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Terror at Thames House: Adventures in London After the 7/7 bombing

(Originally published in Paranoia Magazine.)

It was 3 a.m. on July 7th, 2005. My husband Brian and I were scrambling around the house, packing our bags for our upcoming trip to London, England, to attend a friend’s funeral service. I turned on the television for some background noise. It was set, as usual, on Fox News. Brian and I are news junkies. Not only do we have cable news on most waking hours of the day, but we also spend several hours each day reading news blogs, trying to stay informed. So we were more aware than most Americans of the problem of home-grown terrorism that was then developing in the suburbs of England. Nonetheless, we were surely surprised that morning to discover, upon flicking on the TV, that these terrorists had struck out in a spectacular way. Three subway trains and a bus had been blown to smithereens by suicide bombers. Over fifty were confirmed dead, hundreds injured, and they were still counting. I called my mother to tell her that we had heard about the incident in London, but that we were still planning on going.

The flights were Hell, of course, but not because of any added security measures. It was the usual crap. The airline had booked too many planes to go through the same gate on the same day. Our flight was over one and a half hours late getting off the ground. My business is writing about occult interpretations of history, so I passed the time by trying to find some numerological pattern to the dates of the last three major terrorist attacks: 9/11, 3/11, and 7/7. I wrote the dates down on the outside of the envelope that held my ticket and boarding pass, then pondered them for some time, but I couldn’t come up with anything, so I gave up.

By the time we reached the airspace of the George H. W. Bush airport in Houston, Texas, where we were supposed to switch to a non-stop flight to London, a major storm had developed in the area. We couldn’t land until the storm passed, so our plane began to circle around the airport. The pilot told us this would last for about 20 minutes. It actually went on for an hour and forty minutes.

To sooth our boredom, Brian and I began talking to the small, quiet young man who was sitting next to us in the window seat with a stack of Jimi Hendrix albums on his lap. A copy of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus protruded from the magazine pouch in front of him. He was very interested to find out that I was a writer on esoteric subjects. It turned out that he was writing a book about Rosicrucian themes in the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

The man had dark skin and a foreign accent, so I asked about his name and background. He had an Arab name – Hareth - and he was actually from Iraq. He was living in Washington, D.C., where the flight we were currently on was supposed to be headed after Houston. He said he worked for his brother in D.C. on various unspecified “projects”, and that he had been visiting Portland, Oregon (our own point of origin) because he had heard that they had good record stores.

As time dragged on, and the flight continued to circle the airport aimlessly, Hareth and I got onto some very obscure topics. It was tough to understand him, though, because of his accent, so he would often have to raise his voice and repeat himself. We talked about religion, and he said he was a Muslim, but that most Muslims didn’t “really understand the Koran” the way he did. Then he said something that intrigued me greatly: he claimed that his family was descended from a historical figure that legend had eventually morphed into a supernatural being: Baphomet, now known to modern occultists as the “king of demons.” He also said that this ancestor of his had been responsible for the formation of the pseudo-Islamic warrior cult known as the “Hashashim.”

“Oh wow, the Assassins!”, I exclaimed excitedly. I couldn’t believe I had met a stranger on a plane who knew about Baphomet and the Hashashim (or Assassins), both subjects I had been researching in-depth. Hareth even wrote out the name of this ancestor in Arabic letters on the envelope that had my boarding pass and ticket. He also wrote his own name and phone number, in case I wanted to talk more later on.

At about this time, there was an announcement from the pilot on the PA system, telling us that the storm was still raging below, but we were running out of fuel. We would have to land at a military base in Austin, where we would refuel and wait for the storm in Houston to stop. They told us this would take about another hour. Actually, it was about five. During this time, the flight attendants ran out of beverages to serve, including water, and the bathroom in the back was emitting a horrible stench. One person stopped breathing, lost consciousness, and had to be carried off the plane on a stretcher. Another person stormed off the plane with her baby, vowing that she could rent a car and drive from Austin to Houston before the plane would ever get there.

Indeed, by the time we made it to Houston, it was past midnight, and we had missed our connecting flight by several hours. The airline booked us a replacement flight for the following afternoon, and a hotel to stay at that night, but our luggage was not returned to us, so we couldn’t change our clothes. We were starving, having last eaten before boarding the flight at 8 a.m., but by the time we got off the plane, all the restaurants were closed. Our hotel didn’t even have a vending machine available, so we starved all night too.

The next day, we boarded a fourteen-hour transatlantic flight, which became a sixteen-hour ordeal thanks, once again, to a tardy departure. When we arrived in London the following day, we only had a couple of hours to get to the funeral. We were wearing the same clothes from three days earlier, hadn’t slept much in that time, and looked like “the dog’s breakfast”, as the English say.

After the funeral, we stayed a few days in London, and then went on to stay for a couple of days in Edinburgh, Scotland. First we did an architectural tour of London. It was all part of research for a paper I was writing on the presence of Masonic sacred geometry in London’s landscape. We walked around taking pictures of Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, and other important government buildings, all easily found using guidebooks. But there were a couple of destinations I planned on visiting which weren’t in any guidebooks. I knew where they were because I had looked them up in Wikipedia and printed out the articles before we left home. They were the headquarters of the UK’s two main spy agencies: MI5 and MI6.

MI6, more properly known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), is stationed on the South side of the Thames River, within a garish monstrosity of modern art at a place called Vauxhall Cross. This sensational piece of architecture, sometimes called “Babylon on Thames”, is very well known and widely hated amongst lovers of classical architecture. Although covered in glass, the building very much resembles a temple from the ancient world. Masonic symbolism would be easy to find, I thought.

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Babylon-on-Thames: The MI6 (SIS) building at Vauxhall Cross

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This odd-looking logo was actually used by MI6 at one point, although it is so embarrassingly cartoonish that most agents deny all knowledge of it. The brain represents intelligence. The “C” is there because that it is the official nickname of all Directors of Intelligence for MI6. It’s named after Sir Mansfield Cummings, their first director. It’s green because he used to sign all of his documents with green ink. The motto “Semper Occultus” means “Always Secret.”

Directly across the river from this is the MI5 headquarters, located is a much less widely-known building called “Thames House.” Unlike the building at Vauxhall Cross, which was constructed specifically for MI6, Thames House was used for several other purposes before being converted into a spy shop. Nonetheless, I was sure that it had been chosen for a reason, and felt that it was worth examining for signs of esoteric iconography. Since we were already on the North side of the river, we decided to go to Thames House first.

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Address at Thames House: 11 Millbank

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2 different MI5 logos

The streets around us were perfectly empty as we approached the building, which was only identifiable because of its address. There were no signs outside or markings on the front door indicating the building’s purpose. But there were a few interesting busts and bas reliefs over each of the doors, and I began to photograph these with my digital camera. I also had Brian take a picture of me grabbing the handle of the front door. I thought it would be funny to look at later.

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Thames House 2

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Me outside the front door of Thames House.

We went around the entire building taking pictures of each architectural embellishment, most of which were located in its various doorways. By the time we got around to the back of the building, we had a surprise waiting for us. Six Metropolitan Policemen were gathered around the back door, each with his hands on a big, black automatic rifle. Luckily, the guns weren’t pointed directly at us. Still, the sight was enough to stop us dead in our tracks. These weren’t baton-wielding bobbies on bicycles. These were the men charged with protecting Britain’s domestic spies, and they were clearly authorized to use deadly force if necessary.

“Excuse me”, one of the officers said to us, quite politely. “Have you two been walking about this building taking pictures of all the entrances?”

“Yes”, I replied nervously, being sure not to make any sudden movements. “Is there something wrong with that?”

The officer informed us that, while we hadn’t violated any law, this was a “very sensitive building”, and the recent terrorist attacks had made it a “very sensitive time.” Our behavior had qualified as “suspicious” under the UK’s recently-passed Anti-Terrorism Act, so they were required to question us and search our bags.

They began by patting us down, and one officer immediately found the Wikipedia article I had folded up in my back pocket. That, I explained, was how I had known where the building was located. At this the officer sneered.

“You can find anything on the internet. You can even learn how to build a bomb on the internet!” He was clearly horrified that the building’s address was available to the public. They apparently thought that anything covered by England’s Official Secrets Act would remain unknown to the rest of the world. But with the internet, so many of England’s government secrets are now displayed for all to see, so the Official Secrets Act is about as effective as Maxwell Smart’s Cone of Silence. I didn’t say that to the police though. I just tried to be cooperative.

They asked why we were taking pictures there, and I told them I wanted to impress my father back home, who I said was a big James Bond fan. I knew this sounded stupid, but it was easier to say this than to explain that I was looking for Masonic symbolism.

After they searched our bags, our bodies, and our camera (deleting a few pictures that they felt were “too sensitive”), they ran a background check on each of us to verify that our passports were valid. One of the officers was highly suspicious because my passport said that it had been purchased in New York, even though I had told him that we lived in Oregon. I answered, truthfully, that I had bought it a few years earlier when I used to live in New York.

“Oh, sure”, he said, like he didn’t believe me. He continued to scowl at me, but eventually the background check went through, and they decided to let us go. However, before we left, they had to fill out a report on the incident for each of us. They gave us carbon copies of these reports, which stated that we had been detained for questioning on suspicion of terrorism!

The whole time we were questioned, I had played cool and innocent, but inside my heart was pounding, and I was sweating profusely. I had been praying that they wouldn’t take us inside the building for further questioning. Visions of Guantanamo Bay and secret torture prisons in Egypt flashed before my eyes. The one thing I knew about the British justice system was that it was different from the US system, and even in the United States, the rights of suspected terrorists were nebulous. I feared that if we went inside that building for questioning, we might never come out.

Thames House Police Report

Brian’s stop-and-search citation for “objects related to terrorism.”

After receiving our citations, we thanked the officers and began making our way back to our hotel. We knew that London was covered with CCTV cameras and microphones that were being monitored by the police, so we walked briskly and silently, smiling, trying not to look suspicious or guilty. When we reached the hotel, our paranoia let loose.

Before we even got inside of our room, we noticed something was wrong. Underneath the door there was a gum wrapper that didn’t belong to either of us, and which seemed to be strategically placed there. Simultaneously, we both had the same reaction. This gum wrapper must have been placed there by an MI5 agent, we thought, so that they could tell from the outside when we were back inside our room.

We didn’t say this out loud, of course. We said nothing. Brian picked up the wrapper and we closed the door. He found a square piece of gum at the bottom of the packet, and with his pocket knife cut it into pieces, silently, looking for a bug hidden inside. None was there. Then we searched the entire room for cameras and listening devices, all the while still not saying a word.

It was during this search that I came across the envelope which held my boarding pass and airplane ticket. What I found there filled me with terror. As I looked at the various things that had been scribbled on the outside of the envelope, I realized that I could have hardly done anything else to make myself look more suspicious.

Here we had the name and phone number of an Iraqi man who, for all we knew, could have already been on a terrorist watch list. Beneath that was the name of a demonic entity written in Arabic lettering. Then, off to the side were the dates of the last three terrorist attacks, including the one that took place on the day of our departing flight in the place of our ultimate destination.

Inside were my tickets. They showed me having a series of one-way flights: from Portland to Houston (on an airplane that was scheduled to carry on to Washington, D.C.); from Houston to London (the site of the 7/7 attacks); from London to Edinburgh (where the G8 summit had just taken place); from Edinburgh to Newark, and from Newark to Portland. If you looked at it quickly, you might not realize that we were eventually scheduled to return home. You might just note that they were one-way flights (already suspicious) to places that had been recently threatened by terrorists, and in one case more than just threatened. My itinerary alone could have warranted further inquiries, if I had had it with me when the police were questioning us. Coupled with the things written on the outside of the envelope, it would have been difficult to explain away.

My mind went back to the very first flight, and the extremely long layover at the military base in Austin, Texas that we had been forced to endure. I realized that the conversation we had had with Hareth might have sounded very suspicious to someone who was eavesdropping. We had been talking about Iraq, the prophet Mohammed, Islam, the Koran, and demons. We had actually said the words “Hashashim” and even worse, “Assassin.” Maybe, I thought, we were delayed in Austin because someone overheard our conversation while we were circling the Houston airport, and reported it as suspicious. Maybe the whole time we were wasting away in Austin, government agents were busy listening to us, watching us, doing background checks, and trying to determine whether or not to detain us. Perhaps that is why they kept our bags from us overnight – so that they could search them.

I whispered these thoughts to Brian, and he said that he had just been thinking the exact same thing. We decided we could not board any more flights while carrying that suspicious ticket envelope, or even have it in our hotel room another night. Methodically, Brian cut the envelope into pieces with the scissors on his Swiss Army pocket knife. We then submerged the pieces in an old cup of soda from McDonalds that we had sitting around. We took the cup outside and disposed of it in a rubbish bin several blocks away.

We managed to avoid evoking suspicion from the authorities for the rest of our trip, but our paranoia never left us. It didn’t help that there were numerous terror threats being called in at various places throughout the city over the days that followed, and they always seemed to happen in the places we were at. For instance, we had only been at the British Museum for thirty minutes when a terror threat was announced, and we were ushered out by frantic policemen.

The same thing happened just moments before we arrived at the Houses of Parliament, where we had scheduled a private tour, and when we got there the entire area was taped off for blocks. We had to call our friend inside with a mobile phone borrowed from a passer-by, and ask for permission to enter the building. We then waited for an escort to come down to let us in. All the while, I was praying that Parliament security didn’t already have us on file because of the previous incident at Thames House. But we made it inside without further incident.

On another occasion during our trip, we were simply walking down the sidewalk on the Strand, when all of the sudden police descended on us from all sides, and a stream of ribbon tape shot out across the street in front of us. The cops began shouting at us and other pedestrians to “Move! Run! Go away!”, without telling us which direction to go in. We tried to run the in the opposite direction, but when we turned around we found that it was already blocked off with tape, and another officer there was screaming at us to run away.

Everywhere we turned, there were cops shouting, and lines of ribbon tape shooting out from their wrists like Spiderman discharging a web. The city was a virtual maze of tape, and it was only with great difficultly that we found a direction that we could actually walk in. Everyone was running about in confusion. I heard a fellow pedestrian on his mobile phone telling someone that the authorities were in a state of “absolute paranoia.” He was right. We were paranoid too. We didn’t like being in the middle of all of these terrorist incidents, especially knowing how flinchy the police were, and how easy it was to be perceived as a threat.

At the time, my greatest fear was being hauled off for intense interrogation on suspicion of terrorism. I knew the likelihood of actually being tortured or sent to a secret prison was far-fetched. However, I didn’t realize until a couple of weeks later, after I had gotten back home to Portland, that it could have been much worse.

One day, in the third week of July, while watching the news, I learned that there was been a second wave of suicide bomb attacks in the London transport system. Luckily, these bombs had malfunctioned instead of exploding. But it proved that the entire time we were in London, we had been surrounded by real terrorists plotting their next hit. Even more disturbing, perhaps, the second wave of attacks had caused deadly, unintended consequences.

In all of the paranoia and confusion that followed the attempted bombings, London policemen had gunned down and killed a perfectly innocent man – an electrician from Brazil. They had chased him because they thought he looked like an Arab, and he had emerged from a building where they were trying to track down an Arab terrorist suspect. But what exactly led them to shoot has never really been explained.

The first thing I thought when I heard this was that, if we had made any wrong moves during the incident at Thames House, or during any of the subsequent terrorism panics that we found ourselves involved in, we could have easily been shot dead as well. The atmosphere of paranoia was ripe for such a mistake to happen.

Of course, it seemed to me that the officers who questioned us outside of Thames House, while suspicious of our actions, were not really suspicious of us once they started talking to us. After all, we were white, American, and forthcoming with information. We did not fall into the category of suspicious people. But what if it had been Hareth, the Iraqi on the airplane with the thick accent, who had been taking pictures of Thames House that day? Would they have let him go with a warning? Or would he have ended up dead, or in a secret prison in Egypt?

I don’t know for sure. All I know is that I’m glad I was me, and not him.

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