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Leading article The Week

Terror in retreat

The Spectator on the terror threat in Britain

9 September 2009

12:00 AM

9 September 2009

12:00 AM

On the anniversary of the 11 September attacks, Britain has learned just how close it came to its own version. The trial of the Heathrow plotters, three of whom were convicted this week, shows how developed the jihadi menace had become in our country. They planned to bring down six aircraft, in all likelihood killing far more than the 3,017 slain in New York and Washington eight years ago. Given how many of the perpetrators would have been British, it would have been calamitous not just for Britain’s trade but for our reputation in the world.

The trial threw up many sobering facts. Britain has, for reasons which we still struggle to understand, the biggest Muslim extremist problem in Europe. Whatever France’s trouble with Algeria-related terrorism, there is no continental equivalent to the suburbs of Birmingham and Leeds, which seem to have become Petri dishes for terrorism. Rashid Rauf, the Birmingham-bred co-ordinator of the attacks, was part of a very British phenomenon — one that was not fully recognised by our government even after the destruction of the Twin Towers.

At the time, the police and security services feared that the sheer volume of British extremism would overwhelm them and that it would only be a matter of time before the next Heathrow-style plot succeeded. The more they looked, the more they found. It appeared as if the British jihadi threat was rising exponentially, energised by the 7/7 bombings, and with children as young as 15 caught up in terrorist networks. Ministers panicked. MI5’s budget was increased by as much as the agency could realistically handle.

And the money worked. No minister would be reckless enough to admit it, but the tide has slowly turned. Surveillance and intelligence is much improved. The arrest of the Heathrow bombers has had a chilling effect on would-be jihadis. Potential terrorists are now being arrested for minor offences — credit card fraud, or (in many cases) child pornography — so it is increasingly hard for any terrorist cell to mature. On an operational level, the police now feel they are — broadly — on top of the threat. The panic of three years ago is gone.

Internationally, there are signs of al-Qa’eda being decapitated by increasingly successful American air strikes on its sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Rauf is one of many high-ranking terror suspects thought to have been killed by America’s state-of-the-art drones, which are capable of responding whenever a target switches on a traceable mobile phone. Three years ago, al-Qa’eda planned to set up base in Iraq, in the heart of the Middle East, but this has now had to be abandoned. They have retreated to the badlands of southern Sudan.

No less importantly, al-Qa’eda is now threatened by theological opposition from within the Muslim world. Osama bin Laden’s great achievement was to unite the previously warring extremist groups. Now clerics like the self-styled Dr Fadi in Egypt are blaming bin Laden for ‘every drop’ of blood spilled in Afghanistan and Iraq. Saudi Arabia, which had turned a blind eye to al-Qa’eda, is now energetically and effectively arresting terror suspects and subjecting them to compulsory re-education. Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the deputy interior minister, is making such progress that he is now facing assassination attempts.

In Britain, and around the world, al-Qa’eda is facing setbacks on every front and is far less able to pursue its murderous agenda. Today’s equivalent of Rashid Rauf is likely to have been intercepted far earlier, and it is far more dangerous to solicit support from the terror camps in north-west Pakistan. There is good reason to hope that the Heathrow plot was the high-water mark of Islamic terrorism in Britain. Slowly, but decisively, we are winning the war on terror.

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