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October 4, 2006

Unclear and present danger

Filed under: Global Jihad, Islam, Terror — limewoody @ 4:00 pm

The public is still not fully aware of the gravity of the threat posed by Islamist extremists, Britain’s anti-terror supremo tells Patrick Walters

September 23, 2006

BRITAIN’S top counter-terrorist cop has no doubt the nature of the threat has changed dramatically. Peter Clarke, Scotland Yard’s 51-year-old head of counter-terrorism, talks with quiet resolution about the challenge of Islamist terrorism and how it has turned British policing upside down.

People often say to Clarke how well placed the British authorities must be to deal with Islamist terror given their long experience of Irish Republican Army killers.

No, he responds emphatically. It’s a whole new ball game with no defined rules of engagement or carefully delineated boundaries.

“The current terrorist threat is almost the reverse of all those parameters,” Clarke said in Canberra this week.

“What we see is global in origin, global in ambition, global in reach. The networks are loose, they are fluid and they are incredibly resilient,” Clarke told a security conference.

Defeating the threat demands a level of resources, including sustained surveillance, unprecedented in modern law enforcement. “Unless you have pace and scale on your side, you will fail to deal with these terrorist conspiracies that we are currently seeing,” he stressed.

Clarke tells Inquirer the threat posed by radical Islamists in Britain is growing in scale and complexity. “I think the only sensible conclusion is that it is … because if you look at the pace of terrorist activity since 9/11, it’s clearly unabated and there appears to be a consistency, almost a regularity, in the attack patterns.

“I don’t want to sound unnecessarily gloomy, but I don’t see many positive signs in terms of it being diminished.”

He points out that British authorities have managed to foil four or five attacks in the past 12 months. But the “sad probability” is that another attack will get through at some time.

Clarke brings nearly 30 years of experience to his role as national co-ordinator for counter-terrorism investigations, having joined the Metropolitan Police in 1977 with a law degree from Bristol University.

His postings included a stint in the late 1990s as commander of the royalty and diplomatic protection department, with responsibility for the security of the royal family, before taking on his present job at New Scotland Yard in 2002.

Since 9/11 there has been a four-fold increase in the number of Metropolitan Police officers dedicated to investigating terrorism. In the next few weeks there will be a shake-up as Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch merges with the force’s special branch to form a dedicated counter-terrorism command.

“That will be quite a historic change. It’s a big move for us to do that,” Clarke says. “That will create a single large department as big as many medium-sized police forces in the UK, which will greatly enhance our capabilities.”

The Metropolitan Police will co-ordinate other counter-terrorism units across Britain’s 43 separate local police forces, building surveillance, intelligence and analytical assets.

Clarke says Britain’s experience of Islamist terror, including last year’s London bombings and the recently thwarted plot to blow up airliners flying to the US, is driving far-reaching changes in the way police now operate.

It used to be that police would only intervene in the final stages of a terrorist plot, making arrests at or near the point of attack, with the strongest possible weight of evidence to put before a court. However, Clarke says the scale of the threat means “we can no longer afford to wait until that moment”.

“It’s a complete shift in scale. Mentally we have had to completely change our response in terms of interdiction and intervention to prevent an increased risk to the public.”

Clarke says earlier action to pre-empt a mass casualty attack also dictates the need to engage closely with local communities as a key element of counter-terrorism strategy. He believes the British public is still not fully aware of the gravity of the threat posed by Islamist terror groups. This is despite the fact there are now 90 people awaiting trial on terrorism charges.

“We have a whole series of trials which over the coming months and years will unfold in the UK. When that hard evidence is produced the public are able to see what has been planned over the last months and years, that will contribute to their understanding of the threat.”

When Metropolitan Police discovered a cache of military training equipment in the Finsbury Park mosque in January 2003, it took three years before the authorities could inform the public of the find because of contempt issues.

“From a law enforcement perspective, the scale of these investigations is simply immense. The level of investigative activity has never been higher,” Clarke says.

He acknowledges that the number of people of interest to British authorities looking “right across the span of terrorist activity” is now in the thousands. These included at one end of the spectrum people prepared to mount attacks themselves, and at the other those who might simply facilitate travel or supply forged documentation, or those may one day join the jihadist cause.

“The numbers of people we have to be interested in are in the thousands but I am not saying that we have thousands of people under surveillance or that there are thousands of terrorists in the UK.”

International co-operation between law enforcement authorities is critical and transnational intelligence sharing is growing all the time.

“What we are looking at is a global movement that operates across borders. They are extremely mobile. Travel is a key feature of how terrorists are planning and organising themselves.”

Clarke says Britain is working closely with Pakistani authorities to better understand the extent of links with British groups, including the 2005 bombers.

The July disruption of a plot to blow up airliners travelling to the US involved the arrest of 17 suspects, of whom 11 have now been charged with conspiracy to murder.

Clarke warns it is vital that the aviation industry examines the implications of the foiled plot for air travel.

The plotters had been planning to smuggle liquid explosives on board several planes.

“I can’t go into details about the methodology except to say its very innovative. That will give a clue to the fact that now in response … new protective measures are required. The methodology is such that there must be an enduring threat to air transport.”

So a serious threat to aviation safety remains which has to be addressed?

“Absolutely,” comes the reply.,20867,20459724-601,00.html


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