LONDON – No British agencies contributed to the 52 deaths when suicide bombers struck London's transit system in 2005, a judge ruled Friday, disappointing some victims' families who believe intelligence lapses and a slow emergency response were partly to blame.
Giving her verdict at an inquest, Judge Heather Hallett said the commuters were "unlawfully killed in a dreadful act of terrorism" by four al-Qaida-inspired bombers.
The July 7, 2005 bombings of three subway trains an a bus were the worst terrorist attacks in Britain since the 1988 Pan Am plane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.
In Britain, inquests are fact-finding inquiries held whenever a person dies violently or under unusual circumstances. They can't establish civil or criminal liability, but their recommendations on how to prevent future deaths carry considerable weight.
Hallett praised the "quiet dignity" of the victims' families, who sat through graphic and detailed accounts of how their loved ones died, as well as the bravery of the survivors who testified during the monthslong inquest.
The hearings did reveal lapses. Britain's domestic intelligence service had two of the bombers under surveillance but failed to stop the deadly attacks. There were also failures in the response by emergency workers — confusion, a shortage of first aid supplies and radios that did not work underground.
But Hallett said no "failings on the part of any organization or individual caused or contributed to any of the deaths."
"I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that each of them would have died whatever time the emergency services had reached and rescued them," she said.
Some victims' families say only a full public inquiry can uncover all the details of the attacks, but Hallett said her investigation had been thorough and that would not be necessary.
And she said there was no need to hold inquests for the four bombers, all young British Muslims — Mohammed Sidique Khan, 30, Shehzad Tanweer, 22, Hasib Hussain, 18 and Jermaine Lindsay, 19.
The inquest — actually 52 simultaneous inquests — was a monumental undertaking, involving five months of testimony starting in October. The 309 witnesses included some of the 700 people who were injured and fellow commuters who stopped to help, along with police officers, firefighters and ambulance workers.
The inquest also asked difficult questions — and got partial answers — about whether the attacks could have been prevented.
A senior officer from the MI5 intelligence service gave evidence anonymously, and said that while two of the bombers had been on the agency's radar, they could not have been stopped.
Although officials initially had said they had no advance knowledge of the bombers, inquiries revealed that Khan and Tanweer had been under surveillance as part of an investigation into an earlier, foiled, bomb plot.
They were never pursued because officials were overwhelmed with other threats perceived to be more serious.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://twitter.com/JillLawless