LONDON — A major British antiterror operation Tuesday, which netted a group of suspected Islamic militants apparently preparing an attack, suggests security forces here are at least making some headway against the terror threat, experts say.
Dawn raids at locations across southern England snared eight Britons - believed to be Muslim and of Pakistani descent - and more than half a ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, an agent that has been used to carry out both Al Qaeda and IRA bomb attacks in the past.
Home Secretary David Blunkett said the incident is a reminder that Britain, a close US ally in the war on terror, is a prime target. Top police figures have already warned of the likelihood of a mainland attack, yet security services are in some respects a formidable adversary, given their extensive experience fighting Irish terrorism.
"The security and intelligence services in the UK are among the most experienced anywhere in the world at counterterrorism because of our experience fighting Irish republicanism," says Richard Evans of Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in Coulsdon, Surrey. Many of the techniques used in combating the IRA threat - such as surveillance, telephone intercepts, and penetration of the target organization - are the same.
Sources close to Tuesday's operation, which involved 700 officers, described it as one of the biggest in Britain since the Sept. 11 attacks. "It was a major undertaking, certainly one of the largest in recent times," says one police source. "It took place over several [jurisdictions], and it's pretty rare for that to happen."
Yet analysts warn that there is a long way to go. The mere fact of the detentions serves as a reminder that there may be cells of Islamic radicals among the British population prepared to wreak destruction. And while British intelligence became effective at infiltrating IRA ranks, they are far less well implanted in Islamic circles.
"There hasn't been good penetration historically in the Muslim community in the UK largely because intelligence agencies haven't had the luxury of large numbers of people from those backgrounds on their staff," says security analyst Garth Whitty.
He says recruitment of Muslims has accelerated since Sept. 11 to redress the balance. Now the hope is that these people with the right background and deeper involvement in Britain's burgeoning Muslim communities will be able to tap into radicalism by gleaning information from various sources, such as those disaffected with terrorism or motivated by revenge or incentives.
"This [the operation] is a huge success, but the agencies will know they cannot afford to rest on their laurels," Mr. Whitty says, adding that breakthroughs of this sort are often due to luck more than anything else.
The investigation will focus in part on the intended use of the ammonium nitrate, an agricultural fertilizer that can be mixed with small amounts of plastic explosive to create a lethal concoction. It is becoming one of the materials of choice for international terrorists, experts say.
It was used in an Al Qaeda attack on the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and in one of the 2002 Bali bombs and the Istanbul devices. The quantity seized on Tuesday could have been used to create a similarly destructive spectacular.
"People use it most usually because it's difficult to get commercial or military explosives," Whitty says. "If you're a farmer and you have half a ton, that's not criminal. But it's a different matter if you have no justification for having large amounts of it."
Meanwhile, police are seeking to tread carefully so that British Muslims are not outraged by the regularity with which they are targeted. Half a dozen raids over the past year have netted at least 30 suspects, the vast majority of Islamic origin.