Repeating the anti-terror soap opera

How did the police get a terror raid so wrong (again)?

On Friday 2 June at 4am, more than 250 police and other officials – including some from the UK’s health protection agency – took part in a raid on a house on Lansdown Road in east London, arresting two individuals, as part a continuing campaign against terrorism.

The morning TV news carried little else, and the 24-hour rolling news channels continued with a soap opera-like coverage throughout the day. Terrorism effectively competed with Big Brother as the nation’s most watched reality TV show.

Earnest journalists reported from various locations – Lansdown Road, New Scotland Yard, Paddington Green police station (where one of the men was detained), and the Royal London Hospital (where the other man – who had suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder during the raid – had been taken).

Numerous interviews were conducted with supposed eyewitnesses who, in the main, had witnessed nothing, and an army of experts speculated wildly on various matters, including the clothing worn by some officers during the raid.

Claims soon emerged that some kind of chemical device was involved. Prime minister Tony Blair had reportedly been informed in advance of the operation and a five-mile air exclusion zone had been imposed around the property from midnight that day – although no residents were evacuated from the area.

Over the weekend, suggestions emerged that the individual shot had been injured by the other arrested individual, while views were aired on the supposed dangerous chemical. For a while it appeared that the UK could be paralysed, not by terrorism itself, but by an anti-terror raid.

On 2 June, Peter Clarke, the head of counter-terrorism operations for the Metropolitan Police, had announced in a statement that a long-standing surveillance operation had been accelerated, due to security sources obtaining specific intelligence.

Now, several days later, it looks as if no bomb-making equipment or chemicals have been found at the property. The Independent Police Complaints Authority is investigating another police shooting. The situation is still unclear, but it appears that the operation was based on flawed intelligence. How could this be?

One clue lies in the size of the operation and the breadth of the media coverage. These reveal the presumptions about contemporary terrorism that shape our societal responses. In the past, such anti-terrorist raids would have been conducted discreetly, but today the police court and receive full publicity.

Intelligence, in the security sense, is a product of both information and the interpretation of that information. Irrespective of what information has been received, it is its presumed meaning that determines the course of action.

Of course, often the information received is itself erroneous. There have been a number of high-profile instances since 9/11 – including the discovery of arms in a locker at a Paris airport – whereby individuals with a grudge against others have set them up and shopped them to the police.

What’s more, the fact that there is a police raid means little in an age when the definition of ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’ ranges from actual bomb making to looking at dodgy websites on the internet.

But fundamentally, it is the interpretation applied by the police and the security services to the information they receive that is the problem. If the authorities presume to be living in an age dominated by a global network of terrorist cells bent on wreaking havoc with chemical agents, this will shape their response.

The evidence for this framework so far seems to be lacking. There have never been weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq or the UK. Even the so-called ricin factory in north London turned out to be a misnomer: there never was any ricin.

Rather, what we have seen has been a small number of incidents, where a handful of independently operating individuals have taken it upon themselves to lash out against a society they dislike. They are neither connected by a common ideology, or particularly clear about their aims.

Over the past few years a precautionary approach has come to dominate police and other security operations. This holds, at its heart, the notion that officials have to act in advance of conclusive evidence, before it is too late.

It is this precautionary and fearful approach that today determines the presumptions and actions of the police, and other actors in society such as the media.

Recent anti-terror raids have all been over-the-top. When the second shoe-bomber, Sajid Badat, was arrested in Gloucester, police sent in 26 armed units and sealed off the city centre.

In the past, the dominant view was that we should not give terrorists the oxygen of publicity. Today, any nihilistic loner with a grudge is likely to receive blanket coverage for a week. We can be sure that there will be more such incidents to come.

First published on spiked, 7 June 2006

The ‘war on terror’ as displacement activity

The author of Imperial Hubris recognises the rot in Western society, but seems to think it can be resolved by taking out some Johnny Foreigners.

Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War On Terror, Anonymous, Potomac Books, 2005.

Since the publication of the hardback edition of this book in 2004, Anonymous has been revealed to be Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit in the late 1990s. So he has a lot of experience when it comes to terrorism and counterterrorism.

Scheuer is at his most compelling when lamenting the impossibility of exporting and imposing Western democracy and capitalism on those who, for whatever reason, reject such values. The consequence, in his words, is that the Karzai regime in Afghanistan is unsustainable – ‘a self-made illusion on life-support’. He notes the need to understand a problem’s history and context, and complains that ‘the way we see and interpret people and events outside North America is heavily clouded by arrogance and self-centredness amounting to what I called “imperial hubris” in Through Our Enemies’ Eyes’ (his previous book).

Scheuer’s overall thesis is fairly straightforward: the West does not face a terrorist problem but rather is confronted by a worldwide Islamic insurgency that requires political will and military means to be resolved. Above all, he says, the West is not hated for what it believes in, but rather for what it does – largely to the Arab world. So despite being a tough-minded Catholic conservative, Scheuer sounds remarkably like a whole spectrum of political opinion, from the radical left through to establishment-minded think-tanks (such as Chatham House in the UK), when he suggests the West has a self-serving interest in oil and should stop interfering in the Middle East.

How could this be? A clue lies in Scheuer’s book itself. You can’t help but notice that throughout the book he actually identifies a different enemy to the Islamist insurgency that he says must be destroyed. From the preface through to the final chapter, Scheuer bemoans the ‘moral cowardice’ of senior leaders, political elites, the media and even generals, as well as some in the intelligence community, who have become ‘risk averse’, ‘hold expertise and experience in low esteem, perhaps even contempt’, and who would rather have a quiet life than confront the pressing difficulties facing American society.

Nor, would it appear, do the problems confronting the US today simply consist of the ‘anti-Western sentiments of Muslims’. Scheuer also has other targets: political correctness, multiculturalism, creeping legalism and a culture of precaution in Washington and beyond. Indeed, his suggestion that, ‘In a society bereft of talented, manly, pious, and dignified leaders, the Mujahideen are both legitimate and romantic heroes’, could be taken as a description of certain Western societies as well as Muslim ones.

The work is littered with a liturgy of Western failings. ‘Style over credibility every time’, he moans, presumably emanating from some of ‘Washington’s desk-bound chest beaters’. By the end, he subscribes to Niall Ferguson’s therapeutically informed description of the US as a ‘colossus with an attention deficiency disorder’.

Some of these criticisms are pointed and well-made, but they surely point to a prior battle to be engaged in – at home – before his preferred option of a military engagement with insurgents abroad? It might also suggest that if so many Muslims hate the West – as he suggests they do – then maybe they got their ideas from far closer to home than most commentators care to imagine.

If Scheuer had spent a bit more time reading Clausewitz rather than Sun Tzu – the preferred strategist of the neo-cons – and the American Civil War generals he liberally cites throughout, he might have got to the bottom of his conundrum. For Clausewitz understood that the ‘friction’ of war necessitates winning a few battles at home prior to going overseas to teach ‘Johnny Foreigner’ a lesson or two.

In February 2003 the US State Department, in its National Strategy for Countering Terrorism, noted the need to engage in a ‘war of ideas’ – although what it meant by this remains unclear. Since then, the ideas element has been rather thin on the ground, beyond the bland attempts to superficially rebrand the US (attempts lambasted by Scheuer). Western leaders are conscious of the dilemma but have continuously skirted the issue when talking of the need to defend what they label as ‘our values’ or ‘our way of life’.

What values and way of life are they referring to? If it is the long list of morally corrupt and culturally degenerate mores and habits Scheuer decries, then that is hardly going to cut it in the eyes of Muslims or anybody else. It is only in contrast to these home-grown failings that bin Laden and Al Qaeda – in what is very much an image war – make themselves look impressive or important, even if they claim a list of other, more substantive, grievances, from US occupation of the Arabian peninsula to Western support for Muslim tyrants.

Scheuer effectively concedes that it is the West’s own decaying system of values and moral confusion that is the real problem when he says that bin Laden and his coreligionists benefit from ‘a shared mechanism for perceiving and reacting to world events’. It is the loss of any broader sense of purpose at home that drives Scheuer to exalt bin Laden when he notes that at least ‘he speaks in specifics and matches words with deeds’.

Scheuer identifies how Muslims ‘appear to genuinely love their God, faith and fellow Muslims in a passionate, intimate way that is foreign to me and, I suspect, to many in America and the West’, and argues that what Western commentators label ‘suicide’ (as in suicide bombings) is actually better understood as the sacrifice of those who still perceive ‘a cause that is greater than themselves’. All of this is a far cry from the culture of leaks and celebration of defeat he bemoans among Westerners in the closing stages of his book – a society where ‘the threat level wanders between “don’t worry” and “prepare to die”’.

The notion that ‘the enemy is at home’ might seem a step too far for some, but as Scheuer himself concludes: ‘The United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.’ So surely he and others would better spend their time coming up with an appropriate response rather than calling for more warfare ‘over there’.

First published on spiked, 9 March 2006

Terrorism and Community Resilience – A UK Perspective

This paper argues that policy-makers and emergency planners must learn from the literature examining human behaviour in disasters. The relevant research shows that professionals should incorporate community responses to particular crises within their actions, rather than seeking to supplant these because they consider them ill-informed or less productive.

Emergencies offer society a means to reaffirm human bonds that have been corroded over recent times. Actions to enhance the benefits of spontaneous association, as well as to develop a sense of purpose and trust across society are, at such times, just as important as effective technical responses.

Read on [pdf format]

Terrorism and Community Resilience – A UK Perspective
Chatham House Briefing Paper, ISP/NSC Briefing Paper 05/01, July 2005, pp.4-5

Al-Qaeda: a conspiracy of dunces?

The real story of the ‘ricin plot’ is that Britain’s would-be terrorists are a bunch of losers.

Kamel Bourgass, a 31-year old Algerian, has been found guilty of ‘conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by using poisons and explosives’. We now also know that in June 2004 he had already been found guilty of the murder of detective constable Stephen Oake during a bungled police raid on a house in Manchester. The media clamour surrounding this case, however, missed the real story to emerge from the trial.

As well as the murder of Stephen Oake, Bourgass and four others were charged with ‘conspiracy to murder’ using the obscure poison ricin, held to have been manufactured at a flat in north London, but they were not convicted of that charge. A further trial involving four further alleged conspirators was to have followed soon after.

The now infamous ‘ricin factory’ was raided on 5 January 2003, two months prior to the onset of war in Iraq. The blanket media coverage of this raid coupled with the assurance of various politicians that this displayed the willingness of ‘international terrorists’ to develop and deploy so-called weapons of mass destruction, undoubtedly helped soften public opinion to the ensuing conflict.

But the trial has finally forced the authorities to admit that there never was any trace of ricin found in the first place. That is the one, truly newsworthy story to emerge from this saga. Yet following the contemporary fashion for not letting the evidence stand in the way of a good story, this welcome news has been ignored in favour of collective speculation as to what Bourgass ‘might’ have been up to.

Irrespective of the fact that ricin is considered to be a fairly unreliable covert assassination weapon, still less a weapon of mass destruction, most reporting of the case has focused on the various ‘recipes, ingredients and equipment’ which could have enabled Bourgass to manufacture ricin, cyanide and other poisons.

Presumably, the fact that such information is readily available online will allow the police to arrest pretty much whomever they please in the future. At the trial, prosecuting QC Nigel Sweeney listed the equipment that had been found as including ‘scales, thermometers, rubber gloves, a coffee grinder, batteries and bulbs’. It would appear that anyone with a moderately well-equipped kitchen might be in trouble then, as well as those who diligently follow government advice on preparing for possible terrorist attacks.

Of course, none of this is to say that Bourgass is a complete innocent; his repeated stabbing of an unarmed police officer suggests otherwise. But there are already laws for dealing with murder and, having admitted his guilt, he had been duly tried and sentenced accordingly. It is also perfectly possible that Bourgass did want to make some kind of poison, although the quantities of ingredients found – the castor oil beans that have to be ground down to make ricin – were insufficient.

But then the real story ought to be about the sheer naivety and incompetence of all the so-called al-Qaeda operatives sentenced to date. In the UK there have been only three: Richard Reid, the dim-witted shoe bomber who had trouble with matches; Sajid Badat, the Gloucester loner who bottled out of emulating Reid; and now Bourgass, a man who purportedly hoped to cause mayhem by painting car handles with a poison that has to be injected to be effective.

If that is the best of what the supposed massed ranks of al-Qaeda have to offer after three years, then, irrespective of the forthcoming trial of a similar loser who bought more fertiliser than he could handle, we should have little to fear. But the media, politicians and the police have sought to portray the situation differently.

Peter Clarke, the recently appointed Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner charged with countering terrorism, spoke of the ‘fear and disruption this plot could have caused across the country’, blissfully ignoring the fact that the only reason any of us ever heard of ricin was because the authorities pushed it into the public domain, despite there not having been any.

Notably, all of the supposed co-conspirators in this case have been cleared of the charges, so there was no evidence of an organised al-Qaeda ‘cell’ either. The jurors should be commended for reaching this verdict in the context of the constant bombardment about sinister individuals and organisations to which we have all been subjected since 9/11.

But most insidiously of all, much of the coverage of these events is dominated by evidence gathered from a supposed fellow-plotter, Mohamed Meguerba. The story about the car handles, the allegations of al-Qaeda connections and specialist training, even the existence of a supposed Nivea cream pot that contained ricin but that has never subsequently been discovered – all of these claims and others were ruled as inadmissible evidence by the judge, having been derived from interrogations by the Algerian security services.

Yet regardless of this, the BBC and others choose to repeat those statements, presumably because without them there would be no story left. In effect this legitimises the replacement of evidence with fantasy and hearsay, which can only serve to bring contemporary British justice and media reporting still further into disrepute.

There was, it seems, no al-Qaeda cell, no plot, and no ricin – but there was still a bloody good story anyway, from those who have truly terrorised the public.

First published on spiked, 14 April 2005

Civilian Morale During the Second World War: Responses to Air Raids Re-examined

Abstract: The impact of air raids on civilian morale during the Second World War has been the subject of much dispute. Official histories concluded that the mental health of the nation may have improved, while panic was a rare phenomenon. Revisionist historians argued that psychiatric casualties were significantly higher than these accounts suggested because cases went unreported, while others were treated as organic disorders. Using contemporary assessments and medical literature, we sought to re-evaluate the psychological effect of bombing. There is little evidence to suggest that admissions for formal mental illness increased appreciably, although a question remains about the incidence of functional somatic disorders, such as non-ulcer dyspepsia and effort syndrome. The fact that civilians had little to gain from hospitalization in part explained why dire predictions of mass air-raid neurosis failed to materialize. In the event, civilians proved more resilient than planners had predicted, largely because they had underestimated their adaptability and resourcefulness, and because the lengthy conflict had involved so many in constructive participant roles.

Civilian Morale during World War Two: Responses to Air-Raids Re-Examined, (with Jones, E., Woolven, R. and Wessely S.), Social History of Medicine, Vol.17, No.3, pp.463-479, December 2004

Hunters in the House

There’s little point securing institutions from the outside, if they have failed to win the loyalty of those on the inside.

The invasion of the chamber of the House of Commons by a handful of pro-hunt campaigners last week led to the usual debate about security at public buildings.

Much of the discussion focused on the anachronism of allowing ‘men in tights’, rather than the Metropolitan Police, to dictate security arrangements at parliament. The fact that in recent years the police have failed to stop Greenpeace activists from scaling Big Ben and a self-styled comedy terrorist from getting into Prince William’s birthday party at Windsor Castle seems to have been forgotten.

But there is something more interesting going on here than a typical security blunder. Whether or not the protesters who got in through the relatively obscure Speaker’s entrance were, as suspected, directly aided by somebody inside – an MP, a researcher or a contractor – they clearly benefited from insider knowledge about the layout of parliament.

There is little point securing institutions from the outside, with CCTV, concrete blocks or armed guards, if those institutions have failed to win the loyalty of those on the inside. Many of the individuals employed in the House in the past will have disagreed with decisions taken in the chamber; but they would also have had a sense that their own private political persuasions were not sufficient to trump the significance of a public institution.

Of course some would have had to sign a piece of paper declaring that they were not politically motivated (although for obvious reasons the same could not apply to MPs and their researchers). But there would have been a clear divide between private morality and public action, which no longer seems to apply today.

This became evident earlier this year when former Privy Council member Clare Short – who threatened to resign, then stayed, and was finally dismissed for her views on the legality of invading Iraq – chose to go public and break the Official Secrets Act in relation to the UK’s role in spying on UN officials. This suggested that, for some in public office, personal moral conscience can take precedence over issues of public security.

Short, like pro-hunt activists, could have made her views known in public and tried to win support for them. That is the political process. Her willingness to bypass such a process reflected her own intellectual incompetence, and her contempt for the public. She was not alone. Throughout 2002 and early 2003, many ‘secrets’ relating to the forthcoming invasion of Iraq were leaked from within the Pentagon. It was well known that senior military staff were not happy with the proposals coming from within the White House. But again, rather than trying to win the argument behind closed doors, they went to the media.

The images from inside Abu Ghraib prison were also leaked by elements within the US military, rather than having emerged as the result of investigative journalism or Iraqis protesting about their treatment by coalition forces. Across the developed world, key social institutions seem unable to hold the line on what they are for. They fail to win the hearts and minds even of those they employ. It is this internal uncertainty that can give rise to breaches of security.

Real security derives from the quiet confidence of knowing who you are, what you stand for and where you are heading. And that is a political question, about how to cohere a consensus around social aims and values.

A journalist remarked to me during a recent radio interview that it was hardly difficult to infiltrate the House of Commons considering how many of its functions have now been outsourced. Catering, building, even security and IT are regularly performed by contractors. It’s a wonder, he said, that they haven’t outsourced the MPs themselves.

Funny as it was, this example also reveals something fundamental about what is happening today. Nobody wants to take responsibility for anything – because they don’t really believe in it. And this process starts at the very highest level of society. For example, there are more mercenaries and private security contractors in Iraq than there are British troops.

If the establishment wants some real security then the least it could do is take responsibility for its actions, and try to win the support of those individuals it employs.

First published on spiked, 24 September 2004

Animal-Rights Terrorism and the Demise of Political Debate

Winning over the many may be difficult but remains essential for defeating the few.

This summer, the United Kingdom Home Office launched a crackdown on animal-rights protestors who intimidate or harass people associated directly, or indirectly, with experiments on animals. The move followed action against the construction of an £18 million biomedical research
facility at South Parks Road in Oxford.

This had led the main contractor, Walter Lily & Co Ltd, like the concrete suppliers RMC before them, to pull out of the project to replace and update the university’s animal-testing facilities.

Both companies are subsidiaries of Montpellier plc, whose executive cars had been damaged with paint. The parent company’s investors had also received spoof letters purporting to come from the senior management team, and advising them to withdraw their interests in the company or risk being identified on a website run by activists. Why anyone would think that a company would threaten its own shareholders is not evident, but this led to a 20 per cent drop in the share price as some investors bailed out.

Read the full article (pdf format)

First published in World Defence Systems Vol.7, No.2, Autumn 2004, pp.202-203

Facing the possibility of bioterrorism

Abstract: The possibility of bioterrorism has been met by significant financial outlays to map out public health responses. These have included comprehensive audits of potential agents, as well as exploring mechanisms for counteracting their impact. Psychological intervention and communication have been identified as key areas requiring further work, as fear of infection could pose a greater strain on social resources than the pathogens themselves. Bioterrorism provides a powerful metaphor for e´ lite fears of social corrosion from within. Accordingly, a broader historical and cultural perspective is required to understand why individuals and societies feel so vulnerable to what remain largely speculative scenarios.

Facing the Possibility of Bio-Terrorism, Current Opinion in Biotechnology, Vol.15, No.3, pp.264-268, June 2004