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MI5 blunders over bomber

War on Terrorism: Observer special
The making of a human timebomb

Nick Paton Walsh, Kamal Ahmed and Paul Harris
Sunday December 30, 2001
The Observer

British security services knew of links between shoe bomber Richard Reid and one 11 September hijack suspect late last year, but failed to track Reid before he tried to blow up an airliner, according to US intelligence reports.

The Observer can reveal that MI5 agents intercepted phone calls between Reid and the suspect, Zacarias Moussaoui, which directly linked Bromley-born Reid to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda net work, but did not realise their implication until it was too late. This was condemned last night as a serious breakdown in intelligence.

Oliver Letwin, the Tory shadowing Home Secretary David Blunkett, said: 'One would expect action to have been taken earlier. The Home Secretary will need to give a convincing explanation of the reasons for the delay.'

The calls, made between the pair in Britain and monitored by MI5, ended abruptly when Moussaoui left Britain for Pakistan on 9 December last year to attend an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

Investigators suspect Reid, who met Moussaoui in London in the mid-Nineties and had been to Pakistan before, followed him to Afghanistan. Moussaoui returned to London last February. Reid reappeared in Britain last summer.

Scotland Yard was not informed of the security risk that Reid posed. MI5 had had Moussaoui under surveillance in the UK in the months before he left for Pakistan. He was then arrested by US authorities in August.

However, Reid was not followed or picked up for questioning in Britain. Investigators are now scouring records of flights between London and Pakistan to see whether Reid and Moussaoui travelled separately or together, and if any other suspect flew with them. Reid has fervently denied being part of a terrorist network or going to Afghanistan, although American sources insist he is linked to al-Qaeda.

The Yard says Reid has not been a 'regular resident' in the UK since 1998, and he has admitted spending much of his time at an'Islamic school' in Pakistan. He stopped regular visits to the Brixton mosque in mid-1998, and is thought to have travelled back and forth between London and Pakistan between then and the bombing attempt.

His last visit to Pakistan was in August when he contacted the British consulate about a possible passport renewal, Foreign Office sources said.

Al-Qaeda soldiers, interrogated in Kandahar by the CIA, say Reid was a recruit in one of group's camps in southern Afghanistan, and US intelligence sources confirm this. Moussaoui and Reid 'went to the same training camp in Afghanistan where Reid has explosives training' said a US intelligence official.

The revelation that Reid acted with the backing of a sophisticated terrorist network linked to al-Qaeda comes as intelligence documents have also revealed that bin Laden has been given detailed advice on making a 'hybrid' nuclear device.

The advice came from Dr Bashir-ud-Din Mahmood, formerly the nuclear director of the Pakistani Atomic Energy Commission, say Western intelligence services.

They say he was bin Laden's 'nuclear secretary' who directly helped the terrorist leader in his pursuit of a nuclear capability. The documents say Mahmood has now admitted giving him designs for devices.

Sources said that bin Laden was developing a hybrid nuclear 'gun and implosion device'. Although the documents say he has access to radioactive material, they conclude that it is unlikely he has enoughto explode a nuclear bomb.

The US papers add that Mahmood met bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar in 2001 and provided information about the infrastructure needed for a nuclear weapons programme and the effects of these devices.

Senior Government officials now admit that bin Laden is further ahead with a development programme than was initially thought.

The advanced plans for a nuclear device and the failure to stop Reid compound growing fears of the power and sophistication of al-Qaeda and the seeming inability of the intelligence services to combat it.

Reid appeared in a Boston court on Friday on charges relating to his attempt to blow up a transatlantic flight with a bomb in his shoes.

Additional reporting: Burhan Wazir

News investigation: the making of a terrorist
30.12.2001: MI5 blunders over bomber
30.12.2001: Investigation: The making of a human timebomb
30.12.2001: The shoe bomber: Unanswered questions
30.12.2001: Air safety: British device sniffs out shoe bombs

Terrorism crisis news
30.12.2001: We may never find bin Laden, Bush concedes
30.12.2001: BBC hires detective agency to fight 6m libel action

Afghanistan's future
Afghanistan: Observer special
30.12.2001: Tyranny of veil is slow to lift
30.12.2001: Kabul diary: Normal service returns with sex on the telly
23.12.2001: Afghanistan's past haunts the rebirth of a nation
23.12.2001: Karzai vows to build an era of peace

30.12.2001: Leader: Let this be a brave New Year
30.12.2001: Terry Jones: this is 'success'?
23.12.2001: Henry Porter: The triumph of reason

Special reports
Afghanistan: Observer special
Terrorism crisis: special report
War on terrorism: the inside story
Terrorism Crisis: Observer comment in full
Observer Liberty Watch campaign
Islam and the West special
09.12.2001: Focus special: the future of war
28.10.2001: Observer investigation: The making of bin Laden

More from Guardian Unlimited
Special report: attack on America
Special report: war in Afghanistan
Attack on Afghanistan: interactive guides
Special report: Iraq
Special report: Pakistan


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