It’s been quite hard to be sure about anything to do with the recent terror alerts. After all, the unfortunate tendency of the intelligence services and police to continually identify false positives, such as the shootings of Jean Charles de Menezes and Mohammed Abdul Kahar, does not immediately inspire confidence in their claims. Meanwhile, the mainstream press have often been complicit in feeding on whatever bone their source in the Met throws them (remember the terrifying “chemical vest” and “poison gas” stories after Forest Gate?), regardless of its veracity. But this is not to say I don’t believe that this was a genuine terrorist plot; merely that I am not totally convinced one way or the other; I am still waiting for more evidence to corroborate the security services’ claims.
However, I am fairly sure that our political leaders were at least utterly convinced that there was a clear and present danger, if only because the Blair government lives in fear of the wrath of the air industry; Gordon Brown has refused to increase air passenger duty; New Labour is more than happy to rubber-stamp unchecked growth in airport building and exempts the aviation industry from VAT and taxes fuel at a much lower rate than that of cars. For the government to introduce measures which, in the short term will cost one of its favourite industries millions of pounds, and in the long term possibly make their product less desirable through highly inconvenient security measures (the complaints have begun), without a genuine belief that lives were imminently at stake, would be highly contradictory.
So the belief is genuine, at the very least. However, there is still no smoking gun; most crucially – no explosives have been found. It has now been 72 hours since the first alert and the initial raids, but as I write no explosive devices have been found, nor any bomb factories or bomb-making equipment. So instead we’re left to the press’s best guess. According to what you read the bombs were made from nitroglycerine. Or TATP. Or nitromethane. Or kerosene and ammonium nitrate. They would consist of one chemical smuggled on, being undetectable by sniffer dogs. Either that, or it would be made from two or more “benign” chemicals that would be mixed together on the plane; the bomb would be detonated by a lighter or matches smuggled on board. Or a jerry-rigged iPod. Or a mobile phone. This would be either set on a timer, or alternatively triggered manually by a suicide bomber.
See what I mean about it being hard to be sure of anything? And all the while, a nagging question is forming at the back of my head: “Where are the explosives?” The plotters must have been close to completion for such a massive alert to be called, yet nothing has yet been found. Perhaps you think I’m being unfair, belittling the security services for going too slowly in what is a difficult investigation. For comparison though, the July 7th investigators, hampered by the lack of any live suspects or human intelligence, took five days to find the premises in which the bombs had been made, raiding them on July 12th. No two circumstances are the same so it wouldn’t be fair to judge yet, but there’s certainly a case for us to start to ask questions.
Given the information environment we now live in, perhaps it’s natural that the blogosphere is the first with scepticism -and I am not the only one to have doubts. Is it the fault of a mainstream press, over-keen to print page upon page of scaremongering and speculation with little established fact, and creating a vacuum in the process? Or is it that a government so keen to hype up terror threats that “boy cried wolf” syndrome has now irreversibly set in? Or is the blogosphere too cynical for its own good, too caught up in paranoia and mistrust of authority to believe anything it is told?
I’m not sure which situation I would prefer – to find out that we’re in denial and we came perilously close to mass murder conducted by a sophisticated conspiracy, or that our government and security services don’t have a clue about whether such threats exist, let alone who or where they are. But the question “where are the explosives?” still needs to be asked, even if, or perhaps especially if, the answer is something we might not like. So let’s keep asking it.