Telegraph : Bob Quick's resignation hides a bigger story

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Bob Quick's resignation hides a bigger story

Analysis By Philip Johnston | April 9, 2009

Bob Quick's resignation as head of Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism command is a personal disaster for the senior officer.

But his inadvertent disclosure of a major operation told a bigger story that will be deeply worrying for intelligence chiefs across Whitehall.

The involvement in the alleged plot of 10 Pakistani nationals visiting Britain on student visas is a development that may need an urgent reappraisal of counter-terror tactics.

To a great extent this is testament to the success of MI5 and the Met in containing the threat from home grown jihadis.

More than 90 per cent of the terrorists jailed over the past few years have been British citizens with connections to Pakistan. Many have visited Pakistani training camps.

This means that there is a target for the intelligence services: they can keep tabs on particular groups, mosques, bookshops and other places where radicals are known to gather.

Gradually and painstakingly, they can build up a picture of the threat and its extent, working out who is connected to whom and, with luck and judgment, where the greatest and most immediate dangers lie.

MI5's multi-million pound "Information Exploitation Programme" helps investigators search across systems, map networks and analyse events based on time and geography.

It is being developed further to provide what MI5 calls a "trip-wire" which will be triggered when it comes across significant patterns of activity.

MI5 is currently watching two dozen possible plots and has a few thousand potential suspects on its radar, some of whom may be serious conspirators while others are facilitators, supporters, hangers-on or just innocent acquaintances.

This is a hugely labour-intensive task, which has meant doubling staffing levels at Thames House and its regional outstations to more than 4,000, with many new recruits from ethnic minority backgrounds..

But any intelligence operation is only as good as the information available. The terrorists will always try to stay one step ahead if they know their networks have been infiltrated.

The IRA did so when they drafted in so-called 'clean skins' to carry out bomb attacks in the 1980s and 1990s – people unknown to the police or MI5 and whose movements would not attract attention.

Al-Qaeda has already learned some lessons from the way their past plots have been thwarted. Trials have forced the disclosure of techniques and information MI5 would rather have been kept under wraps.

Suspects never speak to each other in or near buildings any more, speak in generalities on the phones and recruits use circuitous routes, such as via Dubai, to get to Pakistan or Afghanistan to join the jihad.

What the document being carried by Bob Quick seemed to show was that Al Qaeda recognises that its British-based activities have been largely compromised through a series of arrests, trials and surveillance operations.

Instead, it may be bringing in operatives directly from Pakistan hidden among the many thousands of foreign students that come here every year. In one way, arriving as a Pakstani student might be risky in itself in alerting MI5 but there are too many for everyone to be kept under surveillance and most will be bona fide.

For those bent on terrorist activity, their Achilles heel is that they still need to contact British-based jihadis in order to get equipment, cars, money and the like. And if those contacts are being watched the whole plot can be unravelled, which may well have happened here. Even though the arrests had to be brought forward because of Mr Quick's blunder, Operation Pathway – which was MI5 led – was in its final stages, as evinced by the fact the Prime Minister was being briefed. This means the counter-terrorist agencies had a lot of information already though whether it will result in charges is another matter.

The presence of so many foreign nationals in the plot is unusual; most that have gone before have been almost entirely, though not exclusively, British based.

That is the main reason why MI5 has set up half a dozen regional offices for the first time, to deal with a predominantly internal threat.

If is now transforming into an external threat, some new thinking will be necessary – and a great deal more help from Pakistani intelligence will be required.

The Government will also need to ensure that its visa controls are as tight as possible.