MI5 today expressed “profound regret” for failing to prevent the 7/7 bombings.
One of the Security Service’s most senior officers told the inquest into the attacks that every member of the agency lamented the fact that the Yorkshire-based plot ringleader Mohammed Sidique Khan was not fully investigated before the atrocities.
The top spy, who can be named only as Witness G, insisted MI5 had “no inkling” of what was to befall London on July 7 2005 and said it would be “nonsensical and offensive” to suggest otherwise.
Hugo Keith QC, counsel to the inquest, said: “You have nevertheless recorded that it is a matter of profound regret that despite its efforts and industry, the Security Service did not manage to ascertain the full significance, and intentions importantly, of Mohammed Sidique Khan and thus did not manage to prevent the atrocities of July 7.”
Witness G said: “Every member of the service feels that.”
Khan and his number two, Shehzad Tanweer, were seen meeting known terror suspects 17 months before the July 7 2005 London bombings, which killed 52 innocent people.
Witness G was called to give evidence to the inquest about whether Britain’s security agencies could have drawn together intelligence about the pair’s links with extremists and established they were planning mass murder.
The top spy, who is chief of staff to MI5 director general Jonathan Evans, spoke of the large number of serious terrorist conspiracies under investigation around the time of the 7/7 attacks.
He described a plot to bring down transatlantic airliners foiled in 2006 as the gravest threat faced by the Security Service since the Second World War.
“In terms of the seriousness of the plot, I believe it is the most significant thing the service has been involved in since 1945,” he said.
Witness G defended MI5 against the suggestion it could in some way be held responsible for the July 7 atrocity.
Asked if he rejected the assertion that there had been “significant intelligence failings”, he replied simply: “I do.”
The inquest has heard how counter-terrorism officers watched, photographed and followed Khan and Tanweer in early 2004 during their inquiry into the group of extremists planning a fertiliser bomb attack, but did not fully identify them at the time.
Following the conclusion of this investigation, code-named Crevice, they launched Operation Scrawl.
This sought to follow up individuals who had come to their attention during surveillance of the core Crevice plotters.
While they had unearthed some 4,000 “contacts”, the task was assigned to just one MI5 officer, the inquest heard.
This person, though given some assistance, was also responsible for “other work going on at the time,” Witness G told the hearing.
But he said the Service had subsequently beefed up its reviewing techniques.
Asked if lessons had been learnt from the follow-up of Crevice which was not “quite as thorough” as it might have been, he said: “Not just Crevice, I think we learnt lessons from a number of operations between 2004 and 2005.”
The inquest is looking at whether MI5 could have drawn together different strands of intelligence about Khan’s links with extremists and established that he was planning mass murder.
Many 7/7 survivors and relatives of those killed in the attacks argue that MI5 had enough information about the bomber to make him a priority for an in-depth investigation which would have uncovered his plot.
Witness G, who in July 2005 was a senior manager in a department which worked to counter international terrorism, explained that this area consumed the largest part of the Security Service’s budget.
Spending had increased dramatically in the years leading up to 7/7, he said.
But, at the time, there was concern that a somewhat limited budget meant the service was forced to “prioritise ruthlessly” and could only pin down the “crocodiles nearest the boat”.
By July 2005, efforts were under way to boost resources but these are only nearing completion now - more than five years after the worst single terror attack on British soil.
“The planning process really began in 2001 and is only coming to an end now,” Witness G told the hearing.