MI5 evolves to meet threat of international terror network




By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 5 May 2003

Bab el-Oued has little in common with Wood Green, and both are a far cry from the barren slopes of the Pankisi Gorge. But for the counter-terrorist officers in Britain’s security service, better known as MI5, the three areas are inextricably linked.

A network wove together the rundown district of the Algerian capital, Algiers – once the urban heartland of the country’s armed Islamist groups – with the north London suburb and the borderland between the Caucasus republics of Georgia and Chechnya.

A chance arrest in Algiers in December 2002, a tip-off to a European intelligence service, and the discovery of lists of names and addresses in cities in France, Italy, Spain and the UK led to the exposure a few weeks later of a trail of terrorist activity linked to al-Qaeda, which was then traced back to Afghanistan via the Pankisi.

At the centre of the network’s operations was a new weapon: ricin, a poison made from castor beans that, if used effectively, is lethal and its impact incurable. Acting on the tip-off, MI5 on January 5 discovered traces of ricin in a flat above a chemist’s shop in Wood Green.

Ever since, the process of piecing together the evidence learnt from those arrested in the UK and elsewhere has illustrated the twin roles MI5 has developed since the end of the cold war. For while it has developed its intelligence-gathering capacity on the global terrorist threat, it has also become a key part of the UK law enforcement machinery.

“The security service provides a bridge between the secret world and the police world. We can move intelligence from the secret world into the police world, so it can be used in court,” said a senior Whitehall official.

The linkage between the Algiers backstreet and Wood Green high street showed how the UK’s integrated intelligence and security apparatus has built up its effectiveness. The overseas and domestic intelligence services, as well as the anti-terrorist branch of the Metropolitan Police, Special Branch and local police forces from Dorset to Edinburgh, all responded to the intelligence tip-off, resulting in numerous arrests.

Arrests in other European countries also revealed the extent of cross-border intelligence co-operation. MI5’s post-cold war role in confronting Irish terrorism since 1992 had already strengthened Europe-wide co-operation before al-Qaeda appeared on the scene.

“We had established a way of dealing with the IRA in Europe which involved the better integration of intelligence, and forging better relations with security services in other countries,” said a senior official.

However, with the exception of a recent case in Leicester that saw two al-Qaeda operatives prosecuted on terrorism charges, many of the successful prosecutions of alleged al-Qaeda terrorists in Europe in recent months have been on charges of credit card fraud or other criminal activities. Hard evidence of their alleged terrorist activity has been elusive.

This shortcoming is in part the result of the difficulty of infiltrating al-Qaeda at a senior level.

There is still debate as to whether MI5 should have been more assertive when future terrorist suspects claimed political asylum in the UK in the mid-1990s.

“I don’t think there is any evidence that MI5 had their eye off the ball regarding Islamic terrorism in the mid-90s. And it is difficult to act without burning your sources. It is a real dilemma,” said Peter Gill, a security expert at Liverpool John Moores university.

The post-September 11 onslaught against al-Qaeda may mean that the threat from it has now either diminished or mutated beyond recognition.

In response to last October’s Bali attack, the process of assessing dangers has been overhauled. The Counter-Terrorist Assessment Centre operated by MI5 has now been replaced by the Joint Terrorist Assessment Centre which will draw upon a wider range of analysts. But this additional streamlining is inadequate if it is not fed by better information.

“Within al-Qaeda, there are people who know about intelligence agencies and how they work,” said a senior security official. “The most effective way of knowing what’s going on is having someone inside. It’s something we have invested in very heavily.”


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.