New terror squad for Scotland
The 200-strong elite squad, which has not been publicly acknowledged until now, has brought together experts from covert surveillance and units tackling serious, computer and economic crime to combat the threat of Islamic extremists north of the border.
The new force – called the Major Crime and Terrorism Investigation Unit – will operate under one roof to stop potentially vital clues to terror atrocities "falling through the cracks".
The team has its headquarters in Glasgow but will reach across Scotland when needed, tackling major organised crime to stay "match fit" between anti-terror duties.
The unit is a direct response to events at Glasgow Airport, after the investigation into the incident highlighted the difficulties in running a major operation with numerous units scattered across a city.
Detective Chief Superintendent Ruaraidh Nicolson, the head of Strathclyde CID, said both the attack on Glasgow Airport itself – and the successful way a combined team investigated the incident – had prompted root-and-branch reform. "Something like that in the heart of your community is shocking and makes you question whether you are doing enough to prevent it happening again," he said.
The new unit includes many of the seasoned detectives who led Operation Seagram, the successful investigation into the attempt to blow up Glasgow Airport in June 2007 and botched efforts to carry out bomb attacks in London.
A 29-year-old British-born Iraqi, Bilal Abdulla, was last week jailed for 32 years for his part in the failed attacks, a huge humiliation for al-Qaeda, which inspired but did not plan the terror campaign. His co-conspirator, Kafeel Ahmed, died of injuries he received after trying to drive a Jeep loaded with petrol and gas canisters into the check-in hall of Glasgow Airport.
Scotland on Sunday can today exclusively reveal the official police response to the airport attack.
The MCTIU, which will become fully operational this week with the appointment of its first leader, is based under one roof at Glasgow's fortified Helen Street Police Station, which doubles as Scotland's detention centre for suspected terrorists.
It will have the ability to track terror – and gangland – targets by:
&149 Monitoring phone calls and internet use;
&149 Keeping tabs on all personal and business financial transactions;
&149 Authorising covert surveillance;
Using a bespoke CCTV system.
MCTIU officers will also regularly join other forces up and down Britain to make sure they get the best possible experience and training in terror cases. The unit has some of Scotland's top crime-scene investigators and has recently retrained some to be able to deal with terror scenes, such as the aftermath of an atrocity with multiple casualties or an underground bomb factory.
Police chiefs believe they can get the best out of their officers by combining units investigating both major gangsters and terrorists. Senior detectives stress catching both kinds of criminals requires similar skills.
Nicolson said: "Serious and organised crime goes on every day of the week in this force area. So that will be our daily business but we will use all the same skills needed for investigating terrorism.
"That is how we will keep our people up to speed for when we have to face terrorism, of whatever level."
The unit will be based at Helen Street except for undercover investigators, who will work out of secret locations.
One key member of the team, economic crime expert Detective Chief Inspector Elaine Morrison, yesterday summed up the new squad. "We are joined-up," she said. "We are not in wee silos any more. We are all together."
The new squad will also work "hand-in-glove" with the Met's SO15, which has an overall UK role in defending Britain from Islamic extremists, and MI5, which also now has a base in Glasgow.
The initiative was yesterday praised by Professor Paul Wilkinson, one of Scotland's leading terrorism experts. "Putting organised crime and terrorism investigations together makes an awful lot of sense, not least because organised crime can be used to fund terrorism.
"Security services in and out of uniform are now working much more closely, having set aside some of their historic mutual suspicions."
Wilkinson, however, stressed that the only real way of keeping Britain safe was to keep up efforts to tackle the radicalisation of a tiny minority of young Muslims.
Nationalist MSP Bashir Ahmad said: "I hope that the new unit will work constructively with all of our faith and non-faith communities and we can work together to eradicate the scourge of extremist terrorism."