We should have been told about the Hezbollah bomb-making factory

This op-ed first appeared in the Jewish News, click here to view the original. 

Many of us have never needed convincing about just how dangerous Hezbollah is. That’s why – alongside Jewish communal organisations and colleagues from across the House of Commons – we campaigned to have this antisemitic terror group proscribed in its entirety.

Belatedly, and under much pressure, the government finally recognised in February that its attempt to maintain a distinction between Hezbollah’s political wing (which wasn’t banned) and its military wing (which Tony Blair’s administration proscribed) was a dangerous game of semantics.

Indeed, the UK was openly mocked by Hezbollah for maintain a distinction which it itself had explicitly and repeatedly denied the existence of.

I was nonetheless horrified this morning to read the Daily Telegraph’s expose of a plot by Hezbollah-linked operatives to store explosive materials in London, which was foiled by the security services in September 2015.

There was nothing small-scale about this endeavour.

The terrorists were allegedly stockpiling more ammonium nitrate than was used by Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in which 168 people died. And this appears to have been part of an international conspiracy stretching across several countries.

We can be sure that, without the bravery and expertise of our security services, many innocent lives would have been lost. Hezbollah’s desire to murder Jews, both in Israel and around the world, seems only to be limited by their capacity to kill.

But while we should be enormously grateful to MI5 and the metropolitan police for their efforts, I am deeply concerned that information about this plot appears to have been withheld from both the public and members of parliament.

As a former Home Office minister, I am fully aware that protecting our assets and methods in the fight against terrorism sometimes limits the release of information. However, it appears to me somewhat unusual for information about a plot of this nature to be kept top secret once investigations have been completed, the specific threat eliminated, and any resulting legal and prosecutorial process has worked its way through the courts.

The apparent withholding of this information is all the more worrying given the fact that, during this period, parliament was scrutinising ministers’ decision not to fully proscribe Hezbollah. Indeed, in January 2018, more than two years after the Home Office became aware of the existence of this Hezbollah bomb-making factory in north London, I secured a debate in the House on proscription in which Home Office ministers opposed such a step.

Unfortunately, when I brought this issue up in the House of Commons this afternoon, the response I received from the Security Minister, Ben Wallace, raised more questions than it answered. He both suggested that the question of whether Hezbollah was proscribed in its entirety was irrelevant to this plot, and that the Home Secretary’s decision in February was partly a response to it.

I have, therefore, written to the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, today to ask him to urgently address the following five questions.

First, why were the public and MPs not informed about this plot, especially in the light of the fact that Parliament was debating the nature and seriousness of the threat posed by Hezbollah both to the UK and to our allies abroad at that very moment?

Second, considering that the Government knew about this plot from September 2015, why didn’t it act to fully proscribe Hezbollah then, and, indeed, why did it continue to oppose the full proscription for a further three and a half years, most notably during the debate I organised in January 2018?

Third, given that both the Prime Minister and her predecessor were reportedly personally briefed on the plot, is it the case that nobody in Government ordered this information to be withheld from the public because of its sensitivity due to Iran’s funding and support for Hezbollah and the recent conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal?

Fourth, was the CPS’ decision not to prosecute the individual who was arrested in relation to the plot the result of the fact that, at this time, only Hezbollah’s military wing was banned in the UK?

Fifth, was the Opposition made aware by the Government of this plot after it was disrupted? This is an important question given that, in February’s debate on proscription, the Labour frontbench failed to support a ban – a position opposed by many Labour MPs and one made more worrying and incomprehensible were senior Opposition figures aware that Hezbollah was seemingly using London as a base to prepare terror attacks.

The Government resisted proscription for years, only giving way shortly before the Daily Telegraph’s investigation commenced. Given its hesitancy, and its apparent withholding of crucial information when Parliament debated the issue, we need to keep a very watchful eye on its actions going forward. I fully intend to do so.

Proscription is only the beginning of the process to counter banned terror groups in the UK. It is imperative that the UK deploys a full range of regulatory, law enforcement and intelligence measures against proscribed organisations.

That’s why I have also asked the Home Secretary to update me on the following three areas:

First, what action he is taking to stop Hezbollah funding sources and UK money flows.

Second, how the Home Office intends to tackle front organisations which assist Hezbollah in the UK.

Third, what measures the Home Office is deploying regarding UK citizens or dual UK citizens with ties to Hezbollah, and domestic Hezbollah operatives.

Those of us who fought long and hard for Hezbollah to be totally banned in the UK must now come together to ensure that our Government takes all necessary steps to ensure that this antisemitic terror group has no hiding place in the UK.

Joan Ryan is chair of Labour Friends of Israel