MI5 plans Scottish base to target terrorists

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Key points

• MI5 plans first permanent Scottish office to bolster counter-terrorism efforts

• Move comes as security service announces recruitment drive for 1000 staff

• Agency criticised over anti-terror raids with only 17 convictions since 2001

Key quote

"We can confirm that we are looking at our future accommodation requirements. The majority of our staff will continue to be based in central London," said the statement, made via the Home Office in London" - MI5 statement to The Scotsman

Story in full MI5, the domestic security service, is preparing to establish a permanent office in Scotland for the first time, The Scotsman can reveal.

As part of a major expansion of the organisation intended to bolster nationwide counter- terrorism efforts, MI5 chiefs and Home Office officials have identified Glasgow as the site for one of the service’s new regional offices.

MI5 is currently recruiting up to 1,000 staff and refocusing its operations on the potential threat posed by Islamic terrorist groups that may seek to recruit UK residents and carry out attacks in this country.

All the major Scottish police forces maintain their own Special Branch squad and often co-operate with visiting MI5 officers: in 2002 and 2003, terrorism suspects were detained in Edinburgh and Glasgow. But the creation of the Glasgow bureau will mark the first time the agency has had a fixed presence north of the Border.

The final site of the Glasgow office is uncertain, but Pacific Quay, home to the Scottish Criminal Records Office, sometimes hosts seconded MI5 agents.

In London, MI5’s permanent headquarters is Thames House, an anonymous and heavily fortified block by the river in Westminster that also hosts the Northern Ireland office. Most of the agency’s staff - at present 2,200 - will remain in London after the reorganisation.

While the name and location of the London headquarters has been disclosed to the public in a new spirit of openness, the details of the Scottish office and other regional branches will not be disclosed, since they will be considered "operational" posts.

Glasgow’s large Asian population is thought to have played a key role in the decision, though the west of Scotland’s links to organised crime gangs and Northern Ireland’s terrorist groups also contributed.

Manchester is another city earmarked as the base for a regional "intelligence cell".

The city has been linked to previous high-profile counter-terrorism operations: in 2003, a police officer was killed during a raid to arrest three men suspected of manufacturing the poison ricin.

According to MI5’s most recent published assessment of the British security situation, "the most significant terrorist threat comes from al-Qaeda and associated networks".

Security analysts say the restructuring of MI5 reflects the threat of groups that are dispersed throughout the British population. Since the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, 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 for lack of admissible evidence.

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 September 2001, a fifth have been charged and only 17 have been convicted. Security officials have hinted this is actually part of a deliberate strategy intended to keep potential terrorists off-guard, but civil liberties campaigners are concerned that this infringes basic freedoms.

As part of the expansion, MI5 is mounting a high-profile recruitment campaign, even advertising in newspapers for would-be graduate recruits. While the recruitment publicity has played up the service’s interest in people from all backgrounds, priority is still being given to people with extensive security or military experience.

In recent months, MI5 has been approaching former Army Intelligence Corps officers, and both serving and former members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The skills and experience gained during the former Royal Ulster Constabulary’s 30-year struggle with paramilitary groups make Northern Irish officers well-suited to M15, and the relative peace of recent years has left many security experts there under-employed.

Still, one person approached by the security service and asked to help establish the Glasgow operation told The Scotsman that MI5 is having to contend with stiff competition.

"The right sort of people are getting offers left, right and centre to go to Iraq or Afghanistan to do private security work, and the money on offer there is a hell of a lot better," the person said.

The formalising of MI5’s presence in Scotland will not entail any legal or legislative changes - the service has operated north of the Border without general public awareness.

The activities of MI5 are wholly reserved to the Westminster parliament, where the intelligence and security committee of MPs and peers carries out a limited form of parliamentary oversight.

Nonetheless, Scottish ministers will be kept informed of MI5 activities. Since the agency’s officers have no power to arrest or charge suspects, they necessarily work closely with the police, especially Special Branch.

As a matter of courtesy, Jack McConnell, the First Minister, receives regular briefings from MI5 and has, several times in the past, met Eliza Manningham-Buller, the service’s director-general, as well as her deputy and other directors, whose names cannot be published.

In a rare departure from the usual policy of absolute silence about its activities and plans, MI5 this week issued a statement to The Scotsman about the plan.

"We can confirm that we are looking at our future accommodation requirements. The majority of our staff will continue to be based in central London," said the statement, made via the Home Office in London. "We are not prepared to discuss specific locations."

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland last night said it was "not policy" to "comment on operational matters concerning a key partner agency with whom we enjoy an excellent working relationship".