Waiting for al-Qaeda's next bomb
May 3rd 2007
From The Economist print edition
A group plotting to bomb Britain has been successfully prosecuted. But the danger of al-Qaeda is growing, and the intelligence services are struggling to cope
THE young men debated endlessly how best to carry out their attack. Co-ordinated explosions on Britain's gas-distribution network were a “beautiful plan”, but difficult. Poisoning London's water supplies was a “weak idea”. Seizing an airliner and crashing it would be “easy”, while blowing up the “slags” (loose women) dancing in the Ministry of Sound nightclub would have a “crazy” impact.
This was no idle bravado from disenchanted Muslims. Omar Khyam, now 25, and six fellow plotters had stashed away 600kg of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, the main ingredient for one or several remote-controlled bombs. At one point, during a conversation in a house in west London, one plotter asked: “Bruv, you don't think this place is bugged, do you?” No, replied Mr Khyam: “Do you know, I think we give them too much credit, bruv.”
As it turned out, their words were being recorded by Britain's domestic intelligence agency, MI5. The fertiliser had been secretly switched with an inert substance, and an MI5 agent posed as a receptionist at the storage centre where it was kept.
Mr Khyam was arrested within weeks, as he was preparing to leave for Pakistan. Six others were also arrested, and an eighth suspect is awaiting trial in Canada. During a trial lasting more than a year, the court heard of other possible targets, such as blowing up the British Parliament (“a joke”, claimed Mr Khyam). On April 30th, Mr Khyam and four other suspects were sentenced to life in prison. Two others were acquitted.
“Operation Crevice”, as the investigation was known, was at the time the biggest anti-terrorist operation in Britain. At its peak in February and March 2004, it consumed some 34,000 man-hours of intelligence and police work. The plotters' homes and cars were bugged, hidden cameras recorded them in internet cafés and undercover agents followed their movements around the clock.
The British authorities' ability to neutralise the bombing campaign is an important success, but it will also be remembered for a catastrophic failure: two of the four suicide-bombers who blew themselves up in London on July 7th 2005, at first said to have come “out of the blue”, had in fact been spotted with Mr Khyam's gang several times (in our picture, the two bombers flank Mr Khyam, who is second from right). But they were thought to be peripheral and were not followed up.
Relatives of some of the 52 victims want an independent inquiry into the London bombings. The government says this would “divert” the security services from their real job of seeking terrorists. MI5 took the unusual step of issuing a detailed rebuttal of “myths” surrounding the case. “The Security Service will never have the capacity to investigate everyone who appears on the periphery of every operation,” said its head, Jonathan Evans.
The limits of intelligence
In contrast with the small, tightly organised bombing cells of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which did everything to protect their own and often gave warnings to reduce casualties, MI5 and the police now have to contend with an opposite threat: a diffuse nebula of overlapping jihadi groups, ready to destroy themselves in order to kill as many people as possible. “We are seeing networks within networks, connections within connections and links between individuals that cross local, national and international boundaries,” said Peter Clarke, the head of the counter-terrorism branch of London's Metropolitan Police, on April 24th. More than 100 people are currently awaiting trial in Britain on terrorism charges. But in Mr Clarke's view, “The only sensible assumption is that we shall be attacked again.”
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Britain is a particularly attractive target for global jihadists because of an unfortunate coincidence of factors: its prominence as America's ally in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the fact that al-Qaeda's resurgent core leadership, based in Pakistan's frontier region, has easy access to the thousands of Britons who visit their ancestral country every year.
Other Western governments are closely watching developments in Britain. Europeans are worried that their own Muslim minorities could become radicalised as al-Qaeda seeks to exploit other diaspora links—Algerians in France, Moroccans in Spain and Italy, Turks in Germany. The violent re-emergence of Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known by its French acronym, the GSPC), which has rebranded itself as al-Qaeda's branch in the Maghreb, is particularly alarming. Muslims farther south, across the largely ungoverned Sahara desert, might be indoctrinated, trained and sent back to Europe.
For America, the worry is that “clean skin” European citizens, with no known record of radicalism, could be used to attack the United States. The alleged conspiracy last summer to blow up as many as ten aircraft flying between London and the United States with liquid explosives, if proven in pending trials, would reinforce the belief that al-Qaeda has regenerated and is growing again in ambition.
The first line of defence is intelligence, not least because very little information on extremists is being provided by Muslim minorities (!!! NB). In Britain MI5 is expanding substantially, from 1,800 staff in 2001 to a projected 3,500 in 2008. But the number of suspected terrorist networks is growing exponentially, roughly doubling every year since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (!!! NB).
Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, MI5's recently departed head, said in November that her service was tracking more than 1,600 known active militants (up from 250 in 2001, according to a parliamentary report). Those extremists operated in a pool of perhaps 100,000 sympathisers who, according to one poll she cited, thought the London bombings were justified. Referring to a popular British television series about MI5, Dame Eliza said: “I wish life were like ‘Spooks’, where everything is (a) knowable and (b) soluble by six people.”
In fact, surveillance uses manpower intensively. Dozens of people are required to keep track of a single suspect 24 hours a day. Those deemed to pose a “threat to life” take precedence, but these days there are so many of them that MI5 has to decide which threat to life appears to be the most acute (!!! NB). Indeed, some security officials suspect al-Qaeda may be deliberately flooding Britain with terrorist plots in the hope of overwhelming its defences.
Shadows on the path
Operation Crevice was a turning point in the British authorities' understanding of the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Until early 2004, the main terrorist danger to Britain was deemed to come from extremists outside the country. At most, some British Muslims were thought to be supporting such groups abroad and sometimes setting out to join them in jihad.
In April 2003 two Britons of Pakistani descent set off explosive belts outside a beach-front bar in Tel Aviv, killing three Israelis. At the time, says Mr Clarke, Britain was “a net exporter of terrorism”. The worst fears of the police came true on July 7th 2005, when four Britons (three of Pakistani descent, one of West Indian) blew themselves up on the London Underground and on a bus. Although security forces had been expecting attacks, the fact that they were dealing with suicide-bombings came as a surprise. Just a month earlier the Joint Intelligence Committee, which draws up assessments from information gathered by several intelligence services, had concluded that suicide-attacks were not likely and would not become the norm in Europe. After all, the Madrid bombs in 2004 had been detonated with mobile telephones, while Mr Khyam and his plotters also planned to use a remote-controlled device.
More surprises were to come. During the investigation into the July 7th bombings (and into the alleged attempted bombings two weeks later), MI5 soon discovered that the two main instigators of the successful attack, Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, had crossed their path before, particularly on the fringes of Operation Crevice. Khan had been spotted on five separate occasions and had even been followed, but was not identified. MI5 picked up some of Khan's conversations with Mr Khyam, and said these dealt mainly with financial scams. But a transcript shows that during one rambling conversation they also talked about doing “operations” from Pakistan. At one point Khan asks Mr Khyam: “Are you really a terrorist, eh?”
After the arrest of the Crevice plotters in March 2004, MI5 drew up a list of 55 suspects who had come into contact with Mr Khyam's group. Fifteen were deemed “essential” targets; Khan and Tanweer were on the lower-priority list of 40 “desirable” suspects who should be followed up when resources permitted.
By July 2004, however, MI5 and the police diverted their manpower into another, even bigger investigation in which one suspect, Dhiren Barot, a Hindu convert to Islam, pleaded guilty last November to planning several possible attacks and received a 40-year prison sentence. Mr Barot had considered a series of attacks, including a radioactive “dirty bomb” and a plot to blow up limousines filled with gas cylinders in London. He had also planned attacks in America. Six others have pleaded guilty to assisting him, while a seventh alleged conspirator is standing trial.
Mr Clarke admitted that at the time of Mr Barot's arrest police did not have any evidence admissible in court. Only at the end of the 14-day detention period then allowed by law did police find the required evidence on Mr Barot's computers.
By the time of the London bombings in July 2005, investigators still did not know (or had not tried hard enough to find out) Khan's name. The first clues came from the wreckage of the London Underground. A SIM card identified a smashed mobile telephone as belonging to one of the men who had been in contact with Mr Khyam (although at the time the owners of pre-paid phones did not have to provide identity details). The picture from a passport found at the site was circulated among surveillance staff, who identified Khan as one of those seen during Operation Crevice. After the London bombings Mohammed Junaid Babar, a Pakistani-American computer programmer now in jail in America on terrorism-related charges, identified newspaper pictures of Khan as someone called “Ibrahim”, who attended an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan with Mr Khyam (alias “Ausman”). But there is some dispute over whether he was shown the right surveillance pictures of Khan in 2004.
Critics of MI5 say it should have been able to join the dots. The House of Commons' Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) concluded last year that the decision not to give Khan greater priority was, given limited resources, “understandable”. Not everyone is convinced, however, that the committee saw all the material the security agencies had. Rather than agreeing to an independent inquiry, Tony Blair, the prime minister, has asked the ISC to take another look instead.
The Pakistan connection
As MI5 went back through its records, it found it had other information on Khan (but under a slightly different spelling) dating back to 2003, when he was identified as a “facilitator” for extremists in Pakistan. Mr Khyam, too, had originally come to the attention of counter-terrorism officials in 2003 as a suspected “courier” carrying cash and outdoor equipment for Kashmiri militants. Clearly the security agencies had, and still have, great difficulty in identifying who, among the many sympathisers and supporters of jihadi causes abroad, will make the transition to carrying out attacks in Britain. There is no obvious profile of a suicide-bomber, and both Mr Khyam and Khan were comparatively well integrated into British society.
A central factor in radicalising some British Muslims has undoubtedly been Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq, but other factors are at play. Militant preachers, and the proliferation of jihadi websites and internet chat rooms, have helped to create a climate in which many Muslims accept al-Qaeda's simple unifying narrative: Muslims across the world are being attacked, from Algeria to Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya and Kashmir; Muslims everywhere must therefore rise up against their principal oppressor, America, and its fellow Western “crusaders”.
Security sources say jihadi activity has moved away from mosques to clubs, gyms and private homes, where it is harder to monitor. The internet has proved to be an “ungoverned space” where al-Qaeda and its followers have thrived. On April 23rd, a British court started hearing the trial of three men accused of inciting terrorism overseas. They include Younis Tsouli, of Moroccan origin, who is alleged to be a prolific internet propagandist going by the name of “Irhabi 007”, or “Terrorist 007”. He and another suspect are also accused of conspiracy to murder in a case linked to suspects arrested in Bosnia. “Of all the things I have seen over the past few years,” says Mr Clarke, “one of the most worrying has been the speed and apparent ease with which young men can be turned into suicidal terrorists.”
Self-starting terrorism is an ever-present danger. But over several investigations, counter-terrorism officials have usually found direct links leading back to Pakistan, often to al-Qaeda figures. Key British suspects travel back to Pakistan for training and indoctrination. Mr Khyam and Khan are alleged to be linked, through a British middleman, to Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, the alleged number three in al-Qaeda, who was taken to Guantánamo Bay last week.
This is both reassuring and alarming. It indicates that, for the moment, British networks still need outside help. At the same time, it shows that al-Qaeda has regenerated itself despite its eviction from Afghanistan and the killing or arrest of several key figures. Its networks, says Mr Clarke, “are large, fluid, mobile and incredibly resilient”. Counter-terrorism experts disagree on what is more important: the “push” provided by al-Qaeda leaders seeking to mastermind attacks in the West, or the “pull” of local extremists who adopt al-Qaeda's ideology and modes of action.
Either way, in Britain al-Qaeda has found an easy source of recruits. Sometimes they are amateurish, but even unsophisticated attacks can cause devastation. In any case, security sources say, other networks are learning from the mistakes of their peers, and from the information gleaned in court prosecutions.
The British government has reorganised its counter-terrorism effort. Four joint police and MI5 regional offices are being established to strengthen counter-terrorism work outside London. Meanwhile, the Home Office is losing responsibility for probation and prisons to a separate ministry of justice, freeing it, in theory, to focus on security, terrorism and immigration. Within the department a special office for security and counter-terrorism has been created, while the prime minister will chair monthly meetings of a national security committee.
The struggle for Muslim allegiance
However, the problem goes far beyond the security bureaucracy. The effort to counter radicalisation in Britain has barely begun. The secretary of state for communities and local government, Ruth Kelly, has announced a “hearts and minds” campaign. It includes strengthening moderate imams and preventing mosques from being taken over by extremists.
But extremist thinking is often best confronted on its own terms. In countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the authorities send Muslim scholars into prisons to try to convince jihadi detainees that their actions run counter to Islamic jurisprudence. In Britain, though, prisons are still a recruiting ground for jihadi groups.
Those fighting terrorism are acutely aware that much of their work, based on intelligence, is regarded with suspicion. Tensions with many Muslims have been exacerbated by raids, searches and incidents such as the shooting of a man (accidentally, say police) during a raid in the Forest Gate neighbourhood of London in 2006, when police searched in vain for evidence of a chemical bomb.
Counter-terrorism officials feel frustrated that the succession of court cases, such as the conviction of Mr Khyam and his fellow plotters, is failing to build more public trust. Partly this is because it can take two years for cases to come to court, and partly it is because of legal restrictions on public reporting before trials (and increasingly during and even after them, to avoid prejudicing other prosecutions).
Greater public trust is vital to improving the flow of information about extremists. For the moment, says Mr Clarke, most terrorism-related investigations begin with intelligence gathered from foreign governments, intelligence agencies or electronic eavesdropping. In other words, many Muslims are reluctant to report co-religionists to the police, even if they disagree with their militant views. Unless the code of silence is broken, more bombers will inevitably get through.
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