Car Bomb (Rheindahlen)

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 24th March 1987.

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Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces) 3:32 pm, 24th March 1987

At about 10.30 local time last night, a car bomb exploded outside an officers' mess at joint headquarters of British Armed Forces Germany at Rheindahlen. A NATO social function was in progress at the time. Thirty-one people were hurt in the explosion, 27 German and four British. Seven of them stayed overnight at the RAF hospital at Wegberg and all but three have now been discharged. I am glad to say that no one was seriously injured.

A higher alert state than usual was in operation at the time, without which the consequences of this explosion could well have resulted in much more extensive injuries. but large open areas crossed by public roads like the Rheindahlen headquarters have self-evident security difficulties. Further security measures are now in force.

An organisation calling itself the National Democratic Front for the Liberation of West Germany claimed responsibility for the explosion some hours after it took place. This claim is being examined by the German authorities who are leading the investigation into the incident and with whom our own security authorities are in close co-operation.

Our sympathy goes to the British and German service men and civilians and their wives who were injured in this incident.

Photo of Mr Denzil Davies Mr Denzil Davies , Llanelli

May I also on behalf of the Opposition express our sympathy to those British and German servicemen, civilians and their wives who were injured in this incident. I am sure the Minister and the whole House will agree that this was a serious incident in that a terrorist bomb could be exploded actually inside the British military headquarters at Rheindahlen in the Federal Republic of Germany.

I have three questions for the right hon. Gentleman. He mentioned that obviously the German authorities will lead the investigation into the bombing. Will there be an internal investigation by our authorities to see how security can be improved? I understand the difficulties that the Minister has mentioned. Could he also tell us what the state of alert was at the time and whether it is now envisaged to have a higher state of alert?

There had been reports in the press and the media that a telephone call was made some time before the explosion to a West German newspaper. Can the Minister confirm or deny that that happened?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I can certainly confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that we will be conducting our own internal investigation from a security standpoint. The right hon. Gentleman will understand that we do not go into the details of the security alert state applying at any particular time, but, as I said in my statement, there was a higher than usual level of security alert at that time, and further measures have subsequently been taken.

As far as advance warning is concerned, we understand at the moment that no warning was received at Rheindahlen before the explosion took place. We understand that a message in English about a bomb at Monchengladbach, which is near Rheindahien, was received at the German Press Association shortly before the explosion, but the message was not fully understood because of language difficulties. A further warning at Rheindahlen was received in German a few minutes after the explosion took place.

Photo of Mr Antony Buck Mr Antony Buck , Colchester North

I am sure the whole House will want to associate itself with the message of condolence and sympathy which will now go forward to those who have been injured. Will the Minister agree that it is a matter of grave concern that there can be such an incident at a headquarters as important as Rheindahlen? Might it not be necessary to look at other headquarters with a British service input and a NATO role to ensure that this cannot happen or that there is a minimal chance of it happening at other headquarters?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

As my hon. and learned Friend is aware, the Rheindahlen headquarters is a very much more extensive complex than just a headquarters building, which is highly protected. As he well knows from his previous experience, the Rheindahien complex is a very broadly spread out site, through which pass a number of public roads. Obviously, we take this issue and this incident with great seriousness, as he asks, and we shall be examining closely whether there are lessons to be learned. As my hon. and learned Friend well knows from his own time in the Department, it is immensely difficult to produce total security when service men are, of necessity, spread over large areas and their normal civilian life has to take place around them.

Photo of Mr John Cartwright Mr John Cartwright , Woolwich

Is the Minister aware that we in the alliance would also like to associate ourselves with the message of sympathy to those who were injured in last night's bombing? In view of the murder last week of an Italian air force general, there are suggestions that these two incidents may be part of a campaign by a loosely linked group of terrorist organisations who are targeting NATO installations and personnel. Against that sort of background, is the Minister satisfied that there is sufficient international co-operation within the NATO nations to deal with this sort of threat?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

Yes, I am certainly satisfied that there is extremely close co-operation, and has been for some time, between police authorities in the respective countries. Incidents such as this bombing illustrate the imperative need for that close co-operation.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames , Crawley

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that, regardless of the very considerable difficulties, there will be great dissatisfaction and concern that such an outrage could have occurred at a headquarters such as Rheindahlen? Secondly, I endorse what the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) said. I hope that the Minister will pursue with great vigour all the intelligence leads and resources that NATO can give us in our hunt for the people who perpetrated this monstrosity.

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that the primary task of everybody who is engaged on this investigation is to try to identify those responsible and to bring them to justice. My hon. Friend's point about security arrangements at Rheindahlen is certainly well taken.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South and Morley

I am glad that there were no serious injuries. The Minister was right to make a statement, even though in Northern Ireland there have been 18 deaths since 1 January, and there were three yesterday, without a word in the House. Whose job is it to pass on to the military authorities in Rheindahlen the information that new middle-class terrorist groups are emerging in western Germany?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the basic responsibility for that co-ordination lies with the security authorities of the various countries and the police authorities. We have our own internal arrangements, with which he will be familiar, to make certain that every available hit of information about terrorists that might suggest vulnerability to a particular group is passed on as rapidly as possible.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway , Shrewsbury and Atcham

The House is right to express condolences to those injured, and particularly to express concern that the headquarters at Rheindahlen should be attacked in this way. In view of this attack, and the recent one at RAF Akrotiri, where a higher state of alert therefore had to result, perhaps my right hon. Friend will need to examine the establishment of the units involved to ensure that no undue stress is placed on operational training so as to safeguard against the terrorist threat?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

Yes, my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the dilemma that we face in the security of such areas, as to how much time, effort and manpower should be devoted purely to the security task. Inevitably that will be at the expense of normal training and operational work of the armed forces. That is the continuing conundrum that we face, and we have to give the highest priority to the security of our forces and the dependants of our service men.

Photo of Mr David Young Mr David Young , Bolton South East

Will the Minister pass on to the families of those injured the regret of both sides of the House about this outrage? Will he take on board the concern that we feel that, according to press reports, the car bomb was placed near an officers' mess where a party was going on, which suggests a great deal of internal intelligence going to terrorists? Will he look at that when he reviews the situation?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

It will be a high priority to establish who was responsible and to see how far they were assisted in carrying out this outrage by any information that they were able to glean as to what social functions were taking place at Rheindahlen that night.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Lewis Mr Kenneth Lewis , Stamford and Spalding

Will my right hon. Friend accept that" while it is right to react in such a situation and to have a full inquiry, it would be the greatest mistake to over-react?

Photo of Mr Thomas Torney Mr Thomas Torney , Bradford South

Will the Minister institute an inquiry into security arrangements not only at Rehindahlen but at British defence establishments throughout West Germany? I know from personal experience that it is simple to walk into these establishments. Is the Minister aware that German personnel used to be used in security in some of these establishments? Are they still used, and will the Minister look into that aspect to see whether it weakens security?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

We certainly employ some German civilians locally and we have confidence in those arrangements. On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I can assure him that the security of all United Kingdom military establishments is continuously under review. We regard every military establishment, whether in the United Kingdom, in Europe or further afield, as potentially vulnerable to terrorist attack of one sort or another. Regrettably, we live in an age where terrorism has become international and all military establishments have to be looked at from that standpoint.