On the trail of the London bombers

Martin
Brunt relives 22 days of relentless drama as he struggled to keep up
with the pace of events in the wake of the bomb attacks

It wasn’t a great start for a crime reporter about to embark on the
biggest story of his career. I was sitting on a motionless train short
of London when the guard announced that a series of “power surges” had
shut the whole of the capital’s Underground system. I was sure that
hadn’t happened before.

Maybe it wasn’t a big deal. The news desk hadn’t rung, but I called
a senior press officer at Scotland Yard and although he couldn’t
confirm bombs, his manner and the chaos going on around his phone
suggested otherwise.

And what would produce a bigger power surge than a bomb?

At
the next stop I got off, called a source to establish which stations
were affected, and rang the studio. Straight away I was on air, along a
fuzzy mobile phone line, speculating about the sort of Madrid-style
terror attack long predicted by police and politicians. I had been
told, mistakenly, there were six explosions and reported so (Cobra, the
Government’s crisis command unit, was later told the same).

I’d
learnt that some passengers were almost certainly dead, but was
persuaded not to broadcast that. A pundit was on at the same time,
suggesting the blasts were accidents. A slight wobble – was I doing the
terrorists’ work for them?

Two hours later I reached Scotland
Yard, still to make a proper contribution to the now confirmed and
unfolding crisis. That familiar bit of pavement in front of the
rotating “cheese” became my home for most of the next 22 days.

For a long time, though, I wasn’t important – the drama was being played out and described by colleagues from the bomb scenes.

It
all changed for me on the first Tuesday, when news broke of searches in
West Yorkshire. There were no arrests and a senior officer said: “Ask
yourself why they haven’t nicked anyone.”

Another source described an expected police statement as “dynamite”.

In
the circumstances he might have chosen the word more carefully, but
there was only one conclusion – suicide bombers. Nudges and winks from
other sources suggested the same, but the press office refused to
discuss it.

I put the theory to a passing commander and detected a hint of confirmation.

I
called a contact in another organisation and he said, with some
authority: “I wouldn’t steer you away from that notion.” In my next
report I said police believed they were dealing with suicide bombers.
Two hours later, Peter Clarke, head of the Anti-Terrorist Branch,
announced he was concerned about four men who arrived together at Kings
Cross and whose property was found in the blasts. “We are trying to
establish if they all died in the explosions,” he said.

It was a few days more before the Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, became the first officer publicly to talk about suicide bombers.

Later that night, over a drink before my final report, another officer admitted the bombers were probably British.  It
was a crucial factor – it meant that the security forces’ three worst
fears had been realised – home-grown terrorists/ suicide
bombers/attacks on the Underground.

Then came stories about a
fifth plotter on the loose and a sixth man, the mastermind, who had
fled Britain hours before the blasts. All speculation, said a security
source, you might as well talk about an 18th man and a 27th man. I did.
The wires buzzed with the arrests of suspects in Egypt and Pakistan. I
couldn’t ignore them when the newspapers made them front page stories –
and Sky sent correspondents to both countries – but I stuck to the
advice I was getting and played down their importance.

I still don’t know who was right. I
bumped into Andy Hayman, head of Special Operations and the officer in
overall charge of the investigation. Not a bad potential source. How
was it going? “We’re cooking on gas, cooking on gas,” he said, as he
disappeared into his waiting car.

News of the shooting of a
suspect suicide bomber came from a non-police source. An extraordinary
development, and as I fumbled to call the press office a cop
acquaintance walked past and said: “Have you heard what’s
happened?” That was all the confirmation I needed. I think I spent
half an hour on air, parrying questions and struggling to remember what
I had read about the shoot-to-kill policy on suicide bombers.

Over
the next few days the story moved so fast I struggled to keep up. I
left my post once to walk to our Westminster office to collect wire
copy, only to hear that the Yard had been evacuated in my absence. It
hadn’t, but the Tube station was closed in a security alert and the
road closed off when workmen dug up a skeleton. I’d been away for only
15 minutes. Another time I ran to the hotel across the road for a call
of nature and my phone went three times with new information. I was
getting teas for my crew when police arrested a group of suspects.

The day of the arrests was bizarre. The
press office called asking us not to report an armed operation in
Notting Hill. Of course, we didn’t, but scrambled a reporter and crew
to try to locate the scene. I’m sure the Yard expected nothing less. We
decided not to put up our helicopter. The BBC flew theirs – and I got
the blame.

Suddenly it was all happening. Explosions were heard at the scene. Police
were putting on gasmasks. I didn’t take out my earpiece for several
hours. One bomber suspect was held, then another, then a third. Tried
to work out which was which. Police wrestled two burkah-clad women to
the ground at Liverpool Street station. Just as I caught my breath, the
Italians arrested a fourth bomber suspect. And perfect timing – I was just about to start a holiday. 

Martin Brunt is a crime correspondent for Sky News

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