Home-grown terrorist recruitment rising, says British spy chief

The Brown government unveils plans to curb recruitment in mosques, jails.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It was not that long ago that the British government would refuse to acknowledge that MI5 even existed. Nowadays, public speeches by the head of Britain's domestic intelligence are almost de rigueur.

This week, MI5 chief Jonathan Evans signaled that the service wants to raise public vigilance to the terrorist threat, and to stress that intelligence agents alone cannot solve the Islamist extremist problem. It was followed quickly by British and European Union officials pushing plans for tougher enforcement measures.

Counterterrorism experts say Mr. Evans's speech Monday was remarkable for three things: he raised sharply the numbers of active terrorist supporters from 1,600 to 2,000 and suggested there could be as many as another 2,000 unknown sympathizers; he warned that the problem has not yet reached its peak; and he hinted at a need for greater public understanding of the work MI5 does.

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"The security services are unhappy that they believe that there is a real threat but that no one in the public shares that view," comments Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert at King's College, London.

As if to underscore the point, police arrested 14 Algerians and Tunisians Tuesday in a Europe-wide antiterrorism operation led by Italian authorities. Two men in Britain were arrested, police say, for forging documents to facilitate the illegal entry into Italy of recruited suicide bombers to be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan,"

One of the key things to emerge from the Evans speech, says Bob Ayers, a security expert at Chatham House, is that "the number of people in the UK that embrace this [Islamic terrorist] cause is growing dramatically." It was misguided, he said, to conclude that the radicals were being routed just because of a string of recent terrorist convictions and scant sign of any specific current plot. "The fact that they haven't conducted any operations recently is not something to take solace from," he adds.

Evans called terrorism "the most immediate and acute peacetime threat" in the agency's 98-year history. Terrorists, he said, were methodically targeting, grooming, indoctrinating and radicalizing young people, some under 16, to carry out acts of terror. "This year, we have seen individuals as young as 15 and 16 implicated in terrorist-related activity."

Although the common resolve to vanquish the menace exposed by the July 7, 2005, London transit system bombings has not diminished, there is deep division over the best means to do so. Evans acknowledged that "this is not a job only for the intelligence agencies and police." He spoke of a collective effort, the joint responsibility of government, faith communities, and civil society.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's new government is working on a carrot-and-stick approach. There are plans to put millions of pounds into bolstering Muslim moderates to help the community withstand extremist tendencies. A national scheme is planned to train faith leaders and imams to engage better with youths; some imams will get English language lessons. Mosques are meanwhile being encouraged to sign up to a new code of conduct that will for the first time regulate the activities at Britain's 1,500 mosques.

But Mr. Neumann says that money for these initiatives has been slow to materialize. "Some of this money was approved in 2005, and they are still planning the projects and none of it has trickled down," he says. "Teaching foreign imams is important; it's also important to do work in prisons, because there are now a lot of jihadists there and radicalization is becoming a problem. They don't need lots of money, just a little would do, but there isn't really a comprehensive strategy."

Indeed, some analysts say that the center of British Islamic fundamentalism has already moved away from mosques and into gyms, social clubs and, above all, the Internet.

On Tuesday, the EU's top justice official, Franco Frattini, echoed Evans's comments, and called for European governments to make recruitment or "public provocation" to commit violent attacks punishable offenses, to make it illegal to post terrorist propaganda and bombmaking instructions on websites, and to collect and store data (for 13 years) about airline passengers flying into the 27-nation union.

In Britain, some details of Brown's counterterrorism policies were outlined Tuesday in the annual Queen's Speech, including giving police the ability to question suspects after they are charged and barring convicted terrorists from traveling overseas. Separately, the government indicated that it will press ahead with legislation that will give police longer to question suspects before charging them. At present, the limit is 28 days. Brown has suggested 56 days, but the measure could face strong opposition in parliament.

Civil liberty groups say it will sacrifice the very freedoms that terrorists are taking aim at; and terrorism experts warn that it will impair relations with the Muslim community, perhaps jeopardizing the flow of information so vital to antiterrorism work.

Mr. Ayers says that given the high number of potential suspects, the security services cannot possibly keep tabs on all of them. It will thus be more dependent than ever on local information. "You need something that will allow you to focus attention on smaller groups of high-risk people. The hope is that some of those initial indicators would come out of the community."

In their defense, the security services and police argue that they often have to intervene early in the incubation of a plot to ensure public safety: in these cases, police forgo months of evidence collection that they might have conducted before arrests.

"It is possible to envisage circumstances in which the 28-day limit might prove inadequate given the increasing complexity and scale of the current terrorist challenge," says Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers.

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