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Last Updated: Monday, 3 July 2006, 14:12 GMT 15:12 UK
One year on: Is the UK any safer?

By Frank Gardner
Security correspondent, BBC News

The awkward answer to the question of whether Britain is now any safer is both yes and no.

Twelve months after the quadruple suicide bombings killed 52 commuters on their way to work in London, Britain's counter-terrorism officials have undertaken a number of measures to try to prevent a similar attack from happening.

They now know more about how four young British Muslims became so radicalised that they targeted their own citizens, but with increased knowledge comes the grim realisation that the problem is so huge that they cannot be 100% confident of stopping all attacks.

Bombed bus in Tavistock Square
The factors that helped radicalise the bombers are still around
Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of the Government's anti-terrorism legislation, has told the BBC that the fact that the 7 July bombers were British citizens leading outwardly ordinary, respectable lives was something of a wake-up call.

He said: "That made us really take note of a changed situation. I think Britain is a less safe place as a result, and I think eternal vigilance is required.

"I have no doubt from information I have seen that there is a real and present threat of further terrorism acts in this country, and I think whatever criticism one makes of the intelligence services and the police, and some of them may be valid, it is extremely difficult for them to find self-starting violent jihadists in the indigenous population of the UK.

"It is really is like policing for a needle in a haystack."

Sense of alienation

The statistics are depressing. Since 22 July 2005, there have been three thwarted attacks on the British mainland, while the police and Security Service (MI5) say they are working flat-out monitoring those they believe are liable to carry out violent acts out of revenge for perceived injustices.

A year ago, those individuals numbered about 800, today they believe the figure is at least 1,200. The problem, they admit, is that the factors that helped radicalise Mohammed Siddique Khan and his co-conspirators are still around today.

They include the conflict in Iraq sparked by the US-led invasion, the denial of a viable Palestinian state, the conflict in Chechnya and, closer to home, a deep sense of alienation and victimisation by some sections of Britain's Muslim communities.

They feel they are being singled out almost for humiliation, defeat after defeat
Maher Othman
Editor, al-Hayat

These feelings have only been exacerbated by the bungled police raid this summer at Forest Gate in East London, in which a young man was shot in error and a suspected bomb factory turned out to be an ordinary, law-abiding household.

Events like that, and the indignation felt by many Muslims over the publication in Europe earlier this year of cartoons defaming the Prophet Muhammad, have undermined much of the government's efforts to build better relations with Muslim communities.

The editor of al-Hayat newspaper in London, Maher Othman, believes that humiliation is now a major factor in radicalising someone to the point of violence.

"I think what happens inside a young person's mind which changes him from being angry and looking at the situation, saying: 'This is humiliating for me as a Muslim', and moving from there to becoming radical enough to commit acts of violence, is only something we can guess at.

"But I think mostly they feel humiliated. They carry the tag of Islam, they are Muslims just like there are people who are Buddhist and Christians, they feel they are being singled out almost for humiliation, defeat after defeat.

"Being looked at strangely, they are living in the Western country and yet there is some loyalty to their old world, to the world of their forefathers and ancestors, so this accumulated feeling of humiliation I feel must eventually drive them towards violence".

New measures

The British government's counter-terrorism strategy still centres round a four-point plan:

  • prevent - an attack happening

  • pursue - terrorists

  • protect - assets, people and places

  • prepare - to cope with incidents

But since July 2005, the security service - which takes the lead in counter-terrorism intelligence-gathering - has undertaken six specific measures which it believes will reduce the chances of a terrorist plot succeeding:

  • Regionalisation - in order to broaden its sources of information, MI5 expects to have eight regional offices set up around the country by the end of 2006, each staffed by counter-terrorism specialists, its biggest peacetime deployment outside its headquarters in London

  • Building up "a rich picture" of subversive activity - this means looking more closely at the estimated 1200 individuals it believes are connected with terrorist activity

  • Accelerating recruitment - MI5 is in the midst of a major expansion from its previous levels of 1,500 to 3,500 by the end of 2008; it currently has a staff of 2,600

  • Counter-terrorism operations - Whitehall officials say there have been dozens of counter-terrorism operations in the last 12 months that have resulted in disruption through covert action; most, they say, have gone unreported

  • Liaison - This has increased both domestically - with the police - and internationally with other governments' agencies, such as in Canada

  • Responding to the threat - Through the National Counter-terrorism Security Office, the government is hoping to relay any terrorist threats to the public or industry with minimum delay

But MI5 is not immune from criticism. Many in Britain have questioned why the agency was aware that Mohammad Sidique Khan, the lead bomber on 7 July, was connected to suspected terrorists already under surveillance yet did not arrest him.

Investigations by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee concluded that this was a failure of resources rather than a failure of intelligence - ie that with so many suspects to monitor, MI5 had to concentrate its resources on those it considered most likely to carry out an attack, and that at the time Khan was not thought to be an active terrorist.

'A mistake'

Yet Professor Anthony Glees, who lectures on intelligence and security issues at Brunel University, remains critical:

"What MI5 has been failing to do for a considerable period, since 1992, is deep network analysis.

"They have used specific intelligence against specific people and they haven't gone into group analysis, and that's been a mistake.

"The traditional methods used during the Cold War required a specific type of work, and then it just stopped, and the result is that someone like MSK [Mohammad Sidique Khan], who fell eight or nine times into the Security Service radar, was not picked up."

Right across Britain's counter-terrorism community - in MI5, the police, the Cabinet Office - there is a nervous anticipation that despite all the work done in the last year, the attacks of July 2005 may not be the last.

In the words of the Director- General of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller: "We can stop most attacks, but not all of them."


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