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The manner in which twelve men were arrested on 20 December will tell us how effectively the UK is being protected against a constant and very real terror threat.
By Valentina Soria, Research Analyst, RUSI
21 December 2010
In what has been characterised as a large scale, pre-planned, intelligence-led operation, several police forces across the country arrested on Monday twelve men on suspicion of commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism. A high level of coordination was required as officers from the West Midlands Counter-Terrorism Unit, the Metropolitan Police CTU, as well as South Wales and Staffordshire police moved in to detain five men in Cardiff, four in Stoke-on-Trent and three in London. It has been suggested that all or some of the suspects, aged between 17 and 28, are UK nationals, with possible connections to Bangladesh or Pakistan.
Nature of the attack
Although it is still too early to properly appreciate the real extent of the threat or the exact nature of the plot which was being planned, some preliminary assessment can be carried out which would try to identify those elements that have triggered the largest anti-terror raids since Operation Pathway in April 2009; the latter brought to the arrest of eleven students on suspicion they were about to carry out a big terror attack in Manchester and Liverpool during the Easter period.
In contrast with what has been seen as the most likely scenario for the next big terrorist attack in some European city, the plot disrupted by MI5 and the UK police would not have involved a Mumbai-style commando team going on a spree with automatic weapons in some location in the UK. Instead, coordinated, possibly simultaneous, attacks could have been carried out using bombs and explosives against multiple targets, not necessarily located in one city.
This preliminary picture suggests a rather traditional Al-Qa'ida-style plot, favouring multiple bomb attacks, possibly implying the use of suicide bombers, rather than the kind of prolonged siege carried out in Mumbai in 2008. Whether this has always been the original plan or a choice dictated by the increasing awareness by counter-terrorism forces in Europe about the likelihood of a Mumbai-style scenario, it is obviously too early to say.
Another particular aspect that the investigation will help shed light on, and which will contribute to define the nature and the level of complexity of the plot, is the possible foreign connection; according to what is known so far, all or most of the men are UK nationals, yet a Bangladeshi or Pakistani connection has been suggested. This speculation could simply point to the Asian origin of some of the men. On the other hand, such a connection may turn out to be much more substantial in that it could imply some level of inspiration, training or direction coming from individuals based in those countries. If the latter was true, it would prove that figures directly linked to the Al-Qa'ida leadership in Pakistan are still actively involved in the organisation and preparation of terrorist attacks against Europe and the UK in particular. However, at this point, the claim according to which these arrests were made seems to suggest a reasonable level of autonomy of the UK cell, although a certain degree of direct inspiration cannot be completely ruled out.
In any case, police were quick to point out that the alleged plot did not have any direct connection with plots disrupted last October and concerning possible terrorist attacks to be carried out in several European cities, nor with the attack in Stockholm by suicide bomber Taimur Abdulwahab al-Abdaly early this month. This would in part remove credibility to the claim regarding a wave of terror plots that were supposed to come to fruition during the Christmas period in Europe.
Such claim, made by Iraqi officials immediately after the Swedish bombing , was allegedly based on information provided by insurgents captured in that country a few months ago. Although plausible, this is unlikely to be a substantiated revelation in that it would imply a level of sophistication that Al-Qa'ida or Al-Qa'ida-inspired groups have not yet reached, thanks also to the mostly effective cross-national counter-terrorism investigations completed so far or currently under way across the continent.
The importance of disrupting plots
A final, but critical, aspect that is worth examining concerns the tempo of the anti-terror raids, which seems to suggest a rather early move from the UK police in this specific instance.
'Early moves' are usually required in three instances: whenever a plot is imminent, if enough evidence to prosecute the suspects has been collected so that there is no need to risk public safety further, or in the eventuality of an arrest being made in another country which would lead the suspects to believe that their plans have been discovered. In the latter case, in order not to burn weeks, and possibly months, of precious surveillance activity, police are forced to move in, regardless of the amount of substantial evidence collected up to that point. In 2006, for instance, the arrest of Rashid Rauf in Pakistan led police in Britain to act accordingly for fear that such move would alert suspects under surveillance in the UK. Indeed, Rauf was the link man between English individuals involved in the transatlantic liquid plot and bomb experts and terrorism trainers in Pakistan. That early arrest, made before all necessary evidence had been gathered, subsequently made the prosecution of those individuals one of the longest terrorism trials in the UK, which only ended in September 2009, when three men were finally convicted. 
Although the Met Assistant Commissioner in charge of terrorism investigation, John Yates, has confirmed that the arrests made on Monday were absolutely necessary to preserve and ensure public safety, information that they were carried out by unarmed officers would seem to imply that no weapons or explosives were expected to be found at the premises and, therefore, that the plot may not have been so imminent.
Provided that this was not a plot with foreign connection (thereby ruling out the possibility of related arrests carried out abroad which would have prompted the UK raids), it seems plausible to assume that enough evidence has been collected which would allow the successful prosecution of the twelve men currently in custody.
The balance between prosecution and disruption is a very delicate one to strike in terrorism-related cases, yet it is the successful prosecution of terrorists, necessarily resting on solid evidence, which ultimately allows the security services and the police to keep the country safe and which defines the effectiveness of their work. It is therefore very likely that, along with providing a picture of the current state of the terrorist threat to the UK, the latest plot will also help assess how good the police response, its level of preparation and its coordination with the security services, is at the moment. In other words, it would help define how effectively the country is being protected against a constant and very real terror threat.
1 Gordon Rayner 'Stockholm Bomb 'First in Christmas Campaign'', The Telegraph, 15 December 2010
2 Jenny Booth 'Dick Cheney 'put airline bomb plot case on jeopardy with arrest order of Rashid Rauf'', The Times, 8 September 2009