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