Following the recent conviction of three terrorists in Birmingham, FIRE's security expert Dr Dave Sloggett looks at what can be drawn from the evidence presented in court from a wider viewpoint:
The convictions of the three would-be terrorists at Birmingham Crown Court provides further evidence of the enduring nature of the threat to the United Kingdom from Muslim Extremists. However as the media pour over every aspect of their lives and chart their journeys into training camps in Pakistan a key point needs to be remembered. When we look at this material we do so through a window in time that dates back three years. Since then a lot of things have changed. This is a point that is easy to forget and can colour the way in which todays threat is perceived.
Evidence presented in court suggests that two of the three visited Pakistan on two occasions. On their last trip it was also suggested that they, like the London bombers of the 7 July, had left behind suicide videos to be broadcast after they had completed their attack.
In court their aims where made clear. Their disregard for the death toll achieved in London on 7 July 2005 was clear. Groups involved in this kind of activity are often disparaging towards others who have gone before them. Their intent was to accomplish an attack that achieved a death toll similar to that achieved in Mumbai or in Madrid.
Their stated intent to somehow repeat the scale of fatalities and casualties achieved on September 11 was never realistic. Their plan to use eight bombs on timers was reminiscent of the attack in Madrid in 2004 when fourteen bombs were placed on trains and scheduled to detonate at rush-hour. Only ten of the bombs detonated killing 191 people and injuring a further 1,800. Even targeting really crowded areas, such as shopping centres, it is unlikely they could have replicated the death toll experienced in the United States. Killing close to 3,000 people is not easy.
Some commentators have suggested that this period was also the point that Al Qaeda started to shift its approach to training terrorists. A ‘train-the-trainer’ model has been suggested whereby people who ventured into Pakistan became teachers of a new breed of terrorists on their return to their homes in the United Kingdom.
If indeed such a change in tactics did occur it is one that has a number of associated weaknesses. Such an approach goes against the essential need for security that is fostered by creating individual cells. Any new terrorism paradigm that tried to create a centralised or even partially distributed training establishment in the United Kingdom would be fundamentally flawed. It would risk exposing whole networks of potential terrorists through any contact they made with the trainers. It is axiomatic that if groups carefully follow established approaches to operational security they can make it hard for the Security Services to detect their activities.
That said the group did not exactly hide their feelings. Their leader was a well-known activist in the local area. He was often out-spoken in his views. It would have been hard for him not to have come onto the radar horizon of the Security Services. Once their activities were identified it was simply a matter of when the Security Services felt they had sufficient evidence to ensure a conviction. This naivety on the part of the Birmingham group has led some commentators to suggest that they were quite amateurish and ignorant of the kind of technical capabilities available to the Security Services.
This is slightly surprising given the visit two of them made to Pakistan in 2010. In the past one aspect of the education provided at the terrorist training camps has been an awareness of the intelligence collection capabilities of western security services. Clearly the actions of these particular individuals suggest that operational security had not featured high on their curriculum whilst they were in Pakistan. If they were indeed going through a train-the-trainer programme instigated by Al Qaeda such an omission is difficult to explain.
With hindsight it is likely that these three individuals will be part of an ever-diminishing cadre of acolytes that will visit terrorist training camps in Pakistan. With American unmanned aircraft, or drones as they are more popularly known, patrolling the skies Al Qaeda’s activities in some areas of Pakistan have been curtailed. The increase in activity authorised by President Obama in 2010 has clearly had an effect. But it has also displaced the terrorist training camps.
Initially that displacement saw the camps move into Yemen and Somalia. More recently new camps have also sprung up in places such as the border region between Tunisia and Libya and the Sinai Desert and Syria. As the training camps have been geographically displaced so the surveillance conducted by the unmanned aircraft has changed.
This week President Obama notified Congress that up to 100 American soldiers would now be based in Niger. Their task is to create an operate a base for unmanned aircraft that will allow them to operate in support of French and United Nations forces located in Mali. This is the latest of a series of low-level deployments in Africa that are designed to follow the remnants of Al Qaeda wherever they chose to try and establish training camps.
In recognition of this major effort by the United States and its allies Al Qaeda has shifted its stance. But it is not towards a train-the-trainer approach. Al Qaeda’s new thinking is based on the ideas of individual jihad that many of its leadership have been advocating for several years. It explicitly accepts that travel to terrorist training camps will become harder and that Al Qaeda’s acolytes should self-radicalise and train to be terrorists, ideally on their own. This makes life very hard for the security services as trying to detect individuals that might carry out attacks, such as Roshonara Choudhry is very difficult.
So as the three terrorists from Birmingham await their sentencing their particular pathway into terrorism is not so readily available to their contemporaries. Whilst there is recent evidence from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali and Syria of British people travelling overseas for training Al Qaeda is doing what it can to discourage such efforts. What it wants to see is lone wolf attacks, ideally many of them. That is the reality of the situation on the ground today. Since these individuals first came onto the radar horizon of the Security Services a number of things have changed. That is the enduring legacy of Al Qaeda and its acolytes. The ways they operate continue to evolve.