MI5 missed a glaring opportunity to identify the July 7 bombing ringleader when a clear surveillance photograph of Mohammad Sidique Khan was “appallingly” cropped in half, it emerged yesterday.
Due to its subsequent poor quality the picture, which showed less than half of Khan’s head after it was altered by the Security Service, was not shown to an informant who could have established his terrorist credentials more than a year before the 2005 attacks.
The July 7 inquests heard that the alterations “entirely obliterated” the defining features of Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, the Aldgate bomber, who had been photographed in a service station in February 2004 after they met known terror suspects. The informant was never shown the original.
A senior MI5 officer, who earlier claimed there were no intelligence failings in relation to the plot, admitted that the altered photograph “could have been in better shape” but said that the officer who had changed it had been “under significant pressure”.
Hugo Keith, QC, lead counsel to the inquests, told the spy, known only as Witness G: “I think one of my children could have done a better job of cropping out that photograph.”
The grainy, black and white cropped picture of Tanweer was sent to US authorities for perusal by Mohammed Junaid Babar, an extremist turned informant. Babar did not identify him as they had never met.
Witness G admitted that the cropped Khan picture was never shown as it was of even “poorer” quality.
Although Babar had set up a terror training camp in Pakistan attended by Khan, 30, the previous year, he would only eventually identify the bomber from other photos after the attacks.
Mr Keith told the hearing, at the Royal Courts of Justice, that “a little care might not have gone amiss” in the cropping. He added: “The systems must have been in place to allow a colour photograph to be transmitted to America.”
Witness G said that it had to be sent “at speed”. Defending the decision to produce grainy photos, he said that MI5 could not send originals as it could expose detail about the “covert means” in which they were captured.
Mr Keith noted that it would have only shown a Burger King fast food outlet at Toddington Services, on the M1 in Bedfordshire, which was visited by the pair after they met Omar Kyham, the ringleader of a foiled fertiliser bomb plot.
John Taylor, whose daughter Carrie was murdered aged 24 at Aldgate, said: “In the grainy photo of Tanweer, I don’t think even his mother would be able to recognise him.”
The inquests heard how MI5 had had four separate strands of intelligence on Khan before the bombings but failed to link crucial leads due to a lack of information-sharing and confusion about the spelling of his name.
Witness G, the first member of the Security Service to answer questions publicly about July 7, expressed his “profound regret” that MI5 did not prevent the attacks. But he rejected any suggestion of “significant intelligence failings”, adding it would be “nonsensical and offensive” to suggest that the Security Service had an inkling of what was to befall London but did not act.
He said it “would not have been appropriate” to conduct surveillance on Khan and Tanweer, even though they were meeting the people who planned to blow up targets including the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London. He argued that even if investigative steps had been taken, their later plot would not necessarily have been uncovered. Mr Keith detailed how Khan’s name, and variations of it, came up in a series of investigations between early 2003 and March 2005, but the Security Service did not put the strands together.
Asked if systems existed at the time which would have enabled officers to put the names together to discover this “worrying element”, Witness G said that “they could have done” but that Sidique Khan was a common name.
He detailed a series of changes to working practices and computer systems that have been put in place since the 2005 attacks.
The hearing continues.