Scotland is no longer off-limits to terror

WITH the tragic exception of the Pan Am flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie in December 1988, Scotland has been free of deadly and determined acts of international terrorism.

The IRA viewed Scotland as "off-limits" for their attacks on the British mainland. However, the attack on Glasgow Airport indicates terrorists inspired by the al-Qaeda network certainly do not regard Scotland as off-limits for their attacks.

As in the case of the car bombs discovered in London's West End, the alleged terrorists came close to killing and injuring hundreds of people.

We now know that MI5 and police believe the incidents in London and Glasgow are linked and that there are likely to be further attacks. This is why they have raised the threat level for the UK to "critical".

The climate has changed and Scotland needs to face up to the fact that it is, for the first time, in the front line of the battle against terrorism.

The nation must steel itself against the possibility of further atrocities on its doorstep.

The prime suspect for the failed Glasgow and London attacks is the al-Qaeda network of cells and affiliates. The tactics have all the hallmarks of the typical methods used by al-Qaeda in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Britain is a very open society and therefore vulnerable to terrorists seeking to hide within its heavily urbanised population. The challenge posed to our counter-terrorism agencies should not be underestimated.

MI5 believes there are 2,000 hardcore militants in the UK capable of involvement in this type of terrorism, and at least 200 groups and 30 significant conspiracies that they are attempting to monitor.

This underlines the threat from the rapidly growing number of so-called "home-grown" militant recruits in the UK. It is a huge task for MI5 and raises the question of whether we have sufficient staff and resources to provide vital intelligence.

The UK has never previously experienced a suicide bomb attack on an airport terminal, and we have not had to deal with vehicle bombs since the end of the IRA's campaign. Al-Qaeda has not used vehicle bombs previously in the UK, but they are its favoured tactic in other countries and it is not surprising that this method has been imported into the UK.

Many observers have pointed to the similarities between the vehicle bombs discovered in London and those used by al-Qaeda in Iraq. There is a possibility that terrorists carrying valid British passports have been to Iraq, studied al-Qaeda's tactics and methods, and brought these back to the UK.

The government and the public can take some comfort from the fact that the attacks in London and Glasgow failed. The terrorists involved appear to have displayed some incompetence and made basic mistakes. No innocent member of the public has been killed or badly injured. The emergency services and the public have shown great alertness and courage in their responses to the incidents.

The police have now got three vehicles full of forensic evidence for their investigations.

They also have five suspects in custody, providing an opportunity to gain some useful intelligence on the conspirators, their plans and motivations, and possibly some insight into al-Qaeda's most likely targets in this phase of its bombing campaign. Last, but not least, police have the opportunity to search rigorously the properties used by the suspects, and they may well find valuable additional material evidence.

The search for high-quality intelligence on al-Qaeda's intentions and plans should be the highest priority for Britain's security chiefs. COBRA, the government's emergency committee, will need to consider how to intensify and exploit intelligence co-operation with our allies abroad, especially with "frontline" states, such as Iraq and Pakistan, because of the strong likelihood of an international dimension in the latest attempted attacks.

Among other urgent steps the government will need to consider are the following: the hardening of potential targets, particularly in the National Critical Infrastructure; deployment of additional police to help guard public gathering places and large public events; tightening the UK's border security which has been notoriously lax in the past; training members of the armed forces to assist the police and the emergency services to deal with the possibility of a rapidly escalating number of attacks and their consequences, and strengthening co-operation with the private sector to ensure that businesses and industries are doing all they can to protect their employees, plant and premises.

The above are relatively short-term measures. In the longer term, the government needs to follow our new Prime Minister's advice and develop a strategy to integrate the Muslim community, particularly Muslim youth, more closely into British society. This can be done through education, community projects and a more systematic preparation of applicants for British citizenship. The government also needs to increase the size of our intelligence services and the anti-terrorist squad, and strengthen the regional co-ordination structures involving MI5 and special branch.

The government rightly recognises that it is a mistake to focus all the efforts on prevention of terrorism and emergency planning in the event of an attack on London and the south-east of England.

As the Glasgow Airport attack shows, other cities and key targets in other regions of the United Kingdom need to be protected properly.

• Paul Wilkinson is chairman of the advisory board of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews and author of Homeland Security in the UK: Future Preparedness For Terrorist Attack Since 9/11.

PAST LINKS WITH EXTREMISM

SCOTLAND has had brushes with international terrorism in the past.

Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations five years ago were at the centre of fears of an attack by members of the al-Qaeda network.

Lothian and Borders Police - in an operation backed by MI5 and the Metropolitan Police - carried out a series of dawn raids on four Edinburgh addresses in late 2002, as a result of growing security concerns.

Three North African men, who had been working in casual jobs in the city for some time and were believed to be using false identities, were arrested and detained under the Terrorism Act.

They were later released without charge.

James McLintock, a 40-year-old Dundonian who was a Muslim convert, was branded a "Tartan Taleban" when he was arrested in Afghanistan in 2001.

Later released, it had been claimed the son of a maths teacher and a chemistry lecturer - who changed his name to Mohammed Yacoub - had been linked to the al-Qaeda network.