, it really must be said, I don’t think anybody seriously thinks that al Qaeda is not planning some serious attack on Britain. Britain has already suffered one very serious attack, the July, 2005 subway and bus bombings in London. The British authorities have done a very good job, the law enforcement authorities, of thwarting at least one other very serious attack, and several other minor, smaller attacks. So everybody knows that al Qaeda is targeting Britain, that Islamist terrorists are targeting Britain. Britain’s a pretty soft target. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Britain is a very open country, it has kind of open borders. I mean, even though it’s an island, it’s pretty easy to get into Britain. And much more importantly, of course, we have sort or harboring in our own bosom, as it were, extremist, the most extremist, radical Islamist groups who are sworn to carrying out terrorist attacks, and to destroying of what they can of British society. So nobody can be in any doubt at all, really, that attacks are being planned, and that as one, frankly, as one British senior official put it to me quite recently, that it’s just a matter of time when Britain is eventually hit.
HH: Melanie Phillips, who is the author of Londonistan, and I spoke with her today as well, pointed me to a House of Commons speech by Conservative MP Paul Goodman, given last week on the nested Islamist threat in Great Britain. And it makes it sound very, very stark, and the degree of radical extremism very, very high. But is that generally perceived to be a true situation among the British public? Do they realize that they’ve got the viper’s nest inside the country?
GB: I think they do. I mean, there’s a constant battle in Britain, which is even worse in Britain than it is in the U.S., between the kind of politically correct media elite, that doesn’t in any way want to…I mean, either because it’s got a particular political agenda, or because of the kind of constraints of politically correct language, doesn’t want to seem to be kind of singling out ethnic or religious minorities, because they think, they have some sort of deep…partly, to be really honest with you, this is the left wing media in particular, there’s this sort of this kind of self-loathing on the part of the British left wing media elite, places like the BBC and the Guardian, that actually, really, constantly blame
Britain and the United States for everything that goes wrong in the world anyway. And so actually, without directly sympathizing with these terrorists, actually kind of constantly willing to sort of excuse what they do. So there is a constant struggle between the effort of I think the government and law enforcement to persuade the British people of how serious this threat clearly is, and the efforts of the media, to be honest, who just sort of…not all of the media to be fair, some of the media who are constantly trying to downplay it. But my own impression is that most British people are not foolish, and they realize we’ve already been attacked several times, one major attack…
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HH: Al Qaeda in Iraq’s Kurdish network in Iran is planning, what we believe, may be a large scale attack against a Western target. A member of this network is reportedly involved in the operation, which he believes requires al Qaeda core authorization, meaning out of Waziristan or Pakistan or Afghanistan from Zawahiri at least. Now Gerard Baker, in light of that, is anything different on the…if you look at Great Britain, will tourists notice anything different this summer? Will they see increased police presence? Or will they hear of additional resources being directed at the threat?
GB: Yeah, they will, I think that probably, people will notice some differences. There are some things you can notice. Most obviously are things like surveillance cameras. I mean, there are surveillance cameras…I think somebody I saw report recently where somebody estimated that the average person is photographed by a surveillance camera in London something like 700 times a day, or some extraordinary number like that. There is a tremendous amount now of electronic surveillance that goes on. There are, there is increased security at public events. It’s much, much harder than it used to be to get into major sporting events, or to get into public political events, or anything like that, or any use of public places. You will notice much greater security at tourist attractions, that kind of thing. I mean, it’s…we’re not at the point where London feels like it’s in a state of lockdown, but there’s no question that there is an increased security presence. I mean, now that said, I really hope your listeners won’t be put off from visiting London. It’s a fantastic city, and Britain is a great country, and there’s lots…and it’s extremely welcoming. And I do believe that the law enforcement community in Britain has been extremely effective in shutting down these terrorist threats that there have been so far. So we should get into perspective. There is increased security, but it’s Britain…the vast majority of people in Britain go about their daily lives without being seriously interfered with, and so would visitors to London.
HH: And so now…the big question of all is if and when, and it sounds like when, the next attack comes in Great Britain from radical Islamists, what’s that do to the politics of the country, and to the ideology of the country? After July 11th, one expected, perhaps, a greater support for the war. But there’s in fact been less support for the war. What do you suppose would follow another attack?
GB: Well, that’s always hard to figure out. Yes, initially, I mean to be fair, I think most British people rightly or wrongly make a distinction between the Iraq war and terrorism. I mean, I think they believe that Iraq was…although I think that many of them would argue, and according to opinion polls, they do argue that terrorism is now a greater threat since the Iraq war, they understand that, I think that most people don’t think if Britain got out of Iraq we wouldn’t be under threat. They know what the real threat is here. It’s not because of what Britain has done, it is because there are these groups of terrorists who actually just want to destroy Britain and the West. And I think unfortunately, there are very large concentrations of them in places like London. So my guess is that Iraq is now such an unpopular war in Britain, that it’s hard to see one way or another any event has a significant effect on levels of support for it. I think, I mean, the danger…I mean, there’s a danger and an opportunity here. I mean, God forbid there is another attack, but if there is another attack, the danger is that there would be a pretty, there would be growing…unless the government clamps down really firmly on some of these extremist groups, and it hasn’t…I mean, it’s gone some ways towards that, but it probably hasn’t gone far enough. And if there were another attack, I think there’s a danger that you would see a lot of support, political support, more than we’ve had in Britain in the past, for sort of extremist groups, for sort of racist groups who actually want to expel all immigrants. I mean, there’s a political movement that wants to do that from Britain, all immigrants, or anybody who is not essentially sort of white and Christian. And I think that would be unfortunate. The opportunity, not of another attack, but of demonstrating things like this, the attack, the threat that we’re talking about today, or the attacks that have been thwarted in the past, is to galvanize the British public, and British public opinion, so that it does understand exactly where the threat is, that it does understand that it’s not, it’s frankly not the United States, and it’s not what Britain’s doing in Iraq, but it is these extremists, and it is people like that who need to be stopped. So who knows? Nobody knows, really, in the aftermath of an attack how the politics would change. But my sense is that people understand where the threat is, and that would be just sort of, that understanding of it would be heightened in the even of an attack.
HH: Gerard Baker, always a pleasure. Thanks for joining us to explain a little bit about the coverage in the Sunday Times yesterday, and the possible effects of a strike, should it come. Gerard Baker of the Sunday Times and the Times of London, thank you.
End of interview.