The new enemy within is invisible
Al-Qaeda is changing its tactics to avoid detection of its agents. Security forces must adapt quickly to find them, says Con Coughlin
By Con Coughlin | April 10, 2009
Within Britain's counter-terrorism community they are known as the "clean skins": highly trained, professional killers whose blameless backgrounds provide not the slightest clue as to their true, evil intent.
The phenomenon was first identified during the bloody 30-year campaign the IRA waged against the British Isles. At the start of the Troubles, British intelligence and security officials quickly established a profile of the main IRA suspects, enabling them to dent severely the organisation's operational effectiveness. To counter this, IRA commanders sought recruits who did not fit the classic image – no known involvement in Republican politics, no criminal record and preferably no Irish family ties.
Now it appears that the "clean skins" may be back, this time in Islamist form. That is the logical conclusion to be drawn from the latest operation in which anti-terror police detained 12 men in a series of raids conducted in Manchester, Liverpool and Clitheroe, Lancs.
Most of the headlines have inevitably focused on the resignation of Bob Quick, the country's leading anti-terrorism policeman, who risked jeopardising the entire operation by exposing its details in advance.
But it is the raids themselves, targeted at 11 Pakistani-born nationals who had entered Britain on student visas (and one British national), which suggest that al-Qaeda might now be attempting to effect a radical transformation in its tactics.
We should remember that September 11, 2001 changed the face of modern terrorism. Britain's security and intelligence establishment found itself on a sharp learning curve as it struggled to master the new threat that had suddenly appeared.
It was only through painstaking investigation of the subsequent plots in this country that a clearer picture emerged of the modus operandi of al-Qaeda's British-based terror cells. Up to now, nearly all of the major plots – both those that have succeeded and those that have been thwarted by the diligence of our security forces – have involved British passport holders of Pakistani descent, or "Brit-Paks" as they are known within the intelligence-gathering community.
The architects of the July 7 bombings in London in 2005 were Brit-Paks, as were many of those involved in the failed suicide bombings two weeks later. Those jailed for planning terror attacks in British shopping centres and airports fitted a similar profile.
As a consequence – and despite protests from leaders of the British Muslim community, who have insisted that Britain's two million Muslims pose no threat to national security – police and security officials have concentrated their efforts on infiltrating and monitoring known radical elements, particularly mosques, where inflammatory preachers such as Abu Qatada delivered sermons in favour of waging jihad against the West.
Much effort was expended on tracking the movements of the estimated 400,000 Brit-Paks who travel regularly between Britain and Pakistan, while MI6 worked closely with Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI, to spot potential terror leads.
Then, at the end of last year, the Government revealed that, at any given time, British security forces were contending with at least 20 active terror plots, mainly involving groups of Brit-Paks who have been radicalised and trained at Saudi-funded madrassas in Pakistan, and have then managed to return undetected to Britain. Despite their success in establishing a useful profile of likely jihadists, security officials are trained to keep an open mind as to possible changes in the pattern. "Terror groups have an advantage over us because they have no restrictions they have to work to," says a senior security official. "They will do whatever they can to ensure their attacks are a success."
For this reason, security officials need to be aware of what they refer to as "the diversification of the threat", where terror groups adapt their tactics to escape detection. Thus, even though radicalised Brit-Paks form the basis of the Government's normal terrorist profile, officials are well aware of discrepancies where white British males and Muslim converts of other ethnicities have cropped up.
The Government's recent report on counter-terrorism, Contest Two, suggested that al-Qaeda-related groups were trying to adapt their tactics to counter the British security forces' increased awareness of traditional operations. Commanders of British forces fighting in Afghanistan have uncovered evidence that British Muslims have been sending electronic components for use in the Taliban's roadside bombs; there have even been reports of them being involved in attacks on British patrols. Contest Two also warned that British hotels and public buildings faced the threat of Mumbai-style attacks by terrorists with automatic weapons.
Government officials have estimated the current threat against the UK to be at "the severe end of severe". This is one step short of critical, which is when the Government judges a major attack to be imminent, as it did with one alleged plot in the summer of 2006.
Senior police and security officers suspect those arrested this week were planning a number of suicide bombings in a major city centre over the Easter weekend. If true, this would confirm that a cell of Pakistan-born nationals has infiltrated the UK, a development that would add a disturbing dimension to the Government's counter-terrorism effort.
Every year, an average of 10,000 Pakistani nationals travel to Britain on student visas. Every applicant undergoes close scrutiny, including fingerprint checks against a range of immigration, terrorism and crime watch lists. If al-Qaeda has managed to avoid detection and infiltrate a "clean skin" cell into the UK, this system is clearly ineffective.
"It is a very different proposition if we have Pakistani citizens plotting terror attacks against Britain, as opposed to British citizens," says a senior intelligence official. "We will be entering a whole new ball game."
To start with, it will mean working even more closely with Pakistani intelligence, which has a chequered history of co-operating with its British counterpart.
Rashid Rauf, the British-born Islamist who is thought to be the mastermind of the latest alleged plot, managed to escape from Pakistani custody while his guards stopped for lunch at McDonald's, prompting speculation that he may have been an ISI agent all along.
And if British security officials are to prevent further terror attacks they will need full access to detainees held in foreign jails who might have important information, irrespective of the conditions in which they are being held.
Following the allegations made last month by former Guantánamo detainee Binyam Mohammed that he had been tortured with the complicity of MI5 officers, the Government is under pressure to limit British security officials' access to suspects held in countries like Pakistan, where torture is routine.
But to do so might seriously jeopardise attempts to combat the terror threat. No one in the intelligence and security services wants to torture suspects: but they do want access to the intelligence that will prevent further bloodshed on the streets of Britain.