Hasan Suroor

MI5 and CIA fall out over a case of a "mistaken" identity.

TWO OF the world's most resourceful intelligence agencies the CIA and MI5 appear to be have been tripped by a mere name, both claiming that their "Khan" is the right "Khan." Over the past few days, spooks on either side of the Atlantic have been engaged in a proxy war of words over the real identity of their respective Khans.

So, who are these "Khans" and what is the fuss about?

One is or rather was Mohammed Sidique Khan, a Yorkshire school teacher, who allegedly masterminded the July 7 London bombings and was himself killed when he detonated a "suicide" bomb on an Underground train as part of a series of coordinated attacks on the city's transport network last summer.

The other is Mohammed Ajmal Khan, a self-confessed Lashkar-e-Taiba activist from Coventry, who was jailed earlier this year on terror charges, not related to the London bombings. Besides the LeT, he was also alleged to have been involved with Islamist groups in America and his name figured during the trial of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali who was found guilty of terror offences in Virginia last year.

At the heart of the headline-grabbing trans-Atlantic row between the British and American security agencies is the claim in a new book that U.S. intelligence agents had warned MI5 two years before the London attacks that Mohammed Sidique Khan was a "very dangerous person" and should be kept under surveillance. But, it is claimed, the Brits ignored the warning and Khan went on to perpetrate the 7/7 attacks.

The claim is reported by Ron Suskind, a leading U.S. writer on intelligence affairs, in his book The One Percent Doctrine based on briefings by American security sources. One of his main sources is Dan Coleman, a retired FBI agent who investigated the links between U.S. and U.K.-based terror groups and is regarded such an authority on the subject that he is known simply as the "Professor."

Mr. Suskind, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 and is reputed to have close contacts in the American intelligence community, claims that Khan was regarded as a sufficiently serious threat by Americans for them to issue an "alert" against him, and put him on a "no fly list" in March 2003 to prevent him leaving Britain. This, he says, followed intelligence that Khan had booked a flight to New York, and was likely to meet alleged American Al-Qaeda activists in America with whom he had "exchanged e-mails discussing ... plans for various violent activities" including a "desire to blow up synagogues in the East Coast."

The row erupted on Monday (June 19) when Britain's security establishment woke up to a screaming front page in The Times quoting extracts from the book which suggested that MI5 failed to act on the CIA "alert" about Khan. It also quoted Mr. Suskind as insisting that British intelligence was "certainly told about Khan in March and April 2003."

"British authorities were sent a very detailed file. This demonstrates a catastrophic breakdown in communications across the Atlantic," he said.

The "disclosure" flew in the face of MI5's claim, which the British Government has accepted, that Khan and his fellow suicide bombers were "home-grown" terrorists with no known international links and that Khan was never regarded as a security threat. Only last month, an official report cleared intelligence agencies of any blame for the July 7 attacks though it noted that Khan and another suicide bomber Shahazad Tanweer had been known to the security services but were not investigated fully.

Flurry of counter-claims

The new twist, prompting fresh calls for an independent inquiry into allegations of intelligence failure, triggered a flurry of counter-claims with the British media quoting unnamed "sources" to rubbish the American claims and saying that it was the CIA which had got it got it wrong. The "Khan," Mr. Suskind referred to in his book, was Ajmal Khan and not Sidique Khan, they said.

On Tuesday, The Guardian carried a splash mocking The Times with the headline "An intelligence failure. An explosive exclusive. But was it the wrong Khan?" It said that the entire story appeared to be a "case of mistaken identity."

"Ajmal Khan certainly seems to fit the profile of the man identified in the book as the London suicide bomber, Sidique Khan," it said pointing out that it was Ajmal Khan who had visited the US and talked about "blowing up synagogues" and there was "no evidence" that Sidique Khan ever flew to the U.S.

On Wednesday, it was the turn of The Daily Telegraph to question American claims in a report, couched in a language similar to that of The Guardian story and headlined, "The Times, MI5 and a case of mistaken identity." It said that while there was ample evidence of Ajmal Khan's links to American jihadists and to the CIA's monitoring of him, there was none concerning Sidique Khan. And, added for good measure, that the accusation that British intelligence failed to act on the supposed CIA tip-off had caused "anger and dismay" in Whitehall.

But Mr. Suskind is adamant and insists that he is talking about the "right" Khan. "In my investigation and in my book and in my conversations with people in the U.S. Government, there was no mistake or doubt that we were talking about Mohammed Sidique Khan, not Mohammed Ajmal Khan," he has said.

And that is where the controversy rests. For now.