How Secure is Britain?

  • Share
  • Read Later
David Moir / Reuters

Police forensic officers stand at the scene where an SUV was driven into a building at Glasgow airport, July 1, 2007.

Individually the attacks looked inept, almost comically so, the incompetent work of slapstick terrorists. Yesterday afternoon a burning Jeep Cherokee plowed into the terminal building at the airport serving Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow. One of the jeep's two occupants erupted from the vehicle, in flames and bellowing, to be felled by punch from a tourist who later told a British newspaper "He was a big fellow and was disorientated, otherwise I would not have been able to knock him down."

The jeep's cargo of gas canisters and gasoline failed fully to detonate, providing police with generous quantities of evidence and two easy arrests. Only a day earlier, police in London had seized two Mercedes, also primed as bombs using similar ingredients, but never detonated. The cars were found because one of the crude devices began to smoke, attracting the attention of ambulance workers, who by chance were treating a customer at the Tiger Tiger nightclub in London’s Haymarket. The second Mercedes, left illegally parked in nearby Cockspur Street, had been towed to a pound in central London. It, too, was made safe.

Yet if the terrorists who targeted Glasgow and London lacked the technical and planning skills to succeed, any hopes that their attacks were the work of crazed individuals have evaporated. Instead, a picture is emerging of a well-coordinated operation stretching from Scotland to southern England — with the hallmarks of a plot inspired by al-Qaeda. It has also revealed the manpower limitations of the country's electronic surveillance system. David Capitanbchik, a terrorism expert at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, also suggests the attack in Glasgow may be in response to last week's elevation to the post of Prime Minister of Gordon Brown, who is a Scot and from Glasgow, and is a wake-up call to Scotland which has traditionally seen itself as immune to terrorism, a view based in part on strong historical ties with Northern Ireland during the height of Britain's conflict with the IRA. Yesterday's attack, on the first day of the Scottish school holidays and possibly timed to coincide with the Queen's official opening of the Scottish parliament shows that "Scotland has to be as much on alert as the rest of the UK," he said.

Police believe the cars used in Friday's attempted attack on London's West End had been driven to the capital from Scotland. At least one of the Mercedes was logged last Wednesday on its journey south on the national Automatic Number Plate Recognition System, a network of hi-tech cameras across the country established to counter terrorism. Meanwhile a nationwide manhunt is gathering pace. On Sunday morning, officers raided several addresses in Scotland, including several homes in Houston, a quiet commuter village six miles northwest of Paisley. Two men were also arrested on the M6 motorway in northern England yesterday and one in Liverpool, bringing the total in custody to five, including the two being held in Glasgow. Security officials have not ruled out the possibility that seven terror suspects may be involved; British authorities recently admitted that the seven slipped "control orders" to monitor their activities. The security services also admit that they are stretched trying to monitor 1,600 individuals, 200 networks and 30 plots. A security source confirmed there was no prior intelligence of these attacks.

Scotland Yard's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke stated that the attacks "resonated with previous plots." Last year, a British-born Muslim convert named Dhiren Barot was sentenced to 40 years in jail for plotting attacks on the U.K. A 39-page list of possible targets and methods that Barot prepared for his al-Qaeda contacts included a plot he dubbed the Gas Limos Project. This proposed using propane gas cylinders and fuel to turn stretch limos into mobile bombs that could then be left in parking lots underneath key buildings.

The trial earlier this year of a group of British terrorists ensnared by the security services in an operation dubbed Crevice revealed some of the conversations between members of the group, who plotted to use fertilizer bombs against targets in Britain, including another London nightclub called the Ministry of Sound. This wasn't simply selected as a soft target, but as an emblem of Western corruption. "No one can even turn around and say 'Oh they were innocent, those slags dancing around,'" said one of the conspirators during a discussion recorded by the security services.

The bomb outside Tiger Tiger was probably too small to destroy the nightclub, according to experts. "In the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, there you had a huge truck loaded with explosives parked under the World Trade Center, so much better placed, and a much better load. And it still didn't bring down the World Trade Center,” Dr. Peter Neumann, the director of the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College, London, told TIME.

But in 2002, bombers in Bali killed 200 night-clubbers and wounded hundreds more by detonating two separate devices, one to draw curious onlookers and a second that exploded in the midst of the assembled crowd. A first explosion outside Tiger Tiger might well have drawn onlookers to Cockspur Street, into the range of the second potential car bomb.

The British authorities have now raised the national terror threat to "critical", its highest level, signaling that an attack is expected imminently. All leave has been canceled for the intelligence services and security beefed up around iconic public buildings, at transport hubs, and big public events such as the annual Wimbledon tennis championships and today’s memorial Concert for Princess Diana. Scotland Yard warned ticket holders to expect delays and "to see an increase in police use of stop and search under the Terrorism Act… as a visible deterrence and disruptive tactic." Prime Minister Brown said "The first duty of the Government is the security and safety of all the British people, so it is right to raise the level of security at airports and in crowded places in the light of the heightened threat. I want all British people to be vigilant and I want them to support the police and all the authorities in the difficult decisions that they have to make."