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Al-Qa’eda’s secret UK gangs: terror as a ‘playground dare’

As Brown unveils his National Security Strategy, Fraser Nelson talks to those in the front line against Islamic extremism. MI5 has expanded successfully, but faces in al-Qa’eda an enemy that is organic, elusive and constantly mutating: gangs built on deadly bravado

18 March 2008

12:00 AM

18 March 2008

12:00 AM

As Brown unveils his National Security Strategy, Fraser Nelson talks to those in the front line against Islamic extremism. MI5 has expanded successfully, but faces in al-Qa’eda an enemy that is organic, elusive and constantly mutating: gangs built on deadly bravado

To defeat an enemy, one must first understand him — and this, for years, has been Britain’s principal problem in the war on terror. The identity and profile of the typical British jihadi was a mystery. Many argued he did not exist at all — until the July 2005 London bombings spectacularly proved otherwise. In those days, MI5 was tracking just 400 terror suspects. Now the figure is 2,000, and rising. The security service’s understanding of the fundamentalist menace has been transformed, the anti-terror strategy quietly rewritten and plans for a national security council unveiled by the Prime Minister this week. In the months ahead, much is expected to be disclosed about the full, alarming scale of the threat. In anticipation of that, I have been speaking to a range of Whitehall and political sources about the enemy within.

One thing is certain: there are no more complaints about lack of manpower in Thames House, MI5’s headquarters. Instead, the joke is that it takes ages to get into a lift because they are so full taking staff between floors. The service will have 3,500 staff by the end of next month, with another 600 to come in the next three years. Field agents who were in training during the July bombings are now in place, and sending in a steady flow of intelligence. There is a sense that they are finally catching up with the threat.

After 12 thwarted plots and three failed ones, the picture of the enemy has never been clearer. The typical British terrorist is not angry about poverty (as Cabinet Office guidance suggested four years ago) but is usually an apparently well-integrated Muslim who is likely to have a degree, often in engineering. Frequently, however, he will be in a relatively low-prestige job and may find a macabre attraction in the profile of a suicide bomber. What is common to all is a psychological trait it is all but impossible to screen for: the need for a substitute family, a willingness to be brainwashed by al-Qa’eda.

Throughout government, AQ is referred to by its initials — referring to both a structure and a phenomenon. The Foreign Office (which last year internally advertised a job entitled ‘Head: al-Qa’eda’) believes the group has essentially a tripartite structure. At the top is what it calls ‘core AQ’: people like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his reputed deputy, who make proclamations and distribute videos. The second tier is affiliated groups, which take instructions from the core al-Qa’eda but are not directly linked.

But the third and largest part comprises the self-starting groups which have, as one official puts it, ‘bought into the al-Qa’eda franchise’. They are groupings of like-minded aspirant terrorists who will act in bin Laden’s name, but on their own initiative. The video recorded by Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the London attacks, had a clip of al-Zawahiri afterwards — but this is understood to be an editing trick. There is no indication that the 7/7 killers had any direct contact with al-Qa’eda. His last words were, ‘We are at war and I am a soldier.’ For this reason, the phrase ‘war on terror’ has been retired from the official vocabulary at all levels: there is no desire to give the murderers the warrior status they crave.

So this is not the traditional ‘cellular’ structure associated with the IRA, which had a relatively stable command hierarchy: recognisable paymasters, quartermasters, an army council. The spontaneity with which AQ groups emerge and change — their fiendishly organic quality — makes them all the more difficult to detect. The Madrid bombers, for example, started out as a fundraising group and mutated, as their ambitions grew, into fully fledged bomb-makers. The more common British pattern is for a group of like-minded young men to group together, start talking, raise the stakes progressively until one of them broaches the subject of a terrorist attack. They discover that they have particular talents or resources (money, materials, cars). Their behaviour then resembles that of a playground gang and their bond becomes something close to the psychology of a group dare. None wants to be the first to abandon the project — and thus it develops its own murderous momentum.

For all the lack of central co-ordination, there are common themes and shared goals. Attacking Britain’s links with America remains the principal objective of jihadis in this country — and no target is more perfect than a transatlantic flight. The alleged liquid bomb plot at Heathrow two years ago (whose 11 defendants are expected to come to trial soon) triggered a worldwide airport response for a reason. These are jetset jihadis, mesmerised by the dream of an aircraft strike. And the ambition and scale of intercepted plots is testimony to the level of bomb-making skills taught in the terror camps of Pakistan.


While some British terrorists have confessed to being trained in African camps, Pakistan remains the global finishing school for terrorists. President Musharraf’s intelligence service remains co-operative with MI6, and has handed over video footage of suspects arriving in Islamabad. But the writ of Musharraf’s government simply does not extend over the north-west tribal areas in so-called Waziristan. He has signed accords agreeing to withdraw his army. And this is where the al-Qa’eda training camps flourish. The consequences of this de facto autonomy were seen a few months ago when video footage was disclosed of a graduation ceremony for 300 suicide bombers.

The US fires the occasional missile into the area, to remind al-Qa’eda that it has not been forgotten. Yet Waziristan has already become what 7,000 British troops are trying to stop Afghanistan from turning into: a safe haven for terrorists. And its graduates are being exported straight back to British streets — waiting to engage MI5 and counter-terrorism police in a game of cat-and-mouse.

In the Cold War, there was a formula to defection. The enemy agent was offered money, safety and political sanctuary in return for co-operation. Come over to us, Smiley would say to Karla’s spies, and we will give you a better life. In this conflict, the enemy believes he is destined for Paradise if he completes his deadly mission. Worldly incentives do not compete so easily with transcendental promises.

That is not to say that the new AQ groups are unbeatable: far from it. They are certainly harder to find than IRA cells. But once they are detected, their loose-knit structure means they are easier to disrupt. They are normally young men thrown together with little discipline, if one is disheartened, the rest of the group can collapse quite quickly. The constant problem for the intelligence services is at what point to send in the police: too soon, and there will be no evidence to prosecute. Too late, and the unthinkable may happen.

Yet the smart strategy is to stop young Muslim males getting to this stage in the first place. Most surveys of British Muslim opinion show that the vast majority (normally about four fifths) denounce terrorist activity. This still leaves a depressingly large 20 per cent who say they disagree with terrorist attacks in Britain — but consider such tactics acceptable in Israel, Chechnya or Kashmir.

Less than 1 per cent would be willing to get involved in terrorism. Yet the transition process, from broad sympathy to outright complicity, is becoming alarmingly fast. Sidique Khan took two years of preparation to become a suicide bomber ahead of the London attacks. The terrorists now being apprehended by security services are making this journey to jihad in a ma
tter of weeks.

Ministers who have been involved in dealing with Muslim radicalisation attest to the scale of the problem. British Islam, they fear, suffers from weak institutions which are easily infiltrated by the more organised and articulate extremist bodies. And, outside the mosques, the most articulate and persuasive voice tends to be that of Hizb ut Tahrir, a radical Sunni group whose aim is the restoration of the caliphate.

The government is increasingly losing confidence in the Muslim Council of Britain, whose members have a habit of saying ‘yes, but…’ when asked to condemn terrorist attacks. It is filled with people who prefer to equivocate, and are slow to call Palestinian terrorism in Israel by its name. Sir Iqbal Sacranie, until recently the Council’s chairman, once observed that death was ‘perhaps too easy’ for Salman Rushdie. Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary and Ruth Kelly, her predecessor, tired of the Muslim Council of Britain some time ago and both have pursued a strategy of threatening to withhold funds unless the MCB started to confront extremists.

The paradox is that mainstream British Muslims, precisely because they are relatively well integrated, have little interest in forming ghetto groups. They give a wide berth to the bearded men who nominate themselves as community leaders. Who can blame them? The trouble, however, is that this leaves no one to confront the jihadis at street level.

This structural weakness is what makes Britain a Petri dish for radical Islam — and increasingly recognised as such around the world. When Michael Chertoff, the US national security secretary, said in January that Europe had become a growing source of extremism it was Britain that he was referring to. Indeed, Britain has replaced Bosnia at the head of the CIA’s league table of threats from European Islamism. MI5 may well be catching many balls — 12 plots intercepted in eight years is an impressive record — but realises it will be fighting a losing game unless the supply of jihadis is choked off.

The template which Tony Blair looked to was America and the likes of Hamza Yusuf, an American convert and moderate Muslim who denounces extremism and is charismatic enough to fill halls with audiences of 5,000 people. If only we had chaps like him, Mr Blair thought. But when his government imported them (like Professor Tariq Ramadan) uproar soon followed, usually when their views about homosexuality or Israel became known. And — in any case — any cleric tarnished by the sponsorship of the government instantly loses credibility with Muslim youths.

Better, then, to remove the perceived taint of government altogether. This is, in effect, what Mark Carrol did when he stepped down as the government’s director for cohesion and tackling extremism to pursue the same agenda by setting up a charity, the Catalyst Foundation. His argument is that Muslims tend to live in deprived neighbourhoods, and to set up the moderate civil institutions they need ‘support from wider society — businesses, universities, charitable foundations and philanthropists’. Co-ordinating this, he says, ‘is something best done outside government’.

Most charity workers would kill to run a government division with a horn of plenty budget. Yet Mr Carrol has walked away from Whitehall believing that more can be done if the money comes from elsewhere. There are a few similar moderate groups such as the Muslim City Circle group of Islamic businessmen and Markfield Institute which offers Islamic studies to people whom it hopes will be the imams of tomorrow. But they are, at present, lonely and underfunded combatants in a battlefield where Hizb ut Tahrir dominates.

Money has brought MI5 up to fighting strength — yet government resources cannot buy a Muslim civil society which has a functioning immune system. As Mr Brown often laments, the ideology of multiculturalism conspired to channel state funding to groups which were inherently separatist. Part of the PM’s ‘Britishness’ agenda is to nurture groups which give institutional form to ‘moderate Islam’: easier said than done.

The government is up against an enemy promiscuous and cunning in its techniques: al-Qa’eda propagates its mediaeval message using 21st-century techniques. It has mastered the web and was quick to cotton on to the power of viral ads — giving its movement more credibility and an underground edge. With just a few clicks of the mouse you can find videos persuading Muslims to enlist in a holy war. ‘I hate to say it, but their videos are incredibly powerful,’ says one minister. ‘How do we respond to that?’ Having the Prime Minister give an interview to Al Jazeera is not the answer.

In both Britain and America, the understanding is that the terrorists believe they are winning. Their timeframe is not defined by the electoral cycle but by the passing of generations — and they have put their faith in the West’s lack of attention span and stomach for the fight. Britain’s protectors, in turn, place their faith in the inherent virtues of freedom and democracy (supported by a standing army and intelligence service). Thus, the war on terror has become a new Cold War: a mixture of war games and mind games, played out on several fronts. And no one on our side would yet dare say that we are winning.


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