Tim Coulson, who helped to organise the memorial events in London on the 10th anniversary of 7/7, is well-known to all of us in this office. He is a frequent speaker at our Young Programme events on both sides of the border and was recently appointed a patron of the programme. He has been an important part of our lives for some years now. That is why we were shocked – though not in the least surprised – to hear that, while Tim was quietly making plans for the anniversary, two Islamist fanatics were plotting a repeat atrocity on the London underground exactly 10 years later.
On that terrible day in London, Tim was a passenger on an underground train adjacent to the bombed train at Edgware Road. Risking his own life – because he could not be sure the explosion that had just occurred would be the only one – he broke into the bombed train and gave solace and practical assistance to the dying and injured. One of the first corpses he saw was that of the suicide bomber.
It is a symptom of the sickness of the terrorist mindset that, a decade on, two young people in Reading, Berkshire, regarded the perpetrators of 7/7 as martyrs to be revered and their actions as models to be emulated. Last week, almost unnoticed in the midst of our seasonal frivolities, Mohammed Rehman, 25, and his wife Sana Ahmed Khan, 24, were convicted at the Old Bailey of preparing an act of terrorism.
The trial had lasted for several weeks, virtually ignored by the media. One of the most valuable functions that the press can fulfil – the day-to-day reporting of our criminal courts – is a function that it has more or less abandoned, except in cases where sex or celebrity is involved. It was only when the case ended that, from various background reports, we were able to piece together the events leading to the couple's arrest.
Khan emerges as a girl from a moderate Muslim background, gentle and mild-mannered, who was taught by her parents to respect people of all religious faiths. Her mother is a former senior manager with Reading Borough Council's youth and community service, a justice of the peace, a school governor. Sana herself went to university, graduated with a 2:1 degree, and had ambitions to be a teacher; she was working latterly as an after-schools activity co-ordinator. Her one obvious defect of character was her choice of boyfriend.
Still in her teens, she had the misfortune to be pursued by, and fall in love with, Rehman – a cokehead and lowlife – whom she subsequently married in a secret ceremony, having been disowned by her parents. In the 17 months before anti-terrorist officers raided their house at the end of May, she had funded his lifestyle to the tune of £12,000 from her wages. Most of the money went on drugs. The rest – not much – it amounted to only £643.75 – was used to buy bomb-making chemicals and equipment from eBay and cannabis farming websites.
By the end, Khan was as addicted to cannabis as her partner was to cocaine. But her protestations in a written statement to the police – she refused to speak to them or to give evidence in court in her own defence – that she had no knowledge of his violent intentions, that she was a helpless victim of drugs and marital abuse, were unconvincing. It is hard to believe that she knew nothing about the rehearsal in the back garden, an explosion using fertiliser bought with payday loans; according to the police, Rehman was within a few days of making the detonator. She immersed herself in ISIS propaganda on the internet – for the purposes of 'research', she insisted – and became an avid reader of the Koran, underlying passages favourable to the extremist cause. 'Slay them wherever you find them and drive them out from the places they drove you out...such is the reward of the unbelievers' was one of her favourite sayings from the holy book.
There is no doubt, however, that Rehman was the major party in the conspiracy. He used the micro-blogging site Twitter as a propaganda weapon, opening an account in the name Secret Bomber to spew out ravings against the West and, more ominously, to inspire support for a terrorist attack on London. 'Are you actually trying?', he asked his followers in one Twitter message. 'Why don't you head to the London underground on the 7th of July if YOU got the balls?' In another, he implored them: 'Learn how to make powerful explosives from the comfort of ones' [sic] bedroom. Join the ranks of the defiant'.
How Sana Khan, a well-educated girl from a caring background, ever allowed herself to be caught up in the dysfunctional world of Mohammed Rehman, and in the wider world of radical Islam, may never be known; the trial judge sounded mystified. Rehman, on the other hand, was an open book in more ways than one. Not only was he transparent on Twitter about the way his mind was working; later, on remand in Belmarsh Prison, he revealed his motives. He claimed he had 'nothing to do in my life', that he 'just wanted a bit of excitement' and that he thought the exploits of ISIS were 'pretty cool'. He looked forward to spending many years in prison.
Rehman got his wish: a life sentence with a minimum of 27 years. On the earliest date for his release – December 2042 – he will be 52. Khan got 25 years; when she is released in December 2040, she will be 49. There was, on all the available evidence, a difference in culpability worth more than two years. It would probably be safe to release Khan under supervision long before she hits 50 in the reasonable hope of her rehabilitation into civilised society; it may never be safe to release Rehman.
But should there not have been a third party in the dock? The former chief executive of Twitter stated a few months ago that the site had become 'a product of the world' and had taken on 'a more ambitious and symbolic meaning', ensuring that 'the smallest voices in the world can be heard'. Among the smallest voices in the world that Twitter allowed to be heard was Silent Bomber, who blatantly used it to further the aims of Islamic State, going so far as to seek advice on the type of locations in London where the heaviest casualties could be inflicted.
Why did Twitter – a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange and with thousands of employees – permit an account in the name Silent Bomber? Why did it allow Mohammed Rehman to blog potentially life-threatening material? And why is Twitter not being held legally accountable for its negligence in failing to monitor Silent Bomber's account? If this outfit cannot effectively regulate itself, it should have regulation imposed upon it in the interests of preserving human life.
The print media are also culpable. Almost incredibly, some newspapers published after the trial specific details of how Rehman prepared his deadly explosives – useful information for other wannabee terrorists who feel that their lives are missing something and that ISIS are pretty cool. The same newpapers also gave the address of an online guide, extensively consulted by people like Rehman and Khan, about the right of Islamic fundamentalists to a place in paradise. The need for self-censorship, in the perilous state of a world oppressed by the fear of terrorism, seems not to have occurred to the media. Anything goes. So anything – and anyone – probably will.
In the end, though, there was something just a little reassuring about this trial: if the two accused were in the least typical of the young people supporting ISIS in this country and in Syria, we are dealing with a malevolence that is capable of being beaten by excellent intelligence and the strategic use of military force. Whatever else Rehman and Khan were, adroit and disciplined they assuredly weren't.