Bound by the law
IT WAS a dramatic police swoop that ended in a spectacular anticlimax. Costing £1.5m and tying up dozens of officers for months, the arrest of nine Algerians in Scotland sparked a nationwide terror alert and fears of an al-Qaeda Hogmanay bomb plot.
One year later, however, the men were cleared of terror charges. Human rights lawyers accused police of racist motives and the men, all Muslims, continued to seek asylum in Britain.
To any observer, the entire affair could seem at best misguided and at worst a stunt to allay public fears about possible attacks in Britain by Islamic fundamentalists.
But in the eight months since the charges were dropped, a worrying picture has gradually emerged that suggests police felt hamstrung by current criminal laws.
Already, the police have indicated they were unhappy at the way the investigation, which was led by Det Supt Bert Swanston, one of Scotland’s most senior detectives, ended. They have maintained that the evidence gathered raised strong suspicions.
Now sources have given Scotland on Sunday the most detailed picture yet of what they suspected: that the men were acting as a support cell that merged into the Edinburgh community.
And, worryingly, the police sources claim their hands were tied by "archaic" laws that could prevent them fully investigating terrorists in the future.
A source said: "We never thought they were about to set off a huge bomb or fly a jumbo jet into Edinburgh Castle. But what we did suspect was that they were there, planning, organising and fundraising and conducting themselves in a manner highly similar to North African terrorists.
"But the Scottish legal system is archaic and not equipped to deal with the realities of 21st century terror. Another problem is that terrorists can come into Britain as asylum seekers and it is difficult to tell them apart from the genuine cases."
Massive security surrounded the inquiry, known as Operation Scotia, which was led by Lothian and Borders Police with the rumoured aid of MI5.
Eight men, aged between 18 and 36, were detained in December 2002. A ninth was arrested in Edinburgh the following February. All were charged under section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
They were held on remand in Barlinnie, Kilmarnock and Greenock prisons until they were released on bail pending further investigation in March 2003.
Operation Scotia also proved enormously expensive. A total of 500,000 alone was spent on preparing a special courtroom in Glasgow to hear a terrorist trial.
The investigation led police to suspect links between the suspects detained in Scotland and others held in London and Manchester in connection with the manufacture of ricin, a lethal poison for which there is no antidote.
Police also suspected the men in Scotland were linked to alleged terrorists of North African origin who were being detained elsewhere in Europe, under suspicion of planning terrorist raids on the Continent.
Of particular interest were suspected connections between the men arrested in Scotland and nine Algerians and Moroccans detained in Paris previously. They were believed to have strong links to al-Qaeda.
The investigation also suggested that the suspects arrested in Edinburgh may have been in contact with many of the same people as other terror suspects arrested in Europe.
Detectives claim that while each member of each cell would not have known all the members of other groups, members of each cell were known to one another.
They were allegedly communicating with the same leaders in other parts of the world. These leaders are understood to be among those considered by British security services to be of the greatest interest in the war against terror.
Yet in December 2003 the charges were dropped. When the Crown Office announced the move, its statement failed to declare the men’s innocence. It merely said that there was not enough evidence to proceed to trial.
The men still live in Scotland and are still seeking asylum. Last week Scotland on Sunday revealed the fact that they still appear on a special branch list of 82 terror suspects living in Britain.
This week, at a high-profile press conference called by their lawyer Aamer Anwar, a human rights expert, they accused the authorities of a witch-hunt.
They insisted they were innocent but persecuted because they were Muslim. They claimed that faulty intelligence which alleged they had connections to al-Qaeda was to blame for their arrests.
Police disagree. Among rank and file officers there is a real sense of unhappiness about how the case against the Algerians finished. There was a feeling that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with either terror charges or criminal charges.
Now police have revealed the unusual activities that led officers to suspect that these men were "textbook terrorists".
The alleged activities include amassing a number of fake credit cards and fake passports. They are also said to have raised tens of thousands of pounds. They are said to have bought a substantial number of international phone cards, which are available in newsagents, rather than install phones in their flats or buy mobiles. As well as this, the men were well educated, multilingual and said to be in touch with contacts in Algeria.
In the current fearful climate, the public might assume that the prosecution service would pull out all the stops. But three significant differences in Scots and English law made proceedings difficult.
The first was a police allegation that the men had a number of false credit cards and passports. But under Scots law, because they had not actually used them, they could not be prosecuted for possessing them.
Another problem was the length of time the men were allowed to be held without trial. In Scots law at the time this was 110 days. This has since been extended but only marginally.
As the deadline approached they were released on bail while the investigation continued. Police maintain it is far easier to investigate suspects when they are locked up indefinitely. Another law, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, allows long term detention without trial but only if the suspects are thought to be international terrorists.
Another problem police say they faced was that so-called ‘evidence of familiarity’ is not admissible in Scotland.
Although the men were behaving in a way the police suspected was similar to the way terrorists behave, that was not sufficient to take them to court.
On the record, police will not criticise British terror legislation or Scots criminal law. Officers want the public to see their job as enforcers of the law, not its opponents.
Ian Latimer, chair of the Crime Standing Committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, said: "The Scottish police service is content with the legislation as it stands. We will of course keep the situation under review."
The Scottish Executive refuses to comment on the matter because it says the issue of counter terrorism must be dealt with by the Home Office.
The Home Office itself is concerned about its counter-terrorism powers and David Blunkett is planning to extend anti-terror legislation in the coming months. But there are concerns about how this will work.
He appears determined to keep the power to detain suspected international terrorists without trial. A total of 12 foreign nationals, including several at Belmarsh prison in south-east London, have been held under the power, rushed in shortly after the 11 September attacks in 2001.
Other proposals being examined by Blunkett include relaxing the ban on evidence gathered by police through bugging, creating an offence of ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’ to convict people on the edge of terrorist networks and staging pre-emptive trials of terror suspects in secret before state-selected judges and with vetted defence lawyers.
Consultation on proposed new anti-terrorism laws ends this month, with Blunkett due to present his conclusions in October or November. However he faces a major backlash with many of his cabinet colleagues fiercely opposed to the plans.
The Home Secretary has already dropped a move to lower the burden of proof in terrorist trials in the face of cabinet opposition and the civil rights organisation, Liberty, stresses that the only way Britain can effectively combat the perceived terrorist threat is by winning the hearts and minds of Muslims in the UK. A Liberty spokesman said: "We won’t do this if we are seen to be trampling over their basic rights."
But experts insist the authorities do not act without good reason. Indeed the successful prosecution of two Algerian men last year indicates Britain does have a real problem. Baghdad Meziane and Brahim Benmerzouga were found guilty at Leicester crown court last year of financing Islamic terrorism. The trial heard they used a credit card scam to raise at least 250,000 for al-Qaeda. They are both appealing 11-year sentences.
According to the Home Office 609 people have so far been arrested under anti-terror legislation between the September 11 attacks and June 30 of this year; 99 were charged with such offences. More than 120 have been charged with other crimes, including fraud, immigration and firearms offences.
Meanwhile the terror threat - and Britain’s ability to deal with it - remains a major concern. Eight ‘dirty bomb’ terror suspects appeared in court last week amid one of the tightest security operations of its kind ever seen in Britain. Intelligence sources fear the men had been plotting a ‘spectacular’ strike against a high-profile building such as Buckingham Palace or Heathrow Airport.
A spokesman for the Islamic Human Rights Commission said he simply did not believe there were terror cells operating in Britain, dismissing the notion as "hysteria".
He added: "People have been arrested at random, like a witch-hunt. Hundreds of people have been detained for several days at a time and interrogated, then released without charge. When they are arrested there is huge publicity with major politicians making statements about it and scaremongering. Then when they are released it is hardly mentioned at all. As a result, the public think Britain is infested with terrorists, nearly all of whom are Muslim."
But Dr David Capitanchik, a terrorism expert at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, disagrees.
He said: "It is a very sensitive issue about how far civil liberties can be compromised. But there is no doubt about it, in most cases the police have sufficient evidence to carry out a raid. They don’t do it unless they feel they have evidence.
"Even when they fail to bring a case to court it may have had an effect. If people know they are under surveillance it may prevent them from doing things they might otherwise have done or disrupt their networks. There is a strong argument that a number of terrorist actions have been prevented by the security services. I honestly do not believe that the police would deliberately target Muslims."
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