In the light of recent revelations about relaxed border controls, Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett explains why the scandal could mean more than simply short-term embarrassment for the Home Secretary.

Given the austerity measures that have been introduced, it is understandable that the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) feels under the cosh. Doing more with less is a mantra that is always easy to say, not so easy to do unless you look at current working practices in great detail.

Passing through airports these days is a bit of a lottery. You never quite know how large the queues are going to be, especially in the summer months. For the UKBA to look at revising its approaches - to do more with less - was a natural outcome to help keep the waiting times to a reasonable level. Other countries however are less concerned about making people wait. They see the border as a place where they can filter people into and out of the country. For those who chose to visit the United States, you know that getting into America is going to take time. Who hasn't made a mistake filling in the form, and then had to go to the back of the queue? The message that these measures sends out is that getting into the United States is not easy. It does have a deterrent effect.   

With the Home Secretary having to defend the actions of her Department in the House of Commons - and again in front the Home Affairs Committee - the issue how best to secure our borders is again making the headlines. It is a subject that for some parts of the media is rarely off the radar. Against a really uncertain backdrop of an enduring threat from terrorism, the decision to apparently spend less time screening people entering the country appears at odds with the wider threat picture that is emerging.

As Al-Qaeda changes it tactics to encourage single people and groups in overseas countries to spontaneously become involved in terrorism, this is hardly a time to be letting up on the border controls. If anything the UKBA should be saying to anyone complaining of waiting in a queue - this delay means we can screen people properly. It is in your interests that we do that well.

One of the enduring dynamics of international terrorism is the desire by some in the United Kingdom (and elsewhere) to travel overseas for training. The recent interception of two teenagers from South Wales on the Kenya-Somalia border provides a timely illustration of the problem. They had travelled to Kenya ostensibly to take a holiday. Their real intent appears, however, to have been to cross into Somalia and join the Al Qaeda affiliated group Al Shabab.

The recent arrest by British Forces in Afghanistan of three men from the West Midlands highlights the nature of the people who travel overseas seeking to gain training into how to carry out acts of terror. Two members of the group that attacked London on the 7th of July 2005 did the same, visiting Pakistan. These isolated incidents that get reported in the media are indicative of a broader problem.

All of these people had one thing in common apart from their desire to become Jihadists - they all owned a British passport. If the border controls are not thorough as they return from their visits to training camps, the potential for acts of terrorism to be directly linked to a lowering of the degree of scrutiny conducted at the borders becomes clear. The less we pay attention to those British or European nationals entering the United Kingdom, the more we place ourselves at risk. For the Home Secretary the solution is obvious. In times of fiscal austerity the queues at our borders will simply have to grow.

The threat from terrorists is not limited to British nationals. In Afghanistan reports appearing in the wider media have consistently suggested that nearly 200 Germans, all of a white ethnic background, have been conducting training and attacks against the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). For the United Kingdom Border Agency, a white, western male person from Germany is perhaps too easily stereotyped as being someone that could be 'waved though'. Other European nationals with passports have similarly been captured overseas clearly engaged in the planning of terrorist events.

Pictures have appeared regularly on a range of internet sites showing these Jihadists armed and ready to into action against their own people. The potential for them to use their European Union passports to cross back into Europe at a time and place of their choosing is a prospect which should make all of us nervous. Their training and commitment to being jihadists would inevitably result in acts of terrorism across Europe.

It was not so long ago that the United States viewed people travelling to Pakistan for terrorist training as a British phenomenon. On occasions, statements made by senior administration officials were quite off hand, suggesting that the British (and by implication the Europeans as well) need to place a greater emphasis on securing our borders.

That attitude has significantly changed in the last 18 months as the desire to travel overseas for terrorist training has spread to the United States. The bomber who tried to detonate a device in Time Square on May 1 2010 had previously visited Pakistan for a number of weeks to receive guidance in assembling a bomb. His travel to and from the United States was somewhat eased by the fact that he had an American passport.

One particular problem that the Obama administration is now on record as having to address is the Somali diaspora in various major cities in the United States, such as Minneapolis, that are proving to be a fertile recruitment ground for Jihadists wishing to travel to Somalia, following a similar journey to the two teenagers from South Wales.

With the threat from international terrorism becoming more diffuse this is not the time to relax borders controls. As Al Qaeda adapts its business model to encourage people to follow its ideology no matter where they live, the potential for new recruits to use a variety of forms of transport to head overseas and receive is increasing. Developments in multi-modal transport, where a person can use diasporas in different countries as stop-over locations to help avoid detection adds to the problems of looking for potential terrorists. No doubt the government's huge investment in the e-Borders system is bringing some additional benefits. However it may not yet be able to sweep up all of the possible modes of transport that might be used to enter the country.

For the Home Secretary the recent events are a short-term embarrassment. She must fervently hope that no act of terrorism in the future could be linked back to these measures having been introduced. That would be a very different matter indeed.


Posted November 15th, 2011 at 1120 by Andrew. Comment by emailing: