Among many other elements of the Blair government’s decision to join the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the report of the Chilcot Inquiry provides forensic detail about not merely how the Blair government was warned it would increase the threat of terrorism, but that it ignored that warning because of a commitment to making a political point.
While the inquiry report shows the flawed intelligence process that led to false claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction stockpile, and the political process that led to Blair hyping the threat of those WMDs, it also details the specific risks judged by British intelligence agencies relating to terrorism, those WMDs and their potential use by terrorists or Hussein himself against the West.
The main form in which these judgements were conveyed to Blair and his government were Joint Intelligence Committee assessments — reports prepared by a cabinet office committee composed of the heads of MI6, MI5, the surveillance agency GCHQ, Defence Intelligence and Defence, Foreign Office and other senior bureaucrats, chaired by a permanent head (usually a former senior intelligence officer); representatives from the CIA and Australian, Canadian and New Zealand intelligence services may also participate in the group. The committee has its own assessments staff as well as the material provided by the three collection agencies.
The assessments provided by JIC on terrorism in the lead-up to the attack on Iraq make for damning reading. JIC advised Blair that there was little chance of Saddam Hussein co-operating with al-Qaeda. In November 2001, JIC advised “Saddam Hussein had ‘refused to permit any Al Qaida presence in Iraq'”; “evidence of contact between Iraq and Usama Bin Laden (UBL) was ‘fragmentary and uncorroborated'” and that “we judge it unlikely … There is no evidence UBL’s organisation has ever had a presence in Iraq”. There was, according to JIC, “no credible evidence of covert transfers of WMD-related technology and expertise to terrorist groups”.
In early 2003, JIC told Blair “despite the presence of terrorists in Iraq ‘with links to Al Qaida’, there was ‘no intelligence of current co-operation between Iraq and Al Qaida'” and that “Al Qaida would ‘not carry out attacks under Iraqi direction’.”
What about Saddam himself? Would he launch terror attacks against the West? In 2002 and again in 2003, JIC assessed “Saddam’s ‘capability to conduct effective terrorist attacks’ was ‘very limited’ and Iraq’s “‘terrorism capability’ was ‘inadequate to carry out chemical or biological attacks beyond individual assassination attempts using poisons’.”
Afterwards the head of MI5, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, said that this assessment of Saddam’s minimal capacity to launch terror attacks on the West had “turned out to be the right judgement”. However, JIC did warn beforehand that attacking Saddam would increase the possibility of a terror response, even if his capacity was limited. He would “… aim to use terrorism or the threat of it. Fearing the US response, he is likely to weigh the costs and benefits carefully in deciding the timing and circumstances in which terrorism is used.”
But what about in the future? Could Saddam Hussein develop a capacity to launch terror attacks at the West using WMDs? Again, intelligence agencies disputed the possibility:
“Asked specifically about the theory that at some point in the future Saddam Hussein would probably have brought together international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in a threat to Western interests, Baroness Manningham‑Buller responded: ‘It is a hypothetical theory. It certainly wasn’t of concern in either the short‑term or the medium‑term to my colleagues and myself.'”
So, Blair was told by intelligence agencies there was little threat of Saddam launching terror attacks on the West or of him working with al-Qaeda to do so — but attacking him would increase that threat, albeit within his limited capacity.
But intelligence agencies also made assessments about the broader consequences of an attack on Hussein. According to the report, in February 2003, JIC warned Blair that “Al Qaida and associated networks would remain the greatest terrorist threat to the UK and its activity would increase at the onset of any military action against Iraq”.
Moreover, the removal of Saddam Hussein would increase the risk that any WMDs (which fortunately turned out to be fictional) could fall into the hands of terrorists. This was the JIC advice Blair got:
“Al Qaida and associated groups will continue to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat will be heightened by military action against Iraq. The broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war, reflecting intensified anti‑US/anti‑Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West. And there is a risk that the transfer of CB [chemical and biological] material or expertise, during or in the aftermath of conflict, will enhance Al Qaida’s capabilities.”
The following week, JIC repeated the warning to Blair, then repeated it again in March. The report states “Baroness Manningham‑Buller subsequently added [in her evidence to the inquiry] that if Ministers had read the JIC Assessments they could ‘have had no doubt’ about that risk.”
This is chilling reading. As Crikey and many others have been pointing out for years, Manningham‑Buller told the inquiry that they knew afterwards that attack on Iraq led to to an increase in the terror threat to the United Kingdom. She told the inquiry:
“I think we can produce evidence because of the numerical evidence of the number of plots, the number of leads, the number of people identified, and the correlation of that to Iraq and statements of people as to why they were involved … So I think the answer to your … question: yes.”
But now we know in detail that intelligence agencies before the attack repeatedly warned of exactly that outcome, without the benefit of hindsight. Why did Blair not heed that advice? In his statement to the inquiry, he said: “I was aware of the JIC Assessment of 10 February that the Al Qaida threat to the UK would increase. But I took the view then and take the same view now that to have backed down because of the threat of terrorism would be completely wrong … There are ample justifications such terrorists will use as excuses for terrorism.”
Blair’s second point can be disposed of quickly: terrorists can always find justifications for their attacks, yes — the issue was the increase in their ability to recruit willing supporters to help them conduct those attacks that is the key issue, and the attack on Iraq acted “as a recruiting sergeant for a young generation throughout the Islamic and Arab world”.
Which leaves his first point: he deliberately ignored repeated advice that he was increasing the risk of terror attacks on the West in order to make a political point about “not backing down” — a point all the more absurd given repeated advice that Hussein posed minimal terror threat to the West anyway.
There are many far worse consequences of this illegal, immoral war: hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis (the allies who invaded Iraq, Chilcot notes, didn’t bother keeping any accurate record of civilian casualties), over 4000 US personnel, 179 UK personnel dead, the scores killed in post-Iraq terror attacks in Western cities, hundreds of thousands of allied personnel and Iraqis injured, an estimated long-term cost of US$4 trillion, the rise of Islamic State, the dominance of the Iranian regime over Iraq. But the invasion didn’t even succeed on its own terms — it was a “strategic failure”, as the report notes — because it never could have succeeded. The advice to Blair was that Saddam posed a limited terror threat, even with WMDs, and removing him would increase the risk of terrorism. Blair went ahead in full cognisance of that and helped remove him. He has a sea of blood on his hands, along with his co-conspirator George W. Bush and vassal state leaders like John Howard who obediently fell into line with the attack.
The most important duty of a political leader is to keep his or her nation safe. Blair, Bush and Howard made us less safe. The Chilcot Inquiry demonstrates how they did so wilfully.