Telegraph : Manchester 'terror plot': problems MI5 face with intercepting emails

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Manchester 'terror plot': problems MI5 face with intercepting emails

By Duncan Gardham, Security Correspondent | July 30, 2009

On the face of it a series of emails that compare the merits of girls who are “gorgeous” or “weak and difficult to convince” would not be the kind of thing to spark a nationwide terrorist alert.

The difficulty MI5 and GCHQ have always faced is trying to sift innocuous communications from those that may contain vital information on a potential attack and then to de-code them.

Their starting point has to be in identifying their targets and these days that is followed by a request for warrants to tap into emails.

Once that is done all the email traffic requested is diverted from the internet server to an analyst whose job it is to sift the humdrum from crucial intelligence.

In some cases they can spot a series of give away indications that are supposed to flag up to the recipient that this is an important email.

These emails contain some of those, although we cannot reveal what they are.

Another indication is a series of exchanges that do not seem to discuss anything, often sandwiched between platitudes and meaningless greetings.

The analysts are well practiced at attempting to decode the cryptic language used by al-Qaeda.

In the past terrorist have used the words “come over” even though they were on different continents – meaning “go on-line” – while others have talked in street slang using the term “nigga” and “BigDawg” to disguise their purpose.

The use of girls’ names is also a popular device designed to persuade anyone intercepting the emails that the senders are more interested in earthly pursuits than terrorism.

The problem is that the emails may not contain incriminating information at all, and in this case the decision to move in has resulted in a tussle in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) rather than the courts.

SIAC has the advantage of being able to hear information such as these emails behind closed doors but the crucial information they will want to know is who was receiving them.

Despite the lack of convictions and the men’s vehement protestations of innocence in Britain and Pakistan, MI5 feel vindicated. They maintain these men were connected to al-Qaeda and were planning an attack, and the fact that did not go ahead is enough for them.