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Friday, 9 July 2010

9 July 2010

Do you remember the chilling message issued by the IRA back in 1984, after they’d narrowly failed to blow up the entire British cabinet in the Grand Hotel in Brighton?

This is what they said: “Today we were unlucky -- but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

I was reminded of it this week, as I chaired a conference at the London think-tank Chatham House to consider counter-terrorism strategy five years after the London suicide bombings which killed 52 people. The conference was organised jointly by The World Tonight, the journal International Affairs, and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Luck, said one of the participants, is not a good counter-terrorism strategy. (Under the rules of a Chatham House conference, participants may not be publicly identified – but what they say can be reported without attribution.)

Luck? Well, consider this: in the five years since 7 July, 2005, there has been no successful terrorist attack on British soil. Indeed, since 11 September, 2001, there has been no successful terrorist attack on US soil. (Unless you count the killing of 13 people on the US army base at Fort Hood, Texas, last November, allegedly by an army pyschiatrist, Major Nidal Malik Hasan.)

But it’s not for want of trying. Remember Faisal Shahzad, who tried to detonate a bomb in Times Square, New York, in May? Remember Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is alleged to have tried to blow himself up on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit last Christmas Day? And on the same day as our conference in London, US prosecutors in Brooklyn charged an alleged senior al-Qaeda operative, Adnan el-Shukrijumah, in connection with an alleged plot to bomb three New York subway lines.

In this country, there was the failed attack on Glasgow airport and two London targets almost exactly three years ago; and just yesterday, three men were convicted in connection with the “airline bomb plot” of four years ago, when they are alleged to have planned multiple suicide bomb attacks on trans-Atlantic flights.

In Norway and Germany, also yesterday, three men were arrested, accused of being al-Qaeda members and of plotting more bomb attacks. One was of Uighur origin, one from Uzbekistan, and the third from Iraq.

So perhaps we should assume that the threat of more terrorist attacks is still with us. The question is whether the various counter-terrorism services involved in combatting the threat have learned from the atrocities of the past decade.

Yes, they have, was the verdict of the officials, analysts and academics who spoke at our conference. But probably they didn’t learn quickly enough, and they still have a tendency to learn only from their own experiences rather than looking at other people’s as well.

But how do you know if your counter-terrorism strategy is working? You don’t, is the simple answer. Absence of evidence (in other words, you can’t see anything dangerous going on) is not the same as evidence of absence (in other words, it’s not proof that nothing is going on.) Just because there have been no successful terrorist attacks in the UK for five years doesn’t mean that there might not be one tomorrow morning.

We spoke at the conference – of course – about the causes of terrorism. There was talk of alienation, a sense of grievance, anger at injustice, whether real or perceived, and a sense of exclusion from the mainstream. All of them can sometimes be factors, it was agreed, but none of them on their own is sufficient to explain why someone would turn to mass murder.

We considered whether you can counter the terrorist threat without breaking international human rights laws. Does there have to be a trade-off between security and freedom? No, said most of our participants, because without security, there can be no freedom. But no one was very keen on the use of “control orders” which can be tantamount to a particularly severe form of unending house arrest. “The least worst option”, one of our speakers called them.

As for “engaging” with communities from which a terrorist threat might emerge, when does “engaging” slip into “monitoring”? Can you tell local community leaders that you want their help, while at the same time you’re erecting secret cameras and recruiting informants?

Inevitably, we had a lot more questions than answers. And then, yesterday the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that she’s removing the right of police to stop and search people on the street under anti-terrorism legislation, unless they can show that there is a “reasonable suspicion” that someone may be a terrorist.

And the European Court of Human Rights halted the extradition to the US of the controversial Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri on terrorism charges, while it considers whether the lengthy jail sentence he would face there if convicted would contravene international human rights law. (He is currently in jail in the UK for soliciting to murder and racial hatred.)

If only there were easy answers. And if only I could think of something better to end with than the line often attributed, or mis-attributed, to Thomas Jefferson: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

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