Tuesday 15 October Downing St Lobby Briefing
LOBBY BRIEFING: 11AM TUESDAY 15 OCTOBER 2002
BALI/WAR ON TERROR
The PMOS advised journalists that the Prime Minister would be making a Statement to the House of Commons this afternoon following the attack in Bali. He would report on the facts as they were known to us. He would condemn once more what he regarded as an act of pure wickedness. He would also set out what we were doing to help UK survivors and the families of victims, as outlined by the Foreign Secretary overnight. The PMOS reminded journalists that if the casualty figures turned out to be correct, the attack was on a par with past atrocities such as Omagh. The grim catalogue of the numbers of Britons who had died in various atrocities meant that if the Bali figure being quoted - around 30 - was correct, this would be one of the very largest. He would say that he was hoping to speak President Megawati (if he hadn't already done so by the time he delivered his Statement) and would offer the Indonesian authorities our practical support in the investigation. As happened following September 11, intelligence services would have a vital role to play. Groups under suspicion included those with known links to Al Qaida. He would say that this underlined the need for vigilance and to take seriously the threat of terrorist groups who were prepared to kill anyone anywhere. He would point out that the UK had strengthened its laws and security but that none of us were immune from the threat. He would also want to deal with the idea that the international community could not focus on Iraq and terrorism at the same time. Obviously it could. He would say that the old threats had been replaced by new ones - terrorism, extremism and fundamentalism, rogue states with weapons of mass destruction and the advance of technology. He would underline that we all had a duty to deal with such threats because wherever these groups struck or wherever these weapons might be used, we in this country would be affected.
Questioned as to how the Prime Minister expected to deal with the issue of conducting a 'war on two fronts', the PMOS said it was not a question of focussing in on the war against terrorism to the exclusion of other threats. Global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction were both serious threats and both had to be addressed. The international community had already done a significant amount to tackle the former. Many domestic laws had been tightened and there was now unparalleled co-operation between the different intelligence services around the world. Action had also been taken in relation to choking off terrorists' finances. Did that mean that we had extinguished the threat completely or even that we would be able to do so? Of course not. However, we had disrupted networks and made it much harder for terrorist groups to operate. As the Prime Minister had underlined in his Statement to the Commons on September 14 2001, in the first instance we had had to deal with Al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Obviously the end of military action in Afghanistan was not an indication that the war against Al Qaida and terrorism was complete. That was still continuing. However, as the Prime Minister had said in his Statement to the Commons on 14 September 2001, we would need to move onto the issue of weapons of mass destruction. It was not a question of either/or. Nor was it a question of a trade-off between the two. Both were threats and both had to be dealt with. As different as they were, both were real and had to be addressed.
Questioned further about the issue of fighting a war on two fronts, the PMOS said it was important to recognise that weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism were both serious threats. It was absurd and wrong to say that dealing with Al Qaida and tackling the threat from global terrorism - action on which we had to continue to redouble our efforts and retain our focus - meant that we were unable to deal with the issue of weapons of mass destruction.
Asked why the Prime Minister was reluctant to blame Al Qaida for the attack in Bali when President Bush and Prime Minister Howard of Australia had both accused them of being responsible for the atrocity, the PMOS said that we had no specific intelligence as to who was responsible at this stage. That said, we were aware of a number of extremist organisations in the region with strong links to Al Qaida, such as Jemaah Islamiyah. It was therefore inevitable that a great deal of suspicion was focussing on that area. At this stage, however, we were unable to say for certain who was responsible.
Put to him that attempts to blame Al Qaida for the Bali attack could adversely affect the war against terrorism given it was just as likely the atrocity had been the work of a local extremist group with an ongoing grudge against the Indonesian authorities, the PMOS reiterated the fact that we were aware of the existence of extremist groups in Indonesia with links to Al Qaida. That was where suspicion focussed and clearly intelligence would grow as the investigation continued.
Asked whether the Prime Minister would give any credence to the possibility that the Bali attack was a direct response to - and an escalation of - the war against terrorism and whether he believed that the war against terrorism had been a success so far, the PMOS said that we had been crystal clear ever since September 11 that further attacks were likely. That remained the case post-Bali. It was simply a demonstration of the nature of the evil with which we were dealing. We were talking about fanatics who did not care about indiscriminate slaughter, who did not care how many people they killed, who didn't care what damage they did to the social fabric and infrastructure of the countries from which they came. In Bali, for example, the impact of the attack on the economy and its people was considerable. Was the attack at the weekend an escalation of the war against terrorism? The truth, as we had consistently pointed out, was that the threat had never gone away. By definition, it was hard to identify barometers of success when dealing with an issue as difficult as international terrorism. However, there was no doubt that the action which had been taken in Afghanistan to close the Al Qaida training camps had had a significant impact in terms of disrupting their activities. Similarly, we would argue that the co-operation of intelligence agencies around the world had prevented other attacks, although we acknowledged that that was difficult to prove. In addition, the measures being taken to choke off the international financing of terrorist groups, in addition to the tightening of domestic laws, were also having an effect. Given we were dealing with fanatics, it was impossible to say with certainty that there would be no further attacks in the future. There were likely to be some. Nevertheless, it was important to recognise that we had made things more difficult for them.
Questioned as to whether we had been able to extend the ISAF mandate beyond Kabul, the PMOS said not at this stage. Asked what action had been taken over the past year to combat the terrorist threat in South East Asia, the PMOS said that we had set up programmes to help regional governments in the area. For example, we were training the Philippine authorities in counter-terrorism, crisis management techniques, hostage negotiation and police investigations. In Malaysia, Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorism Branch was setting up schemes to teach people bomb disposal skills. In Indonesia, we were planning aviation security training and crisis management training. We had also offered bomb disposal and bomb-scene management training. Obviously we would look at ways to expand that work in the light of the atrocity at the weekend.
The PMOS informed journalists that John Reid would be making a Statement to the House of Commons this afternoon to update MPs on where we were following the suspension of the Northern Ireland institutions overnight, and how we could take things forward.
Asked about the next steps for Northern Ireland in light of the suspension of the institutions, the PMOS noted that it was extremely difficult to sustain the institutions given the distrust which existed at the moment. As everyone was aware, the oxygen of the peace process was trust. We now had to sit down with the Irish Government and the parties and agree a process through which we could seek to rebuild it. As John Reid had pointed out yesterday, the suspension of the institutions had given us a breathing space. It did not, in any shape or form, mark the end of the Good Friday Agreement. In fact, many of the elements of the Agreement would be continuing regardless. However, it was important to utilise the pause in the operation of the institutions and discuss how we could move forward from here. We recognised that it would be difficult. However, we had been able to overcome problems in the past and we would continue to work hard to try to overcome the present one. Equally, people needed to have confidence that all involved were wedded to exclusively democratic means.
Questioned as to whether the Northern Ireland Policing Board would continue its work, the PMOS said yes, as far as he was aware. As the Northern Ireland Secretary had underlined yesterday, policing reform had been, and would continue to be, very important.
Asked if there was any truth to Irish reports that the current suspension would be different compared to those of the past because the Irish Government would have an enhanced role through the Intergovernmental Conference, the PMOS said that as he understood it, some of the issues which would have been dealt with by the North-South bodies, for example, would now be dealt with by the structures set up by the Intergovernmental conference, which in turn had been established under Strand 3 of the Good Friday Agreement. However, the issues which had been devolved to the Executive would now pro term be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Office.