Monday, March 14, 2005

Focus: Britain's secret war on terror

By David Leppard and Richard Woods London Times

As Michael Howard and Tony Blair slugged it out in the Commons last week, hundreds of men and women from the security services were engaged in a covert battle on the streets. How serious is the threat? report

On Friday afternoon, as MPs and peers were locked in a grand parliamentary row over the abstract principles of liberty and justice, the apparatus of Britain’s secret state stood on its second highest level of alert — “severe (general)”.

The alert has remained enforced since November 2003 when an Al-Qaeda car bomb ripped through the front of the British consulate in Istanbul, killing the consul general and more than 25 others.

It means that an attack is expected on the British mainland but there is no specific intelligence to say where and when. Specialist units of the police, military and emergency services must be prepared to react at a moment’s notice.

The front line in this, Britain’s real war on terror, is not in the corridors of the houses of parliament but some 300 metres along the river inside Thames House, the imposing neo-classical headquarters of MI5, the domestic security service.

On Friday — as the government’s proposed measures for dealing with terror suspects ping-ponged between the Lords and the Commons — it was senior officers from the agency’s G branch who were scrambled to deal with the latest perceived threat to the realm: the impending release into the community of 10 Islamic extremists suspected of plotting terrorism.

Logistics were hammered out. Surveillance teams were readied. Officers were briefed. When such operations go into action Eliza Manningham-Buller, director-general of MI5, typically sends a handwritten report, delivered by courier, to the prime minister.

The terror suspects were being released from three locations — Belmarsh and Woodhill prisons, and Broadmoor secure hospital. Surveillance, curfews, tagging, communication intercepts — MI5 had to get them all in place.

Then on Friday evening as police arrived at Broadmoor to supervise the release of a suspect known only as B, he announced that he did not want to leave. Lawyers say that the Algerian — who has been linked to two fundamentalist north African terror groups and who is known to have bought satellite phones while living in Britain — was then forcibly taken to an empty flat where the door had to be broken down by police to gain entry.

Police, immigration officials, interpreters and lawyers were all involved. The suspected terrorist, who it is claimed has suffered a mental breakdown, will now be monitored under strict rules imposed under the government’s new “control orders”.

It is a year since bombs ripped through commuter trains in the Spanish capital of Madrid, killing 190 and injuring more than 1,500, and for those involved in Britain’s secret war on terror it is no ping-pong match.

Ever since the twin towers were brought down in New York by Al-Qaeda 3Å years ago, an army of spooks and special police units have been striving in the shadows to prevent attacks in Britain.

Unknown to the public at large, a series of terrorist court cases involving more than 20 suspects are under way in Britain — but cannot be reported for legal reasons.

Up to 200 other British citizens and foreign nationals suspected of plotting attacks or supporting terrorism are being monitored.

It is a big and growing operation. MI5, which has several hundred officers dedicated to combating terrorism, is recruiting an additional 1,000 staff. The agency has recently set up a network of local branches across Britain to keep a closer eye on regional threats.

The police, too, are heavily involved. In London, Andy Hayman, the new assistant commissioner in charge of counter-terrorism operations at Scotland Yard, has nearly 900 staff in special branch (SO12) and the anti-terrorist branch SO13. More than 1,500 other Special Branch officers operate in regional forces in the West Midlands, Manchester and Scotland.

In the background ranks of analysts at GCHQ, the government’s electronic eavesdropping centre at Cheltenham, are also working round the clock. Their role is to analyse telephone and e-mail intercepts from scores of phones and computers used by terror suspects. Last but by no means least, there are numerous special military and medical units that are constantly training and on stand-by in case a bomber should slip the net.

It is in this already extensive war that Tony Blair won a new weapon last week: the right to impose restrictions on anyone, whether British citizen or not, without a full criminal trial.

To Blair it is a vital move against the terror threat, one that he claimed was “obviously necessary”. To critics it is a step too far, a dangerous slide down the road to a police state. “Legal historians of the future may mark today as the end of the presumption of innocence in English law,” said Shami Chakrabati, director of Liberty, the civil rights group, as the new powers came into being. “Bad law serves neither justice nor security.”

As the political row raged, a grim reminder of the dangers was taking place in Madrid. On Friday a ceremony was held in the Spanish capital to remember those killed and injured in bomb attacks a year ago — a horror that spurred voters to elect a new government only days later.

WITH that atrocity in mind, a secret Whitehall committee comprising MI5 and police is now preparing to send out detailed security advice on how best to defend polling stations against attack in Britain’s forthcoming election, expected on May 5. Security measures include improved CCTV coverage, sweeps of polling booths and police presence on the day.

Such precautions are only prudent. But as the government rams through parliament extraordinary powers after limited consultation, many people are asking: how real is the terrorist threat? Security sources say Manningham-Buller gives short shrift to anyone who asks her how many Islamic terrorists there are in Britain. “Ministers wouldn’t dare to ask Eliza how many terrorists there were stalking the streets. They know that they would get a severe handbagging if they did,” said one security official.

The spooks do not like to play the numbers game because it fails to distinguish between the small band of individuals who pose an imminent danger and the many more who are passive sympathisers, prepared to lend logistical support or to turn a blind eye at some point in the future.

Estimates of the number of young British Muslims who travelled to Al-Qaeda training camps before they were shut down in 2002 vary widely. Senior MI5 officials say that as many as 3,000 might have gone.

Lord Hoffman, one of the law lords who reviewed the cases of suspects detained without trial in Belmarsh, put the figure at 1,000. Blair recently said there were “several hundred” trained Al-Qaeda operatives in Britain, a figure endorsed by the new Metropolitan police commissioner.

Whatever the actual number, the security services have other reasons to believe that the threat of terrorist attack is deadly serious. All terror intelligence is fed into the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, an MI5 unit based at Thames House.

In 2002-03, its first year of operation, the unit received 60,000 individual pieces of intelligence.

“There is plenty of rubbish in there,” said a security source. “But also there are some gems. There are some things that are vital.”

In the past year a series of alleged plots has been uncovered. In March 2004 nearly half a ton of fertiliser, often used to make bombs, was found in a lock-up garage in northwest London. In a separate operation in August police arrested a group of British men with links to Pakistan in a series of raids in London and the Midlands.

Some suspected terror cells are believed to be linked to masterminds in Iraq. One cell, say police, seems to be controlled by Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, the terrorist blamed for many atrocities in Iraq. In addition, MI5 believes that the IRA still poses a threat to mainland Britain.

Suspicion is all very well, but what about hard evidence? Some six terrorist prosecutions are working their way through the courts — but they are proceeding unnoticed because reporting restrictions have been imposed to prevent other defendants being prejudiced in subsequent trials.

The outcome of both current and future cases will be revealed only later this year when a long and complex case, due to start next month, comes to a close.

A total of at least 24 people are on remand awaiting trial or are on trial for alleged terrorism offences. Eleven others — in addition to suspects detained in Belmarsh until last week — are awaiting extradition to face terrorist charges overseas.

One recent case that can be reported is that of Saajid Badat, a former public schoolboy who pleaded guilty earlier this month to conspiring to blow up a jet in 2001 using an explosive hidden in his shoe. Badat is an example of the “home-grown” terror threat now facing this country.

Although in the end he did not go through with his plan, he illustrates how the danger comes not simply from the obvious “mad mullah” extremists. Al-Qaeda has also recruited well educated, articulate young men who are the products of respectable middle-class homes.

Nor is an attack expected to involve weapons of mass destruction. “The most likely type of attack is going to be a conventional vehicle-borne suicide bombing of the sort we see almost every day in Iraq,” said one security source.

Probable targets, following the bombings in Bali and Madrid, are city centre nightclubs, mainline railway stations and airports. Recent intelligence suggests that Al-Qaeda units have carried out covert reconnaissance at Gatwick and Heathrow and at the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent.

The security services are all too well aware that the Spanish authorities suspect Abu Qatada, one of the men released from Belmarsh last week, to be linked to the alleged mastermind of the Madrid bombings.

Qatada, described by a British judge as a “truly dangerous” individual, is reported to have had dealings with Mustafa Setmarian Nasar, a Syrian who allegedly ordered the Madrid bombings. Nasar, for whom America has offered a $5m reward, is said to have been involved with Qatada when he was in Britain in the 1990s. He is now on the run.

Spanish investigators also claim that Qatada is closely linked to Abu Dahdah, another Syrian resident in Spain. Dahdah was arrested on suspicion of recruiting volunteers for Al-Qaeda attacks.

SO the problem is not whether there is a threat, but how best to deal with it.

From the outset the government has bodged and bungled. In the wake of the September 11 attacks it rushed through the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001, part of which allowed detention without trial.

But that power applied only to foreigners — not to any UK citizens who happened to be Islamist fanatics planning atrocities. When the law lords declared that power to be discriminatory and disproportionate, the government panicked.

Charles Clarke, who had just become home secretary, announced that he wanted the power to detain anyone, British or foreign, at home without trial and simply on his say-so. From doing too little, the government went to the other extreme.

Politicians, lawyers and civil liberty campaigners were outraged. Michael Howard, the Tory leader, called it a “dreadful measure from a desperate prime minister”.

David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: “This bill suspends habeas corpus and the presumption of innocence in British law. These are massive changes.”

As the new bill took shape and passed through parliament, Clarke was forced to make concessions — but he still eventually won the power to impose “control orders”, on “reasonable suspicion”, subject to judicial review within seven days.

To some critics the whole row was misguided because other tough laws already existed that, they say, should be used more vigorously to fight terrorism. The Terrorism Act 2000, for example, made it an offence, among other things, to belong to proscribed organisations such as Al-Qaeda. Even addressing a meeting aimed at helping a terrorist can be an offence punishable by 10 years in prison.

The same act also makes it an offence to collect information “of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. The penalty: up to 10 years in prison.

It is even an offence “to wear an item of clothing which can give reasonable suspicion indicating membership or support of a proscribed organisation”.

Given those and many other existing powers, Liberty concluded: “We are not sure where the gap in the law is.” Ditching key freedoms such as the presumption of innocence and the right to trial is unnecessary and unacceptable, it claims.

“Past experience of special anti-terror measures is of the temporary becoming permanent and the exceptional becoming routine,” warned Chakrabati.

On Friday, however, as Madrid remembered the victims of last March, few Spaniards had civil liberties at the top of their mind. Pilar Manjon, spokeswoman for the victims and who lost Daniel, her 20-year-old son, in the bombings, warned that many more Al-Qaeda terrorists were on the loose. “How many are there in France, in Great Britain and elsewhere?” she asked.

“An estimated 10,000 went through their training camps. Their model of terrorism is new to us and needs new methods to combat it. For them, everyone else is their enemy. Their minds are sick.”

Investigators in Spain and France do not advocate detention without trial. They follow a system of incarcerating suspects for lengthy periods, often years — but all the while conducting investigations with a view to trial.

An international summit on democracy, terrorism and security held in Madrid last week summed up the need to fight terrorism without compromising freedom.

“Law enforcement agencies need the powers required,” the delegates concluded, “yet they must never sacrifice the principles they are dedicated to defend.”
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