Kevin Toolis: Terrorism and the challenge for MI5

Lee Rigby was killed in the Woolwich attack. Picture: PALee Rigby was killed in the Woolwich attack. Picture: PA
Lee Rigby was killed in the Woolwich attack. Picture: PA
FROM the IRA to the Islamist killers at Woolwich, terrorism – and the threat of terrorism – has been and always will be with us.

The Woolwich attack, rightly, has focused attention once more on the work of MI5 and raised many troubling questions as to how the alleged suspects were able to plan and brazenly carry out their “lone wolf” terrorist attack.

Yet again, it appears as if a terrorist attack has been perpetrated on British soil by individuals who were certainly known to MI5 but whose actions – like those of the 7/7 bombers – the security organisation seems powerless to prevent.

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So, how well is MI5 doing? First the good news. The depravity of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby at Woolwich is, perversely, a mark of the relative success of MI5 in countering Islamist home-grown subversion since 7/7.

The operational crudeness of the Woolwich outrage, an attack on a random victim of the armed forces, knives, a gun, a car, are all indicative of a street level, even chaotic, terrorist cell. Apart from the prior acquisition of the illegal hand gun, there was no obvious pre-planning or organisational network.

Unlike the four-man 7/7 cell, which spent months clandestinely acquiring and then manufacturing its home-made explosives, lone wolf attackers can decide on their attack plan on the spur of the moment. Even the best spies cannot read minds and, in organisational terms, the terrorist structure of these style of attacks is flat – there is no chain of command– and, therefore, they are virtually impossible to interdict by either electronic or covert surveillance.

Israeli spy chief Avi Dichter’s favourite intelligence maxim was “1 and 1 equals 11”. Dichter’s saying was really shorthand for assessing his enemies’ chances of a successful terrorist strike against Israel. The longer you plan, the more elaborate the operation, the more people involved, then the greater the chances of detection.

Although the Woolwich attack remains profoundly shocking, it was only successful because it was so crude. If anything, the Woolwich attack is more akin to a series of berserk lone knife attacks by Palestinians against Jewish civilians in the Old City of Jerusalem during the second intifada. Those attacks were largely carried out by isolated, suicidal, desperate individuals without the formal support of a terrorist organisation.

But the crude simplicity of such attacks is not accidental. MI5 has been largely successful in disrupting a whole series of terrorist suicide plots in their planning stages during the past decade. Even as recently as February, three men from Birmingham – Irfan Seer, Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali – were jailed for life for a backpack suicide bomb plot that never got far beyond a verbal conspiracy. Through informers in Britain’s Muslim community and help from the Pakistani intelligence, Seer and Khalid, after a training trip to Pakistan, were identified as serious potential terrorists and their cars and homes were secretly bugged. The evidence gathered by the bugs was then used to convict them.

Like its historical operations against the IRA, MI5 has – since the late 1990s – developed a widespread and now mature informer network within Britain’s Muslim community that alerts and identifies would-be radicals as they emerge in mosques in Glasgow, Leeds, Luton, Croydon, London and Birmingham. The security services have also clearly penetrated most of the groups like the now disbanded Al-Muhajiroun run by the exiled extremist cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed.

But subverting a terrorist organisation takes patience and decades. We now know that MI5 managed to turn senior members of the Provisional IRA – such as Freddie Scappaticci – in the early 1980s and run them as covert agents for the rest of the Troubles.

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Ironically, Scappaticci was the “Witchfinder General”, tasked with rooting out British informers in the IRA’s ranks. His position as the IRA’s counter-intelligence chief gave him, and his MI5 handlers, extensive oversight into virtually every aspect of the Provisional IRA’s terror machine.

Scappaticci was MI5’s priceless secret weapon against the IRA, largely because the Provos were traditional, old-fashioned terrorists with an IRA Army Council, which gave out orders, and a network of activists who followed them. Once its had a few spies such as Scappaticci at the top, MI5 could have real insight into the Provos’ organisation and future plans. And even if MI5 did not know everything, it still had a good idea of who to bug and who to watch.

The Provisionals were a small organisation of about 600 active fighters with limited nationalist and rational goals – the reunification of Ireland – albeit through the use of terrorist violence. Even for the IRA, there were strong political prohibitions against the use of indiscriminate terror. Unlike the 7/7 bombers, the IRA was never deliberately going to blow up the London Underground, although on countless occasions through incompetence and callousness it succeeded in murdering innocent civilians.

By the late 1980s, MI5 had largely won the intelligence war in Northern Ireland. Major terrorist operations dwindled, the Maze prison was stacked with hundreds of imprisoned IRA men, and the British Army lost more men in traffic accidents than were killed by the IRA.

Although we never knew it at the time, the Troubles were a classic counter-insurgency triumph for MI5 where infiltration, surveillance and attrition blunted and then defeated a terrorist organisation. The IRA leadership was, of course, the first to understand this changed landscape and in response sued for peace.

And now the bad news. As the British Army quickly discovered in Basra in Iraq, the lessons of Ireland have little practical application in the Islamic world. Compared to the IRA, the Islamist terror threat is a far more chaotic enemy. And, in certain aspects, far more dangerous.

Unlike the IRA, Islamist terrorists in the UK – such as the 7/7 cell – have no compunction about inflicting mass civilian casualties. If they could kill lots of people on airplanes or on the streets, they would. Their doctrine of suicidal martyrdom mitigates most of our standard security mechanisms. Their potential killing power is limited only by their operational capability – as evidenced by the justifications the Woolwich attackers gave to bystanders for their actions.

In the Islamist mindset, the UK and the United States are engaged in a worldwide crusade against “Muslim Lands” and the retaliation for that war must be carried out on Britain’s streets as punishment for the crimes inflicted on the Ummah – the global Muslim community.

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In this apocalyptic cartoonish world vision, there is no space for civilians, innocence or rational political discourse. The threat is not going to diminish even when British troops return home from Afghanistan.

Islam itself has no formal intrinsic hierarchy. Each mosque has its own separate leadership drawn from its own community. Schisms are frequent as sections of the community break away and establish their own mosque. There are no Islamic “bishops” or natural leaders who can be negotiated with and who, in turn, can then police their own community. Or an Islamic IRA-style army council to infiltrate. So, the task of monitoring potential threats is far more pervasive.

Most worrying of all, most of the Islamist cells in the UK have really sprung up spontaneously from within the Muslim community and then gone to Pakistan for endorsement and basic training. The primary motivation for their terrorism has come from the internet, from the television, and from their own sense of alienation as either Asian or Black Britons. They might be inspired by the distant wars 
in Muslim Lands, but they are home-grown British terrorists and their real war is here in the UK

Unfortunately, as MI5 knows, the threat of further Islamist attacks in the UK is likely to grow. The Syrian war, like a conflagration, is spreading across the Islamic world and is already engulfing neighbouring Iraq and the Lebanon.

And in the twisted Islamist worldview, the meltdown in the Middle East is just a further spur for more bombs, human or otherwise, and more shocking atrocities in the UK.

For all our sakes, let’s hope MI5 does indeed win this battle, too.

• Kevin Toolis is the director and writer of the forthcoming Edinburgh Festival play The Confessions of Gordon Brown which will be performed at Pleasance this August.