Guardian : Anti-terror raids: police weigh red faces against an atrocity

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Anti-terror raids: police weigh red faces against an atrocity

Sandra Laville | The Guardian | April 23, 2009

Imagine if the raids in Greater Manchester had not taken place, a terrorist atrocity had happened and the bodies of victims were pictured being pulled from the wreckage of buildings.

This was no doubt in the mind of every senior police and security services officer when deciding, after three months of intelligence gathering, whether to arrest 12 people suspected of being engaged in extremist activity which could impact directly on innocent members of the public.

Today as senior officers survey the aftermath of the operation they will be feeling bruised and embarrassed. But that, they say, is a price worth paying. The higher price would have been to have waited too long and to see their decision to delay proved spectacularly wrong by a terrorist attack.

While the police and security services are involved in many ways in a no-win situation, they are not helped by the comments some politicians - most notably Gordon Brown - made in the middle of the operation, even before the suspects were interviewed. It was Brown who raised the idea that the police had foiled a big terrorist plot, and it was politicians yesterday who shouted criticism of the police from the sidelines after no evidence was found to charge the men.

The operation began in Pakistan when intelligence suggested the 12 warranted examination. When they arrived in the UK on student visas, the surveillance continued at close hand. So much so that when the police moved in, 12 hours earlier than planned after Bob Quick was photographed carrying his secret notes on operation Pathway into Downing Street, they were so close they were able to arrest one student as he walked across the campus.

Some security experts have argued that because the surveillance was so tight the police could have continued watching the suspects for longer before deciding to act. But past experience has shown that this does not always work, and critics are quick to condemn when terrorist atrocities are carried out by people who were under the radar of counter-terrorism officials.

Today the general public might be doubting the credibility of the threat to the country. Certain communities might feel they have been unfairly targeted. But there is no doubt that the security threat remains high, and there will come another time in the near future when police and security services face the same dilemma.

It is the police's job to take decisions based on assessing risks. And more than any other agency they are likely to press for quick action in the knowledge that a few red faces are worth it if a bigger crime is averted.