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 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 17:39 GMT
Is the UK safe from terrorist threats? You asked a security expert

Charles Shoebridge, a former anti-terrorist intelligence officer at Scotland Yard answered your questions on the terrorist situation in the UK


Ed Jacobs Nottingham, UK: Do you think that Britain is the al-Qaeda's next target?

I've no doubt that at some future point the UK will be successfully targeted, but whether this is before or after an incident elsewhere is difficult to say. Al-Qaeda's main targets are Israel and the US, but the interests of those countries can of course be attacked anywhere. Whether right or wrong, the UK's stance on Iraq certainly increases the chances of us being specicifically targeted in the near future.

Nigel York, UK: Is there an estimate of just how many of these Islamic terrorists are roaming the country, or waiting in sleeping cells?

Estimates vary widely, but between 100 and 1000 Islamic extremists with terrorist potential is probably a close guess. The majority of these aren't people who are entering the country specifically to be terrorists. They are people who actually live here, either as settled asylum seekers, or as British born converts to the Islamic extremist cause.

Ivan Kayitare London, Britain: When will Britain ever adopt the FBI style of cracking on terrorists before we lose more of our people?

The FBI, as with our own law enforcement and intelligence communities, have to work within the context of the legislation and powers available to them. Britain has had, for many years, some of the democratic world's most powerful anti-terrorist and immigration legislation. Arguably however, it wasn't until Sept 11th that the UK woke up to the Islamic extremist threat and actually started to make use of these powers. The same charge has, of course, been levelled at the FBI.

Mark Seaden, England: Isn't it true that, however hard an effort we make in collecting and disseminating intelligence related to terror threats against the UK, there will always be those who get through the system undetected?

The short answer is yes - and it's very important that the general population realises this. A major terrorist success is almost certainly a matter of when, not if. Having said this, the more effort that is properly directed towards combatting terrorism, the less successes the terrorists will have. Also, the tougher and more effective line we take, the more that internatiional terrorists will seek to operate elsewhere instead.

Will Howell Norwich, UK:How much help are the security forces getting from the Muslim community to track down terrorists in their midst?

For at least a decade, to my own knowledge, the Muslim community has been one of the main sources of intelligence about Islamic extremism, and it's probably true to say that the overwhelming majority of the UK's Muslim population totally reject an extremist position. Indeed, the Ricahard Reid case (the British shoe-bomber) illustrated just how frustrated many Muslims felt that their often expressed concerns went unheeded by the UK authorities. In many ways, the key to future success against Islamic terrorism in the UK depends on the ability of the security services to encourage and exploit the intelligence the Muslim community has to offer.

Matt Phillips, Leiceter, UK: Do you think that if a raid on a suspected terrorist requires Special Forces?

It's an important feature of British society that the military are rarely involved in civil policing operations, and I think this should remain so. The UK police have specially trained and equipped forces (such as the Met's SO19) capable of dealing with almost all situations. Indeed, much of their training and tactics are provided by the UK's military special forces. Having said that, special forces can be used by the police if absolutely necessary - as happened during the Iranian embassy seige of course.

Clayre Todd, Glasgow, Scotland: Why were the suspects not restrained immediately and why did it take over an hour for back up to arrive?

The circumstances of the Manchester killing of DC Oake are still being investigated, but it's clear that the operation went badly wrong. Questions that need to be answered include what kind of preparation and briefing took place beforehand, what equipment was available to the officers and the training they'd had, and whether a proper threat assessment was carried out. It's certainly not unusual for anti-terrorist operations to be mounted without armed officers, body armour or the use of handcuffs - depending on the level of threat at the time. My own view is that this should never be the case, and that as a result of the Manchester incident policies will change.

Bill Spindloe, Manila, Philippines: Do you feel that the UK's immigration policy has made the threat to our country possibly greater than any other European country?

It's an ironic feature of our asylum system that, the more of an Islamic extremist you are, the more you can plausibly claim to have been persecuted in a place like Algeria, and the more valid your asylum claim will be. Consequently, the UK has, over the last decade, become home to a large number of such peiople. The whole question of immigration and its security implications needs to be addressed - although in this connection horses and stable doors come to mind.

Nigel Beer, Watford, England: Why is it so easy to enter the UK?

This is a question for the Home Office - under both political parties! The UK's borders are effectively completely open to entry by almost anyone - particularly if they're travelling on EU documentation. Terrorists will of course use false IDs anyway, so even more stringent border controls might not be effective. What's really needed is a system whereby all people entering and leaving the UK have their fingerprints scanned and compared with an international database of suspects. Until security becomes as important as civil liberties, this of course is not going to happen.

Nick Emanuel Glos, UK Which do you believe would represent better value for money? A new FBI style unit which would pull the cream of the current security service crop, or a larger budget for all the security services especially Customs/Excise and the regular police?

It's fair to say that, some years ago, inter-service rivalries caused problems in fighting terrorism. Today, and particularly since Sept 11th, the different agencies seem to be working better together - and with foreign intelligence agencies too. My own feeling is, however, that a unified anti-terrorist body would have a number of advantages, particularly in commanding all anti-terrorist operations wherever in the country they took place.

Paul Grimshaw, London: I thought that MI5/MI6 were effectively already an Anti-Terrorist agency, is this not correct?

Both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) have numerous task, of which anti-terrorism is only one - albeit arguably the most important. Essentially however, these organisations are involved in the collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence, whereas the police (notably the Special Branch and Anti-Terrorist Branch) are largely responsible for operational matters - particularly after an arrest or a terrorist attack. Other agencies in the Home Office and Ministry of Defence have roles in the provision of protective security, and so on. In contrast, a national body to deal with all aspects of homeland security has now been chosen as the American model.

Keith Bullock Watford UK What could be done to prevent terrorists from simply chartering light aircraft/ yachts etc to gain access to the country. It appears that there is little or no security/vetting at most small airfields/ports etc.

You're right. This has been recognised as a problem, but short of manning every cove and strip of grass in the country it's difficult to control. The key to a successful anti-terrorist strategy though is the obtaining of good intelligence. This would allow, in the cases you mention, for the movements of terrorists and materials to be known even before they happen. That, at least, is the theory.

Simon Kennett, England: Do you agree that your not safe anywhere it's just a question of being in the wrong place at the wrong time

Yes, to a large extent I do. Within the UK, London is clearly the most at risk, simply because it's the political capital and an attack there would generate most publicity. But with an Islamic terrorism that specifically targets the civilian population, anywhere, particularly urban areas, is at risk. Which simply means that as the general public we should be vigilant, but also try to live our lives as normally as possible.


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