Poison gas and hot air

The London Tube debacle captures the other-worldly nature of terror warnings.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘Keep alert on the Tube’ screamed the front page of the London Evening Standard last night, warning commuters that ‘poison gas could be unleashed on the Underground’ by ‘three suspected al-Qaeda members on the loose in Britain’ (1).

But on page seven it rubbished its own story – by reporting that home secretary David Blunkett is ‘furious with Scotland Yard’s anti-terror squad for spreading claims that three terrorist suspects were plotting a gas attack on the Tube’ (2). A Blunkett aide says that the ‘completely unfounded scare was spread by officers’.

But if Blunkett is ‘very, very angry’ about the bullshit plot stories, as the Standard claims, why is his government launching a poster campaign ‘advising passengers how to increase their survival chances if poison gas is unleashed on the London Underground’? (3) According to one report, ‘the “protect and survive” posters will go up in Tube stations from early next year’.

Apparently, the UK government isn’t launching a poster campaign advising passengers how to increase their survival chances on the Tube. One Blair official claims that the posters may have been discussed, but no decision has been made about issuing ‘that kind of information’ (4).

What is going on? Ever since the Sunday papers revealed that three (or was it six?) al-Qaeda supporters (but maybe not) had been arrested in London eight days previously on suspicion of plotting to carry out a poison gas attack (or a dirty bomb attack) on the London Tube, the story has spun out of control.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott accuses the press of getting too ‘excited’ about the story. ‘It does not appear there is any evidence whatsoever there was going to be a gas attack or use of bombs regarding the three people who have been arrested’, says Prescott, calling on the media to calm down (5).

So why did the government demand the immediate arrest of the three men? According to The Sunday Times, ‘Blair was told of the plot at a Downing Street summit attended by David Blunkett and security chiefs. He insisted police shut down the suspected terror cell’ (6). Apparently, so keen was Blair to arrest the three men that he ‘rejected a plan to delay any arrests until MI5 had established more about the gang and its al-Qaeda links’ (7).

Maybe Blair’s haste explains the lack of convincing evidence for al-Qaeda links. The three north African men seem to have been arrested for having dodgy passports and for ‘possessing articles for the preparation, instigation and commission of terrorism’ – which under the Terrorism Act 2000 can be anything from maps and gloves to cyanide and semtex.

In this case, it seems the articles in the three men’s possession were ‘documents’ – and from the reports so far, it seems that those documents were the dodgy passports themselves.

The last people to know about the gas attack allegations were the suspects themselves. According to one report, ‘Lawyers acting for the men claimed details of an alleged plot to use poison gas had not been put to them and had only emerged in the press over the last few days’ (8). Yet the Daily Mail says the three men ‘have been charged with planning to kill hundreds by releasing cyanide gas on the London Underground’ (9).

As for Osama bin Laden’s ‘top agent’, whom the Sun claimed was arrested alongside the six (I thought it was three?) men, God only knows what happened to him. Or who he was. Or what he was doing in London. He hasn’t been mentioned in any other reports (10).

The Tube debacle captures the other-worldly nature of terror warnings. The government orders some arrests to put a stop to a potential but unlikely attack; the media gets wind of the story and links it to the government’s recent warnings about needing to ‘be vigilant’; the government accuses the media of blowing the story out of proportion; the media raises concerns about the government’s balance between warning us and scaring us; the government says there will not be a gas attack but the terror alert remains high….and on it goes.

Who needs terror attacks when just talking about terror is enough to get the British government and media in a spin?

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Feeding off our fears, by Brendan O’Neill

Blair’s scares, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) ‘Keep alert on the Tube’, London Evening Standard, 18 November 2002

(2) Blunkett’s fury at Yard, London Evening Standard, 18 November 2002

(3) Return of ‘protect and survive’ ads, London Evening Standard, 15 November 2002

(4) Are we prepared for terror?, BBC News, 17 November 2002

(5) Three on London terror charges, BBC News, 17 November 2002

(6) MI5 foils poison-gas attack on the Tube, The Sunday Times, 17 November 2002

(7) MI5 foils poison-gas attack on the Tube, The Sunday Times, 17 November 2002

(8) Terror suspects remanded as media accused, Guardian, 18 November 2002

(9) Terror on tube: three still at large, Daily Mail, 18 November 2002

(10) MI5 nails Bin’s top agent, Sun, 18 November 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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