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     Jul 3, 2007
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Fighting terrorism - but at what cost?
By Richard M Bennett

In the shocked aftermath of the latest terrorist attempt to bring death and destruction to major British cities on successive days, questions are automatically being asked about the effectiveness of the United Kingdom's security apparatus.

Britain dodged a bullet when loaded car bombs were discovered in London's entertainment district before exploding. The next day, terrorists tried to ram a car bomb into Glasgow International Airport. As of this writing, a nationwide dragnet had netted five

suspects, with more arrests anticipated.

Once again the British Security Service (commonly known as MI5, for Military Intelligence, Section 5) was taken by surprise by coordinated attacks by a home-grown Islamic terrorist group that managed to get in "under the radar".

Despite the official protestations that there was no warning of any sort, it has to be pointed out that on April 22 the London Sunday Times published an article by Dipesh Gadher that appeared to be based on information from security sources.

Headlined "Al-Qaeda planning big British attack", it said, "Al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq are planning the first 'large-scale' terrorist attacks on Britain and other Western targets [since July 7, 2005] with the help of supporters in Iran, according to a leaked intelligence report. Spy chiefs warn that one operative had said he was planning an attack on 'a par with Hiroshima and Nagasaki' in an attempt to 'shake the Roman throne', a reference to the West."
Significantly, the article adds, "Another plot could be timed to coincide with Tony Blair stepping down as prime minister, an event described by al-Qaeda planners as a 'change in the head of the company'."

While there was obviously no specific intelligence suggesting a time, date or even a place, this was a significant period, with the changeover of the British government's leadership and the opening of the Scottish Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II. It must therefore have been flagged as likely to attract al-Qaeda's attention.

Taken together with a reported increase in the level of al-Qaeda communications "chatter", a substantially raised level of security awareness and precautions would have been expected at the very least. However, it is not yet clear just how seriously the authorities took the potential threat.

Terrorist threat at 'critical' level
With the obvious links between the failed London and Glasgow attacks, there is a growing realization that Britain may now be facing a nationwide terrorist threat.

Indeed, late on Saturday the Home Office raised the threat level to Critical in response to advice from MI5's terrorist analysis center. This suggests that the intelligence services now believe an attack is "imminent" and may occur in the lead-up to the anniversary of the July 7, 2005, attacks on London's transport system.

The Security Service must now accept the unpalatable fact that significant elements of the terrorist cells that carried out the attacks in the capital two years ago escaped detection and have now returned to the urban battlefield with new tactics and weapons.

The fact that the first of this new wave of attempts at mass murder failed should not lull the authorities or general public into a false sense of security. These attacks prove that the terrorists can get through, and anywhere in Britain is now vulnerable. The next target might be a hospital, a school, a bus or railway station, or even a supermarket.

So, did the authorities take their eye off the ball, or were they looking at the wrong people? Is it simply that MI5 is not up to the job, or is it being asked to do the impossible? Is the Security Service ever really going to cope?

The Security Service has admitted that it currently has some 2,000 Islamic "targets" under suspicion. To this must be added the remaining unreconstructed elements of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and other terrorist and extremist movements ranging from animal rights to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

It now has to deal with increasing Russian and Chinese espionage, fast approaching Cold War levels. This does not take into account all the other more mundane duties of the Security Service.

Despite the fact that the Security Service will have increased its staffing levels from about 1,800 in 2001 to probably in excess of 3,000 by 2010, it will remain woefully inadequate in numbers to deal with even the current level of threat.

Even at its new maximum strength, the Security Service would probably still only be able to deploy about 800 officers for active surveillance or as agent handlers.

MI5: Under-strength and under-funded
To conduct counter-terrorism and counterespionage operations to a high level would require a minimum of 5,000 field officers and a Security Service of no fewer than 12,000 people in total. That is four times the projected total strength for 2010.

Even if you added in the strength of the Metropolitan Police SO15 (Specialist Operations) Counter-Terrorism Command and the combined SO12 Special Branch and SO13 Anti-Terrorist Unit, you would still fail by a long way to make up the required numbers.

Simply put, both the International Terrorism (G) Branch and the Domestic Terrorism (T) Branch of the Security Service are being asked to do a vitally important job with a mere fraction of the resources, both personnel and financial, necessary to carry out fully the duties required of them. This sad state of affairs could easily apply to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and to most other security services within the developed world as well.

Certainly, MI5 has considerably enhanced its capability since September 11, 2001: more than 1,000 new staff; improved equipment; new covert-surveillance facilities and additional offices in West London and seven or eight small regional MI5 offices are being opened, usually co-located with important police headquarters.

Home-grown terrorism a genuine threat
However, during the past six years the Islamic terrorist threat has moved from being almost entirely external in origin to something much more significantly dangerous - home-grown. Britain now faces a growing network of dedicated Islamic terrorist cells deeply implanted among local Muslim communities over much of London, the Midlands, the north of England and central Scotland in particular.

This is a threat that years of neglect by the Security Service have left it ill-equipped to deal with. A lack of language specialists and officers of the right ethnic background, along with little or no knowledge of the culture, habits or beliefs of more than a million Muslim British citizens, leaves MI5 bereft of the vital intelligence and understanding needed to fight this new form of terrorism.

To add to this, the Security Service has been instructed by the government to continue close surveillance of the rejectionist elements of the IRA and will still have to cope with a massive growth of traditional espionage operations, by Russia and China in particular.

In the aftermath of the collapse of Soviet and Eastern European communism in the early 1990s, an ill-judged purge of battle-hardened and highly professional MI5 officers left the service critically short of the very officers and middle management now so desperately needed to train, advise and direct the new intake of inexperienced staff.

The Security Service, by so quickly rejecting the very men and women who had played such a major role in defeating Soviet communism, seriously undermined its ability to tackle the growing menace of Islamic extremism. MI5 was not alone in this. The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and, in the the US, the

Continued 1 2 

It's all about Iraq (Aug 6, '05)

How London brought terror on itself (Jul 16, '05)

1. A pipeline into the heart of Europe

2. China looks on at the US-India lockstep

3. What Tenet knew

4. Why you pretend to like modern art 

5. The rise and rise of Hamas

6. US, Iran: Taking talks to the next level

7. When hedge funds implode

8. Deja-Wu: Why China must revalue

(June 29-July 1, 2007)


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