British security officials were claiming Wednesday to have foiled a terrorist plot which would have imported for the first time to Britain the grisly Iraq-style tactic of kidnapping a victim, torturing and beheading him and filming the atrocity for broadcast on the Internet.
In what police characterized as "the foothills of a major investigation," at least nine arrests were made at a dozen addresses in and around Birmingham, England, including homes, an Islamic bookshop, and a cybercafe,
The suspects were the latest in a succession of hundreds arrested under terrorism legislation introduced seven years ago. Last August, 21 people were arrested in an alleged plot to blow up transatlantic flights.
But experts said this plot's new tactic, if confirmed, would amount to a significant departure in strategy. Thus far, the public has focused its concern on the possibility of suicide bombers seeking to emulate the perpetrators of the July 7, 2005, bombings that killed 52 people. The prospect of being snatched from the street, paraded before video cameras, and decapitated was considered a horror peculiar only to countries like Iraq.
"A plot to kidnap, torture, and execute an individual in the heart of England, and film the gruesome events on a videotape for posting on the Internet, represents a new chilling escalation in tactics by the global jihadi terror groups and carries grave implications for all western nations," says MJ Gohel, a terrorism expert with the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation.
"In the past, we have witnessed the brutal beheadings of Western hostages in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, but for it to happen in a major British city would send shock waves to millions of people throughout Europe and the world."
Mr. Gohel recalled the episodes in Iraq, when American Nicolas Berg and Briton Ken Bigley were subjected to the grim fate, and added that repeating the tactic in the West would be "a massive cold-blooded propaganda tool for intimidating the public and governments. The brutal torture and beheading of an identified individual can psychologically resonate far louder than say a car bombing of unknown or anonymous victims," Gohel says.
Paul Rogers of Bradford University also underscored the potential for a negative psychological impact. "If such a plot were to be targeted against an individual, then it would be a very new development as far as Britain is concerned, but obviously worrying as far as the fear factor is concerned," he said in an interview with Britain's national Press Association news agency.
But Bob Ayres, a security analyst at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, contends that the fear-factor would be limited.
"The vast majority of the UK population doesn't believe they're high-profile enough to warrant being pulled off the street," he says. For most Britons, he adds, "getting blown up on the Underground on the way to work is much more of a concern."
But while kidnapping may not instill greater fear among the public, Mr. Ayres says, its strategic advantage for radicals is prolonged media exposure. With the release of periodic video statements, captors can keep the media's spotlight on them and their message for months, he says.
Tackling home-grown terrorism
At least some of those arrested Wednesday were believed to be young Britons of south Asian origins. The local member of Parliament, Shahid Malik, said he had been told they had been under surveillance for six months. Some of the arrests connected with the alleged planes plot were also made in Birmingham.
Pakistan, which crucially cooperated with Britain over the aviation threat last year, was again in contact with British security agencies in the run-up to the latest arrests. British media reports claimed that the target was a British Muslim soldier, though police did not confirm this.
The sudden emergence of homegrown terrorists and suspected plotters has forced domestic security services to improve their game, spread the recruiting net wider, and accelerate efforts to infiltrate the cells believed to be planning attacks.
Recently, signs have emerged that counterterrorist forces tracked radicals subsequently involved in plots without detaining them. One of the 7/7 perpetrators, Mohammad Sidique Khan, was known to security services as a radical intent on waging jihad. In the ongoing trial in London of the suspects involved in an alleged plot to bomb the mass transit network two weeks later on July 21, 2005 – a plot that failed – evidence has emerged that suspects were under police surveillance as early as 2004.
Though police believe that the raids and multiple arrests of recent years have foiled major terror attacks, Britain's Muslim minority often complains that rights are trampled over during the police action – and that often charges are not even brought. Two suspects were roughly arrested, and one shot, during a police raid last summer; both were later released without charge. Some in the Muslim community argue that the police action is just driving more disaffected youths into the arms of radicals.
Last year, the head of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham Buller, warned that the security services had identified 30 major terrorist plots in Britain and more than 1,600 individuals actively engaged in promoting attacks.
But after the 7/7 attack and the failed 7/21 attack, heightened security and a greater police presence, particularly on the London Underground, has arguably persuaded radicals to change their targets. Experts say that mass-transit systems, even airports and aircraft, are easier to defend against than the threat of abduction.
"Kidnapping is a highly cost-efficient strategy for terror groups to deploy because no expensive bomb-making materials or detonators are needed, no skill or training is necessary – all that is required is a terrorist willing to wield a knife on a defenseless hostage," Gohel says.
Terrorism experts said that it was important to establish whether the kidnapping plot, if confirmed, was a one-off action or a new tactic.
Patrick Mercer, Conservative homeland security spokesman, said: "If this proves to be accurate, this is a disturbing departure.
"We have got to learn the lessons of this," he added, "to see what we can do to thwart future attacks."