A decision by four Britons to plead guilty to terrorist offences including a plan to bomb the London Stock Exchange sheds new light on the current terrorist threat to the UK. It also gives fresh insight into the work of counter terrorism officers in the UK, and of their coverage of extremist networks.
On 1 February 2012, four men inspired by Al-Qa'ida admitted in court to their plan to detonate a bomb at the London Stock Exchange. In many respects, the case is an extension of the 'lone wolves' analogy, where terrorists work outside any known extremist networks and who, because of this, are usually the most difficult to track down.
The court case revealed that the group of young men from London, Cardiff and Stoke were heavily influenced by Al-Qa'ida ideology. But unlike many other plotters against the UK in the past decade, these men were essentially self starters, acting without help or leadership from abroad. They did not have the traditional links back to Al-Qa'ida in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia because although all were Britons, unlike many before them they were in the main of Bangladeshi origin - only one of the nine came from a Pakistani family. In former plots the terrorist had usually travelled to training camps on the Pakistan/Afghan border. These men had not, although some in the group were planning a trip there - but only after their decision to become active terrorists.
This group then does not fit the more common profile of the international terrorist targeting the UK. The men were not being handled by Al-Qa'ida, they had no mastermind and were in essence acting alone, though they were stirred by the teachings of the late Al-Qa'ida radical Anwar Al-Awlaki and by the magazine Inspire which is produced by Al-Qa-ida in the Arabian Peninsula and which they used as a text book on bomb-making. The men took it on themselves to heed Al-Awlaki's calls to carry out terrorist attacks in their home countries.
The fact they were not linked into any extensive network, and did not have ties with Al-Qa'ida 'core', makes it an added coup for those in the police and intelligence agencies who uncovered this one- off, isolated but highly dangerous plot. Ten years ago. at the time of 9/11, coverage of networks which espoused the Al Qa'ida ideology was virtually non-existent. This latest plot shows that the understanding of the threat and the ability of counter-terrorist officers to deal with it, has vastly improved.
What's more the case shows the security agencies are better able now to follow up minor suspects. After the 2005 7 July bombings, it emerged the perpetrators had come across the radar of intelligence officers on the fringes of an earlier plot but were never followed up - and went on to carry out their own atrocities.
Some of those involved in this plot, had also been on the radar of the police in the past - as far back as 2008. Some had even been arrested and their homes searched on the periphery of other terrorist investigations. This time however they were not ignored and as they became more involved with suspects from elsewhere in the country, it appears the police and MI5 were on their case.
For many years the ambition of British police and intelligence agencies has been to develop tripwire coverage, a wide network of eyes and ears so that unusual or suspicious behaviour within communities is flagged up quickly. These networks take two forms - covert coverage from those who have either infiltrated or will spill the beans from within radical groups - and overt coverage through local communities who oppose the fact they are being used as a hiding place for extremists and terrorists, and increasingly seem willing to report suspicious, odd or changing behaviour in their midst. The fact the men in this case were put under heavy surveillance in late 2010 is a sign that coverage of places, networks and communities where terrorists might thrive, is widening.
In Northern Ireland it took thirty years to fully infiltrate the IRA - and that was a strictly organised group. It was easier to dissect its structure in order to infiltrate, than it is now to find and infiltrate loose networks of extremists who have no strategic direction and may or may not have links to larger networks abroad. Nevertheless it is clear those involved in counter-terrorist activity are making progress.
What is more the evidence collected by intelligence and police officers and collated by the Crown Prosecution Service was clearly overwhelming enough to convince the suspects themselves that there was no chance of being found not guilty. Furthermore, their change of plea to guilty prevents a lengthy and costly court hearing.
Nevertheless their assertion, made through their lawyers, that the intention was not to harm and maim but to cause economic and psychological damage must be taken with a pinch of salt. It would be very difficult to bomb the London Stock Exchange without killing innocent civilians. One can assume the men are working to mitigate their sentences and reduce the time they will inevitably spend in jail. They will also no doubt point out they never got round to actually making the bombs.
If however, counter-terrorist officers come across a similar plot in the coming months they may not have the luxury of time afforded in this case. With the Olympic and Paralympic Games looming, they will not want to take any risk, given the size and security challenge the Games pose. Instead they may be inclined to move in on suspects on far less evidence with the aim of disrupting plots early, even if this means the suspects stay free. As a result there may well be increased security activity as the Games draw near.
This latest case shows progress has been made in UK counter-terrorist efforts. Increased budgets and resources over the past decade are beginning to bite, and communities more inclined to help. Nevertheless the threat posed by the men involved should not be underestimated. What's more, there may well be other equally dangerous people who have no links with bigger terrorist groups and who are not on the radar of the authorities.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.