Chapter 66: Breaking The Terror Codes

Previous: The Pinsetters

"You do the daily crosswords, don't you?"
"To grasp what Gareth Williams saw in the 'terror' emails and how he perceived what he saw," said Sherlock Holmes, "we should try to put ourselves into his shoes, so to speak."

"Yes, of course," I said.

"And to the extent it may be possible," the detective continued, "we should re-trace the sequence of events chronologically, as they would have appeared to him."

"Understood," I nodded.

"We can start," he went on, "with what we know about the young man who went to work at GCHQ. He was a brilliant mathematician, with an enormous gift for logic, a capable memory, and pattern-recognition skills far in advance of his peers."

"Everyone seems to agree on these points," I added.

"If we combine these characteristics," continued Holmes, "we can see, perhaps, how or why he could do mental arithmetic so quickly and accurately that his friends didn't need a calculator when he was around.

"He was also exceptionally brave and ambitious, as his racing career shows. You won't find any lazy cowards speeding up and down the mountains on their bicycles! He was good-hearted if socially awkward, honest, perhaps to a fault, and very naive, if we are to believe what we've been told -- and we've no reason not to do so."

"I am with you so far," I said. Holmes shifted in his seat and re-lit his pipe.

"Gareth left a relatively free-thinking environment in academia and joined the more constrained world of secret government service in 1999," Holmes continued. "He was well-established at GCHQ by 2001, when the events of September 11 occurred in the United States. As I read it, he was surrounded at work by people who accepted the American government's story about those events, even though the tale rings false, and since he kept to himself otherwise -- except while racing -- he was isolated from the few people who were asking difficult questions about those events at the time.

"And so the Global War On Terror was launched, with information collection and analysis highlighted as never before. The USA attacked and invaded, first Afghanistan and then Iraq, with the British alongside at every step. Gareth Williams became an asset in two wars -- or The War, depending on your point of view. And I am confident that he was comfortable in his role."  

"How do you know that?" I asked.

"With a mind like his," Holmes replied, "a young man could get another job in a heartbeat, and on a much higher pay scale than Gareth was earning in Cheltenham. He wouldn't have stayed at GCHQ for ten years unless he was happy there."

"I see," I said.

"Gareth's role as an intelligence analyst must have been growing," continued my friend, "and his comfort in his role likely continued even through the summer of 2005, when the synchronized bombing attacks occurred here in London. Although the circumstances of the 7/7 attacks, and the additional failed attempts two weeks later, were highly suspicious, the national media were not up to exposing the anomalies, coincidences, and outright contradictions in the government's story. So Gareth probably remained in the dark as much as any other loyal government employee.

"If we have this right, his first personal experience with terrorism came when he was called to work on the 'Liquid Bombers' case, which, as you remember, was broken up in August of 2006. Quite likely he spent quite some time during the spring and summer of 2006 trying to break the 'encoding scheme' used in the terrorists' email."

"It all sounds reasonable to me," I said, "at least so far."

"Breaking that code," continued Holmes, "would have been akin to an exercise in algebra, of the type known as 'solving simultaneous equations.'"

"I'm sure that's not a useful analogy for explaining things to me!" I interrupted. "I was never strong in maths."

"But you do the daily crosswords, don't you?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied. "But not every day," I added defensively. In the shadow of murder and terrorism, crosswords suddenly seemed shamefully trivial.

"It's the same principle," Holmes explained without any apparent judgment of my hobby. "When you solve one word, the letters you add to the grid contribute information that helps you to solve the intersecting words. No?"

"Certainly," I agreed. "That's the whole point!"

"So, as I see it," said Holmes, "Gareth must have started with a clean grid -- a pile of completely mysterious messages, which made no sense at all unless they conveyed a secret meaning. And it probably didn't take him very long to start playing with the possibility that certain words stood for other words. When he figured out that 'after shave' could really mean 'hydrogen peroxide,' for instance, and 'going to a rap concert' could mean 'staging an attack,' then it would have become simpler for him to develop the hypothesis that 'a popular bus service' might mean 'a busy international flight,' and similarly, the rest of the secrets embodied in all that email would have become increasingly easier for him to decipher. Are you still with me, Watson?"

"I think so, Holmes," I said. "When I work on crosswords, I often find myself in positions where I seem completely stuck, but then I solve one more word, and it puts new letters in the grid that make it easy to solve other words, and sometimes the whole puzzle falls together surprisingly easily!"

"That's exactly the sort of thing I am talking about, Watson," said the detective, "but in this case Gareth's long chain of reasoning served, not to solve a printed puzzle, but to prevent a horrific attack. Or so our young code-breaker must have thought.

"It's a rare investigator who, having helped the police collar an important suspect, takes no interest in his man's progression through the legal system. Unless I am reading Gareth Williams all wrong, he would have followed the trials of the 'Liquid Bombers,' and he would have asked himself questions similar to those I asked you a week ago: Why were half of the suspects released almost immediately? Why did the police search the woods for four months and come up with nothing other than what they discovered on their first day? Why did the Crown try so many times and get so few convictions? Why was the 'Terror Trial of the Century' so sparsely covered when it finally took place? And so on.

"The trials, as you recall, began in the spring of 2008 and dragged on and on, the second trial concluding in 2009 and the third one on 2010. So the 'Liquid Bomber' prosecutions would still have been going on when Gareth was called upon to help in decoding another pile of mysterious email.

"This time, he would have had some experience with the system of encoding, so to speak. It was a very amateurish way to communicate, and it must have struck him as exceptionally risky, especially after the takedown of the 'Liquid Bombers' showed the terrorists that their email had been intercepted and their 'code' had been cracked.

"And yet, here he was again, looking at nonsense which could not possibly have been worth reading, let alone writing, unless it carried a secret message. Gareth Williams was certainly bright enough to figure out that if the names of girls referred to various explosives, then the descriptions that didn't make any sense when applied to girls must have referred to characteristics of the explosives, and if that was the case, and if the talk of weddings and parties referred to attacks, then it was a serious matter indeed when 'XC' started writing about his plans to get married in a couple of weeks.

"Then Ian Tomlinson was killed, Bob Quick resigned, the 'Easter Bombers' were arrested, and police started searching -- and found nothing. That happened in April of 2009, Watson, and I think Gareth Williams must have started scratching his head and asking himself, 'What just happened? Did we get duped?'

"And what could he do then?" Holmes continued. "What else but look back through his memory -- if not his records -- at the email he had helped to decode? On second reading, he had the benefit of hindsight, and the time and perspective to take in a longer and wider view of everything that had happened.

"Whereas in his first experience with the email he focused on deciphering code words and estimating what the various messages could have meant, he now would be in a position to look back on the entire conversation, which probably consisted of hundreds, if not thousands, of messages. The few snippets published in The Telegraph could hardly have been the only ones."

"I think you must be right so far," I said. "I haven't heard you say anything that sounds even slightly implausible."

"Good," replied my friend. "I think I'm on the right track, although I am not yet positive. Some confirmation would be most welcome, if it can be arranged. But that's still in our uncertain future. At this point I can say, however, that of all the possibilities I have considered, the hypothesis I am outlining to you now strikes me as the least unlikely."

I nodded, impressed by his air of hopefulness as well as his precision, and he continued. "When Gareth Williams reflected upon the entire email conversation, certain features must have fairly jumped out at him. Among these, I believe, would  have been the question which sent you to dreamland: 'Tell me that how is your sweety girlfriend.'"

"It seemed very strange to me, Holmes," I said, "but I couldn't put my finger on why."

"Well, I can," replied my friend. "And when I explain it to you, you will say it's absurdly simple."

"I will not!" I objected.

"You certainly will," he countered.

"Try me," I said.

"Both the tenor of the conversation," said Holmes, "and the flow of information within it, were very, very wrong."

"How so?" I asked.

"First of all," he replied, "their email had already been intercepted; their code had already been broken. The first convictions in the 'Liquid Bombers' case had occurred in the summer of 2008, and yet here early in 2009 we have the alleged al Q'aeda mastermind using the same easily breakable 'encoding' scheme, and being positively chatty with it. Ostensibly he should have noticed the 'Liquid Bombers' complaining about a 'skin problem' shortly before they were arrested, after which he should have been unusually careful. But here, quite to the contrary, it's 'Tell me that how is your sweety girlfriend.' Gareth must have wondered whether the man in Pakistan was trying to get them caught. Otherwise it would have been 'Keep the chatter about your sweety girlfriend to a minimum, mate!'

"Secondly," Holmes continued, "the information in this conversation is flowing in the wrong direction. If the man in Pakistan -- allegedly Rashid Rauf -- is the bomb-making mastermind, he shouldn't be saying anything even resembling 'tell me about your sweetie.' He's supposedly the one who knows all about the different girls, if the names of girls refer to various explosive compounds.

"The man in Manchester, 'XC' if that's his name, shouldn't be saying, 'Nadia is very loyal' and 'Fozia lets you down sometime,' because the man in Pakistan -- Rashid Rauf? -- already knows all that. If the email truly carried information about the characteristics of various explosives, the information should have been flowing from Pakistan to Manchester, rather than vice versa."

"How absurdly simple!" I exclaimed, and Holmes shot me a look that was not without humour.

"You're saying Gareth may have noticed the discrepancy?" I asked.

"No, Watson," replied my friend. "I'm saying he couldn't have avoided noticing it!"