UK recalibrates terror threat level

Posted: July 30, 2009 in HSToday
Tags: , , ,

It has been a while since anything has come out, but a couple of longer pieces in the pipeline and working on a tough thing in a foreign field have kept me from publishing much. But don’t worry avid followers, more is forthcoming to keep you sated…In the meantime, here is a shorter piece for HSToday about the downgrading of the threat in the UK.

UK recalibrates terror threat level
by Raffaello Pantucci
Thursday, 30 July 2009

Lowering of threat level by British authorities reflects increasing fragmentation of terror networks.

As the UK passed the fourth anniversary of the July 7, 2005 bombings, Home Secretary Alan Johnson announced that the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) had decided to lower “the UK threat level from international terrorism from severe to substantial.” He went on to clarify that this meant that in the government’s eyes, “a terrorist attack is a strong possibility” but “based on the very latest intelligence, considering factors such as capability, intent and timescale,” it was now lower than before.

This lowering of the threat was the second time that JTAC has publicly taken this decision in the period since the “threat levels” were made public in August 2006. Soon after the levels were announced in 2006, the security services swept up the plot to detonate liquid explosives on between 8-18 transatlantic flights raising the threat level to “critical.” It has remained between “critical” and “severe” since then – being raised at moments when major plots have been uncovered, like in August 2006 and in July 2007 (when a team of Doctor’s attempted a car bombing campaign in London and Glasgow).

The system came under greatest criticism when it was revealed that in the weeks ahead of the July 7, 2005 bombings, JTAC had actually lowered the threat level a notch. The fact that they waited until after the anniversary of July 7 for this latest move is likely a reflection of the awareness of this historical parallelism.

Nevertheless, it is not surprising that JTAC have decided to take the move to lower the threat level – rumors have abounded in informed conversations about the terrorist threat in the UK for some time that the services have increasingly grown confident in their abilities to understand the depth of the threat that is faced. Evidence of this can be seen in the increasing desire by government to push counter-terrorism into a lower profile role in the UK, by emphasizing other aspects of national security as greater priorities – in an interview the day before the change in the threat level, Alan Johnson said on the BBC that swine flu “came actually above terrorism as a threat to this country,” while the head of MI5 highlighted in a ground-breaking interview in January 2009 that terrorism was but one of a number of threats concerning his agency. But also in where the government has chosen to push elements of the debate on how the UK counters terrorism.

For example, whereas previously the British government was wary of entering into the debate on who can be classified as a dangerous extremist (as in a person who holds abhorrent views that may provide a backdrop for the radical narrative, but at the same time remains within the boundaries of the law) – a document leaked to a major daily ahead of the publication of the “re-freshed” counter-terrorism strategy in February 2009 seemed to show that internally this conversation was going on. When the final document was published, the text showed that government had taken the discussion into consideration but in the end decided against moving into the path of legislation. That government was willing to start a debate on whether to engage with distasteful radicals to counter dangerous radicals was seen by many analysts spoken to at the time as a result of the fact that the government felt that it had managed to start to grasp the nettle of the immediate terrorist problem faced and was now eager to try to push the ideological lines of the debate.

This is not to say that the British government does not believe that it is menaced by terrorism. Most recently, the security services believe that they disrupted a serious plot to possibly carry out a series of bombings to coincide with Easter 2009. A group of 12 mostly Pakistani nationals (one man was a Pakistani-Briton and another was an Afghan) were arrested dramatically in Northern England on April 8, 2009, following the accidental release of information on the plotters when the head of Counter-terrorism Command went to brief the Prime Minister on the pending arrests earlier in the day. A photographer outside Downing Street took a picture of Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick which clearly showed identifying information about the plotters typed out on a page marked “Secret” and entitled “Operation Pathway.” The timings of the arrests were dramatically brought forwards leading to armed police interdicting individuals in highly public places across Northern England.

As it turned out, however, the arrests appear to have been either premature or incorrect. Subsequent investigations of residences connected to the individuals failed to turn up either a bomb factory (which would have been essential if the plot were as imminent as was believed), and according to one “senior source” quoted in the press, “nothing of huge significance” showed up. This was in contrast to official statements at the time, including comments by the Prime Minister that “we are dealing with a very big terrorist plot.”

In the end, the police moved to release the men and handed the majority of them over to immigration services on visa issues or were to be deported on national security grounds – the British citizen was released and one Pakistani agreed voluntarily to be repatriated. At this point, the government has refused to back down from aggressive statements of the threat from the plot at the time, suggesting a strong belief that a genuine plot was afoot. The leads were apparently generated from an SIS (MI6) operation in Pakistan, which hinted at connections to the highest levels of Al Qaeda. One story circulating in the press connected the plotters to the elusive British-Pakistani national Rashid Rauf, who was alleged to be the connective thread behind the August 2006 terror plot to bring down a series of transatlantic airlines.

However, this plot earlier in the year appears to be the only one which the government believes has a direct organizational connection to Al Qaeda affiliated or linked elements in Pakistan since the August 2006 airlines plot. Other plots since August 2006 have occurred with some degree of external connectivity, but they appeared the lack the organizational links to the upper echelons of Al Qaeda. The links that did exist appeared to be less directional, with the plots appearing to draw most of their planning and targeting from their own imaginations. For example, while clear connections to external groups can be seen in the January 2007 plot to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier (to the AfPak regions – the group was also providing a pipeline of money and equipment to the Taliban) and the June 2007 plot to carry out car bombings in London and Glasgow (one of the plotters, Bilal Abdullah, was Iraqi and apparently had connections to the insurgency) – it does not appear as though in either case the regional terror group had much to do with any of the organizational aspects of the plot.

On the other end of the scale, the UK has seen an increase in instances of individuals apparently independently choosing to carry out plots or act in particularly disturbed ways under the veil of violent extremist Islam.

Two serious instances include the May 2008 attempt by mentally disabled convert Nicky Reilly to carry out a suicide bombing in a restaurant in Exeter – he managed to get as far as constructing his device in the restaurant’s toilet before it blew up in his face. And the recently concluded trial against Andrew Ibrahim, another convert who was apparently planning a one-man suicide bombing campaign in Bristol – he got as far as constructing some explosive in his fridge and carried out reconnaissance in a local mall before people at his local mosque reported their concerns about him to the police. On the more odd-ball end of the scale, Nicholas Roddis and Owen Dodds are two young men who separately were apparently trying to build bombs and appeared to use Islam as their organizing principle to varying degrees. It is unclear whether either actually converted. In none of these cases any clear external links exist (the exception is Reilly where there is evidence that some locals may have been a radicalizing influence and he was apparently in email contact with individuals in Pakistan who may have helped push him towards carrying an action out) – but the men are all mostly classified as “lone wolves”.

The point of all of this is that it would appear that the threat in the UK has evolved from the home-grown networks with deep external connections that appear to characterize the threat before 2006, to a looser set of disaggregated plots which have a greater degree of spontaneity to them with fewer directions from outside. This suggests that AQ’s ability to direct plots in the country has been lowered (hence JTAC’s lowering of the threat), but this appears to have also been matched by an up-tick in more random – but potentially lethal – plots with no external direction. This latter factor would seem to suggest that the radical narrative that draws people to get involved in terrorist activity has retained its luster, but it appears to be drawing less effective individuals into its thrall. This is positive on the one hand, but makes the effort of countering the men very hard for the security services, given the almost total absence of external connections for them to pick up on.

In addition, it must be recalled that a relatively constant stream of young British men appear to be continuing to go and fight in Afghanistan or Somalia, while fundraising networks in the UK sending money and equipment abroad remain active. And as MI5 Director General Jonathan Evans has said, “the strategic intent of the al-Qaeda core, [based] in Pakistan, is to mount attacks in the UK, and their model is to use British nationals or residents to deliver the attacks.” Jihad in the UK would appear to remain a clear threat, though its ability to effectively carry anything out in the UK has been judged as being currently degraded.

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