Tuesday June 27, 2006
On July 10 last year, Bridget Dunne opened the Sunday newspapers eager for information about the blasts that had brought death and mayhem to London three days earlier. Like many people that weekend, Dunne was confused by the conflicting reports surrounding what had initially been described as a series of "power surges" on the tube. Why were the Metropolitan Police saying that these surges, which were now being attributed to bombs, had occurred simultaneously at 8.50am, when they had originally been described as taking place over the space of 26 minutes?
Dunne, a 51-year-old foster carer, was also having trouble squaring the Met's statement on July 8 that there was "no evidence to suggest that the attacks were the result of suicide bombings" with the growing speculation that Islamic suicide bombers and al-Qaida were to blame for the blasts that had hit the London underground and a bus in Tavistock Square. The Met Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, had talked himself of "these people who oppose our way of life".
"I'm not a conspiracy theorist," insists Dunne. "I was just trying to make a cohesive, coherent story from the facts."
But while the papers that Sunday were full of interviews with people who had survived the bombs, and there was plenty of speculation about Osama bin Laden's involvement, Dunne could find nothing about the times of the tube trains in and out of King's Cross on the morning of July 7.
When, a few days later, police released the now famous CCTV image of Shehzad Tanweer, Mohammad Sidique Khan, Jermaine Lindsay and Hasib Hussain entering Luton station, her suspicions deepened. How had police identified the bombers so quickly? And how was it that amid the carnage of twisted metal and bloody body parts they had been able to recover credit cards and other ID placing the men at the scene of the crime?
Suspecting something was not right, Dunne, who lives in Camden, north London, wrote to her local paper. "Do you think we are being told the truth over these bombings?" she asked. "There are so many unanswered questions that just don't make any sense."
Dunne's letter was immediately picked up by a blogger called Blaugustine and within days she found herself the recipient, via the internet, of other intriguing snippets, such as the claim that on the morning of 7/7 a former Scotland Yard anti-terrorism branch official had been staging a training exercise based on bombs going off simultaneously at precisely the stations that had been targeted. Convinced more than ever that something was not right, Dunne decided to share her thoughts with her new friends on the internet.
"I have only one reason for starting this blog," she wrote last August. "It is to ascertain the facts behind the events in London on and since the July 7 2005 ... That the times of trains were totally absent from the public domain was one of the factors which led to my suspicions that what we were being told happened was not what actually happened."
It was a few days after the blasts that I first became aware of the disconnect between what most people believe and accept happened on 7/7 - that four British-born Muslim men decided, of their own volition and for reasons that we may never fully understand, to detonate a series of suicide bombs on the London underground - and what people like Dunne suspect happened.
Like many Londoners, I never reached my office on the morning of July 7 but arrived at the tube at 9.30am to find it already closed. Dispatched by the Guardian's newsdesk directly to Edgware Road, I arrived just as passengers from the bombed westbound Circle line train were emerging from the temporary triage centre that had been set up in Marks & Spencer by a former firefighter, Paul Dadge.
As with other major London crime scenes - the Israeli embassy bombing in Kensington, the Paddington rail crash, the Brixton nail bombing - the situation was one of confusion and flux. The police had only just begun to cordon off the station, while the fire brigade was attributing the incident to a power surge, even though it was already obvious to all but the greenest commuter that three simultaneous incidents on the tube made little sense even by London underground's woeful performance standards.
I asked passengers what they had seen and experienced and was told by two survivors from the bombed train that, at the moment of the blast, the covers on the floor of their carriage had flown up - the phrase they used was "raised up". There was no time to check their statements as moments later the police widened the cordon and I was directed to the opposite pavement, outside the Metropole hotel.
Moments later, Davinia Turrell, the famous "woman in the mask", emerged from M&S together with other injured passengers and I followed them into the hotel. It was from there that at around 11am I phoned a hurried, and what I now know to be flawed, audio report to the Guardian. In the report, broadcast on our website, I said that it "was believed" there had been an explosion "under the carriage of the train". I also said that "some passengers described how the tiles, the covers on the floors of the train, flew up, raised up".
It later became clear from interviewing other passengers who had been closer to the seat of the explosion that the bomb had actually detonated inside the train, not under it, but my comments, disseminated over the internet where they could be replayed ad nauseam, were already taking on a life of their own.
"Did July 7 bombs explode under trains?" read a posting that referred to my report a few weeks later. "Eyewitness accounts appear to contradict the theory that suicide bombers were responsible for killing 39 [sic] passengers on London's tube network that day."
Another went even further: "How Black Ops staged the London bombings: Staged terror events - like magic tricks - rely on misdirection to throw people off the track ... The bombs on the underground were not in the tube carriages. They were under the floors of the carriages."
Soon, internet chatrooms and blog sites were buzzing with even more bizarre theories: the bombers thought they were delivering drugs but were deceived, set up and murdered; or they thought they were carrying dummy "bombs" designed to test London's defences; or the plot was monitored by any number of secret services, from M15 to the CIA to Mossad, who let it happen in order to foment anti-Muslim feeling. Then there are the claims by 9/11 conspiracy theorists that 7/7, like the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, were all part of a cunning scheme to further the pro-Iraq war agenda of the Bush/Blair governments and the "New World Order".
In the past week we have had two more claims. The first came in a book by US journalist Ron Suskind, alleging that Khan was considered so dangerous by the FBI that in 2003 the US placed him on a "no fly list" - a claim that was promptly rubbished by the FBI as a case of mistaken identity.
Then, on Saturday, this paper reported that a computer technician who helped to encrypt emails at an Islamic bookshop in Leeds where Khan and Tanweer used to hang out became so alarmed by their calls for jihad that in October 2003 he delivered a dossier to West Yorkshire anti-terrorist police. Martin Gilbertson's claims have not been denied. West Yorkshire police simply admitted it couldn't say whether or not his dossier had "made its way into the intelligence system".
Given such confusion, the proliferation of 7/7 conspiracy theories is hardly surprising. Ever since the Kennedy assassination, people's faith in the official narratives surrounding seismic political events has been steadily eroding. In their place have come what Don DeLillo, in Libra, his brilliant psychological novel about Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, calls "theories that gleam like jade idols". Such theories are seductive precisely because, as DeLillo puts it, they are "four-faced, graceful". Employing a 20/20 hindsight whose starting point is always cui bono - who benefits? - they masquerade as an interrogation of the facts but are actually a labyrinth of mirrors.
But whereas in 1988, when Libra was published, it took years for conspiracy theories to come together through the sluggish medium of print and telephone, today such networks can be created instantaneously with a few clicks of a mouse.
At first sight, Dunne appears as far removed from this paranoid ether-world as you could imagine. Ushering me into her flat, she says she would dearly love to "turn the clock back to before July 7, before I had all these questions" and, for a moment, I believe her.
"Before my letter was published in the Camden New Journal, I had little idea of how the internet or blogs worked," she tells me. "I was surprised to discover how many people shared my concerns."
Today, however, Dunne appears extremely internet savvy. She has invited a colleague to our meeting - a blogger with long dark hair who gives his name only as the Antagonist. From Dunne's blog you can link directly to the Antagonist and other bookmarked sites including that of the July 7 Truth Campaign.
At first glance this appears to be an objective guide to everything that happened on 7/7 and afterwards. But click a little deeper and it soon becomes apparent that the campaign, with its linked people's inquiry forum and petition calling for the release of "all the evidence" about 7/7, considers the official Home Office account, in which the blame is laid squarely on the four suicide bombers pictured entering Luton station, to be just a "story".
The first "hole" in the narrative is the Home Office's claim that on July 7 the quartet boarded a 7.40am Thameslink train to King's Cross. According to Dunne, when an independent researcher visited Luton and demanded a train schedule from Thameslink, he was told that the 7.40am had never run and that the next available train, the 7.48, had arrived at King's Cross at 8.42 - in other words too late for the bombers to have boarded the three tube trains that exploded, according to the official timings, eight minutes later at Aldgate, Edgware Road and Russell Square.
The next problem is the CCTV picture. If you look closely at the image, Dunne says, you will see that the railings behind Khan, the man in the white baseball cap, appear to run in front of his left arm while another rail appears to slice through his head. "It's just a theory but some people believe the image was faked in Photoshop," she tells me.
To Dunne's way of thinking, this theory is bolstered by the fact that police have never released the further CCTV footage showing the four emerging on to the concourse at King's Cross where, according to the home office narrative, they are seen hugging and appear "euphoric". Then there is the "fact" that in the only other CCTV sequence of the bombers taken on June 28 (the day police believe they made a test run to London), only three men - Khan, Tanweer and Lindsay - are seen entering Luton station. Hasib Hussain, who would detonate a rucksack bomb on the top deck of the No 30 bus, providing the only above-ground image of what Sir Ian Blair would later call "the largest criminal inquiry in English history", is nowhere to be seen.
"I know people who have spoken to Hasib Hussain's family," says Dunne. "He was in the middle of his college career. He was taking driving lessons. I don't have a conspiracy theory, but until I've seen all the evidence and can personally join the dots I can't say that he or any of these men were suicide bombers."
Dunne and the Antagonist aren't the only ones who would like to see all the evidence. Rachel North, who was travelling in the front carriage of the Piccadilly line train with Lindsay when he detonated his bomb deep beneath Russell Square, and who miraculously escaped with only minor injuries, has also called for an independent public inquiry.
But unlike Dunne she does not think there is any mystery about what happened. "We all know what happened," she says. "We were there. What we want to know is why it happened."
She says that conspiracy theorists have repeatedly twisted her words to make out there was no bomb on her train and even that she is a professional M15 disinformation agent. When she challenged these claims, she says she was subjected to vitriolic abuse. As a consequence, she refuses to have anything to do with the July 7 Truth Campaign or related sites, arguing that they risk undermining the legitimacy of survivors' calls for a public inquiry.
"I have had endless run-ins with these people," she says. "Some of them are fairly well intentioned, if eccentric, others hugely offensive. I worry that they are making all of us look like conspiracy theorists and/or traumatised people who shouldn't be taken seriously."
She argues that given that inquests have yet to be held, and the ongoing mass-murder inquiry, it is hardly surprising that the police have withheld evidence from the public domain. Quite apart from the distress that the release of CCTV images might cause relatives, North says she has been told there are people in the background of the King's Cross CCTV sequence whom police are still trying to trace.
Police have also kept back details of what the bombers were wearing in order to be sure that witness statements taken from people who may have seen them on the Thameslink train can be corroborated. "Train timetables rarely bear any relation to real life," says North dismissively. "Where conspiracy theorists go with this is that the train never ran, so the bombers were never on the train, or the bombers were lured to Luton and then taken away and killed and their body parts were placed on the tube later to incriminate Muslims. They just take these small anomalies, which is what you will get in any rolling, multi-sourced news investigation, and make it into evidence of a conspiracy."
North isn't the only person with first-hand experience of 7/7 whose testimony has been called into question. Paul Dadge, the "hero of Edgware Road" (it was his idea to set up the temporary triage centre in M&S), who was photographed leading Davinia Turrell from M&S to the Metropole hotel, has also been on the receiving end. On internet bulletin boards people have questioned why he is wearing blue surgical gloves in the picture (reproduced on the cover of G2) and wonder why Turrell, who is now 25, appears "so old" and where she got the mask from.
"Basically, people were saying the picture was made up by the government to forward the campaign against terrorism in Iraq," Dadge tells me when we meet near his office in west London.
Dadge never reached work on 7/7 but was forced to interrupt his journey at Baker Street. Travelling on a westbound Hammersmith & City line train just behind the bombed Circle line train, he left the station at 8.53am and began walking towards Paddington when he noticed the fire engines heading towards Edgware Road and decided to investigate. To this day, his abiding memory, like my own, is one of confusion and chaos. In his testimony to the London Assembly, Dadge told the inquiry team looking into the failings of the emergency response that he felt he had no choice but to take command of the situation as the police were clearly overstretched and it was "becoming difficult to establish who was passing public, and who was involved in the incident".
For the record, Dadge who works for the internet provider AOL and whose job there, ironically, involves monitoring discussion threads, says he was not part of any "black ops" but obtained the gloves from a paramedic in M&S. The same paramedics provided Turrell with the mask to protect her burns. Yet although Dadge, like North, has been a target for vitriol - some objected to his being described as a hero - he doesn't seem to mind.
"I don't read the conspiracy theories and get upset," he says. "I read them and I'm intrigued."
Indeed, it is natural after an event as cataclysmic and unexpected as 7/7 to want to interrogate what happened. But interrogation is not the same as understanding, and after a certain point you must move on.
As I leave Dunne's flat, she tells me that she and the Antagonist are in the process of refining the July 7 Truth Campaign site and are still uncovering new "facts". "I can't explain it but something shifted for me that day," she says.
When I get home, I decide to take a look. Under the heading Some Hypotheses is a list of alternative theories. Number one is "al-Qaida mastermind recruited British Muslims as suicide bombers". Number three is "homegrown and autonomous action by four British Muslims with no mastermind." But it is hypothesis eight that attracts my attention: "The four men were chosen or lured to be patsies in a classic 'false flag operation'."
Beneath the headline is an extract from a newspaper interview with a passenger on the Aldgate train, reporting that the metal around the hole in the bomb carriage was "pushed upwards as if the bomb was underneath the train". But it is the next entry that I find most alarming. Highlighted in blue is the sentence: "Mark Honingsbaum [sic] also recorded several witnesses speaking of explosions under the floor of the train."
I click on the link and listen once again to my off-the-cuff recording from the Metropole hotel. Then I press the button and loop the broadcast a second time. In the internet age, it seems, some canards never die.