By Patrick Goodenough
June 12, 2019
A British lawmaker is calling for answers after it was revealed at the weekend that authorities swooped on a Hezbollah “bomb factory” in London four years ago – just weeks after Britain, the U.S. and others concluded the nuclear deal with the regime in Iran, Hezbollah’s chief sponsor and patron.
Joan Ryan, an independent member of the House of Commons, asked Home Secretary Sajid Javid in a letter Monday why details of the September 2015 raid had not been made public.
“Can you confirm 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?” she asked.
Ryan, who for years campaigned for Britain to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group – in its entirety, rather than just its purported “military wing” – also wanted to know why the government resisted that move until early this year, even though it was aware in 2015 of its apparent terrorist plotting in the U.K.
Citing security sources, the Daily Telegraph reported on Sunday that, following a tip-off from a foreign government, police and the MI5 intelligence service raided four properties on the outskirts of the capital on Sept. 30, 2015, and discovered three metric tons of ammonium nitrate, concealed in disposable ice packs. A man in his 40s was arrested but later released without charge, it said.
The report said there was no evidence that Britain was a target of a bomb plot or that a plot was in advanced planning stages.
Britain joined the U.S., France, Germany, Russia, and China in the marathon talks that produced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in the summer of 2015.
To the dismay of critics, the negotiated agreement dealt solely with Iran’s nuclear activities, with issues like terrorism, ballistic missile activity, and regional destabilization deliberately left off the table.
In the U.S., the Obama administration opposed attempts by Republican lawmakers to link Iran’s support for terrorism to the nuclear negotiations.
According to the Telegraph report, then-Prime Minister David Cameron and then-Home Secretary – later prime minister – Theresa May were reportedly informed about the discovery of the ammonium nitrate.
It’s not clear why they kept the matter under wraps, but Ryan in her letter to Javid referred to the potential “sensitivity,” given the timing of the raids in relation to the nuclear deal.
The JCPOA was finalized 11 weeks before the raids in the London outskirts, and the agreement less than four months after the raids.
Ammonium nitrate is a fertilizer that has become a popular ingredient for terrorist bombs.
Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh used a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil in the device he built in 1995. That bomb, which killed 168 people, comprised 2.2 tons of the mixture – less than the amount reportedly discovered in Britain.
Ammonium nitrate has also been used in other major terrorist attacks, including the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israel Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people. Investigators implicated Hezbollah and senior Iranian regime officials in that plot.
A decade ago, its use in homemade bombs deployed against U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan became so pervasive that its possession and sale was outlawed in Afghanistan and parts of north-west Pakistan.
Hezbollah’s stockpiling of ammonium nitrate – concealed in disposable ice-packs – has been exposed in other parts of the world.
In 2012, a Hezbollah operative apprehended in Thailand led police to a cache of bomb-making material, including ammonium nitrate stored in ice-packs.
In 2015, a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for plotting terror attacks against Israeli or Jewish targets, after a large quantity of ammonium nitrate was found in his basement – also reportedly hidden in ice-packs.
Ryan is one of eight members of parliament who resigned from the opposition Labour Party this year over unhappiness over left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, including his handling of allegations of anti-Semitism in the party.
In February this year the Conservative government proscribed Hezbollah as a terrorist group in its entirety, after earlier having only treated the “military wing” as a terrorist entity.
Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government and as a result, a number of countries, along with the European Union, differentiate between the group’s “military” and “political” activities. The U.S. and several others – now including Britain – do not distinguish between the supposed wings.
The British shift came after debates in the Commons last year. Labour opposed the move, even as its then-member Ryan joined several others advocating for it.
(Corbyn in 2009 controversially called both Hezbollah and Hamas “friends,” a choice of words he later said he regretted.)