MI5 targeting the wrong people in Glasgow
SOMETHING extraordinary happened in British public life on 20 March, 2001. Sir Stephen Lander, then director-general of the security service MI5, made his first public appearance, delivering a carefully coded lecture to the members of a defence think-tank in central London.
Predictably, his speech gave little away, bearing the tiresome hallmarks of the consummate mandarin. What was important was that he had appeared at all. He was, after all, only the second MI5 head to reveal his identity. "I thought it would be sensible for once to let the hounds see the fox," he later quipped with a wry smile.
Today, nobody in our society bridges the gap between the shadowy world of MI5 and the police better than Lander. He was recently made head of the nation’s new Serious Organised Crime Agency - the so-called UK FBI, created to tackle serious crime and the threat of Islamic terrorism. To many, his appointment represents the final fusion between the public and private faces of law enforcement in modern Britain.
The groundbreaking revelation in The Scotsman that MI5 is to open its first official Scottish station in Glasgow shows that the perceived threat of fundamentalism is not confined to London. MI5 is currently trying to recruit an extra 1,000 spies for these regions.
A major cause for concern is that the extra spies will bring a 50 per cent increase in the numbers actively engaged in Britain’s war against terror - more than at any time since the Second World War. Nobody is denying that the vast majority of the extra recruits will be ranged against Islamic extremist groups operating in the UK. Although many of the MI5 recruits will be linguists, desk officers and specialist advisors who will teach businesses how to tackle potential threats, others will be surveillance experts and undercover agents.
Among Glasgow’s 80,000 strong Asian population, the message from MI5’s vast headquarters on Vauxhall Bridge in London couldn’t be clearer: "We are watching you." Here, in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi-dominated communities of Pollokshields and Govanhill, amidst the fruit stalls and halal butchers, members of the Muslim community are angry, disappointed, and a little frightened.
For many, "retribution" for the war against terrorism is translated more simply into random insults from white members of the public and, particularly at weekends after closing time, racist attacks on their own street corners. The concern here is on a sliding scale. While some community leaders say they are witnessing solidarity not hostility, others insist shopkeepers are coming forward with tales of abuse and that, in extreme circumstances, women are having the traditional hijab and niqab coverings ripped from their faces.
"Since September 11 people have viewed us with suspicion. That isn’t exactly surprising," Southside shopkeeper Ahmed Shaheen says. "I have regular customers who come in and joke about me being part of an al-Qaeda cell and although it seems meant in a humorous way, it’s undeniably the general perception, and sometimes this manifests itself in racist insults and attacks against me and my family. We are all looked at with suspicion these days and many of us feel persecuted and under siege by this scrutiny. I’m not a terrorist. I’m a hard-working Scots Asian."
Dr Manar Tayan, a semi-retired surgeon who publishes a weekly magazine for Glasgow Muslims entitled Friday People which urges the boycott of all Israeli and American products, believes the scrutiny of MI5 is nothing new. But he claims that having them on the doorstep will only anger local communities, as well as heightening the suspicions of the white population.
"For MI5 to announce they are coming to Glasgow to set up a station a matter of kilometres away from Scotland’s largest Asian population is to effectively place the Muslims in this city under a huge microscope," he says. "This is undeniably confrontational, that is certainly how it seems. We understand the need to fight the growth of fundamentalism but the sensitivities of the Asian community should be considered.
"Setting up an MI5 station on their doorstep is inflammatory.This is where they have publicly claimed the threat of terrorism will stem from - and we will bear the brunt of any repercussions from arrests they make in our community. Political moves like this serve only to divide communities like ours which is largely hard-working and law-abiding."
LIKE MANY Muslim community leaders, Tayan believes that since Scotland Yard and MI5 began the widespread arrests of Muslim suspects, what was previously a creeping Islamophobia has picked up pace. It’s a phenomenon that Strathclyde Police have admitted they are aware of.
Glasgow-based human rights lawyer Amar Anwar goes further, accusing the security services of causing fear and paranoia within the Arab community. Anwar also claims a number of Algerians have even approached him claiming they had been harassed by members of Special Branch who were trying to recruit them as paid spies to inform on Scotland’s Arab community. "A number of my clients are petrified and intimidated by the abuse and harassment they have suffered from Special Branch and members of the security services," he says.
Making a formal approach to MI5 asking them to justify their public intervention in Scotland predictably receives short thrift, but you don’t have to look much further than the case of Abdullah el-Faisal, jailed at the Old Bailey last year for inciting followers to kill non-believers in acts of terrorism. Following the high-profile trial of this self-styled sheikh and Muslim cleric - who tried to recruit British schoolboys into terrorist training camps - it emerged that an attempt had been made to bribe the judge.
Common Serjeant of London Peter Beaumont received a letter promising him 50,000 if he acquitted the cleric. It had been sent from Glasgow. Yet despite a Strathclyde Police investigation, the source of the bribe remains anonymous.
Then there is the perceived threat in Scotland, particularly in Glasgow and Dundee, from groups such as al-Muhajiroun and the lower-profile Hizbut Tahrir, which espouse extreme doctrines but have no clear links with terrorism. Both groups are known to have recruited members at the margins of mosque life since the late 1990s and more actively since 11 September. Not surprisingly, Muslim leaders in Britain have vilified al-Muhajiroun and others like them. Dr Ghuyasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, called al-Muhajiroun a "lunatic fringe".
Security analysts say the restructuring of MI5 into these regions reflects the threat of groups who are dispersed throughout the British population. Since 9/11, British counter-terrorist police have arrested suspected terrorists across the UK. In 2002, nine Algerians were arrested in Edinburgh and charged under the Terrorism Act, though the charges were later withdrawn. The arrests were made by Lothian and Borders Police acting partly on information from MI5. Other similar raids across Britain have resulted in an equally low success rate: of 664 people arrested under the Terrorism Act since 11 September, 2001, a fifth have been charged and only 17 have been convicted. Security officials have even hinted this is actually part of a deliberate strategy intended to keep potential terrorists off-guard, but civil liberties campaigners are outraged that this infringes basic freedoms
ONE OF THE KEY questions is exactly what tactics the intelligence services will use north of the Border. It is widely accepted that undercover officers, agents from MI5’s A branch - the so-called "Watchers Unit" - are already active in Scotland, bugging homes and telephone lines and placing tracker devices on cars. For phone tapping there is the "Tinkerbell" squad: specialist British Telecom engineers based at the BT building in south-west London. When the information required cannot be obtained from tapping phones or bugging premises, A branch can always call in the "Rat Catchers" - specialists at intercepting mail and opening letters.
The true extent of the technology at MI5’s disposal is a closely guarded secret, but surpasses anything available to the police. Indeed the agency is so protective of the highly sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment at its disposal that it frequently resorts to public immunity certificates in court - the "gagging orders" which featured in the Scott Inquiry into the Matrix-Churchill affair - to stop defendants discovering its secrets.
History teaches us that spies like to practise their dark arts under deep cover, but for Britain’s intelligence operatives it is more than clear that this is now becoming increasingly difficult. The dawn of the "Post 9/11 era" has forced them to operate in areas that have traditionally been the territory of the police, and therefore previously subject to public scrutiny: areas such as combating domestic terrorism, organised crime, drugs, and money laundering.
Yesterday, in a rundown corner of Pollokshields in Glasgow’s Southside, graffiti on the rusting shutters of Shaheen’s off-licence is covered by a thick film of soot and grime from heavy local traffic. "I tried to get the spraypaint out with a wire brush and turps," Ahmed tells me, pointing at the filthy grey metal with a wooden pole, "But it won’t budge, so I just refuse to clean it. The police shouldn’t be watching me or my friends at the mosque, they should be arresting the idiots who are daubing ‘Paki Bastards’ all over my shopfront and spitting at my wife on the street. We are just trying to live our lives in peace and prosperity, that’s why our grandfathers came here in the first place."
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