Intelligence gathering to take place in Scottish classrooms

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SPECIAL Branch detectives are to go into Scottish schools as part of a major intelligence-gathering exercise to combat the terrorist threat from al-Qaeda.

Detectives will speak to senior pupils and teachers to pick up on any signs that extremists could be plotting attacks similar to the London bombings in July which killed 56 people.

A pilot scheme has been set up in Tayside which will see Special Branch establish contact with secondary schools by the end of this year.

A range of measures to improve the flow of intelligence on potential terrorist threats are being developed by all Scottish police forces. Tayside Police Chief Constable John Vine said a Special Branch community contact unit had been set up to "reach out" to communities and identify any suspicious behaviour which could eventually help detectives uncover a terror cell operating in Scotland.

Mr Vine said officers from the unit will begin speaking to senior pupils and teachers in secondary schools in Angus later this year. Talks are under way between police and education authorities about similar schemes in Dundee, and Perth and Kinross.

The unit was set up six weeks ago and has already increased the flow of intelligence, Mr Vine added. "We will be raising awareness about potential terrorist activity and strange behaviour that might lead to terrorist activity. We want young people to tell us if they are aware of anything suspicious happening in their communities," he said.

Mr Vine added he hoped the operation would be able to identify any signs that young people themselves may be receiving extremist Islamic teachings.

"What we have to change is the mindset which questions whether it is appropriate to gather intelligence in schools. But if you are going to find out what young people are thinking - remember these bombers (in London) were only in their late teens and early 20s - you have to do something."

The Special Branch unit has already established contact with Islamic groups at universities.

Mr Vine, who is from Yorkshire, yesterday told a symposium on policing Scotland in the 21st century, hosted by Dundee University, that he was "shocked" when he heard the tape of one of the 7 July bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, and discovered they shared the same accent.

"The new reality is we have to accept we may become a target here in Scotland and we may have home grown terrorists here in our midst," he said.

But Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the EIS, said he was concerned at the plan for detectives to enter schools.

He said: "I think many people would think it was unnecessary to have police in schools for intelligence-gathering purposes. If there was some sort of presumption that there was an enemy in our midst that we were trying to weed out then I would be concerned.

"Youngsters need to be aware of the issue of terrorism, including the causes, in a rounded educational way rather than purely from the perspective of the security services. Schools shouldn't be places where security service agencies plough their furrow."

Human rights lawyer John Scott added said: "I'm not saying that under no circumstances should it be allowed, but we need to get more information about the thinking behind it because on the face of it, it doesn't seem too easy to understand."