Saturday, April 11, 2009




The arrests earlier this week by the British Police of 11 Pakistanis,who had reportedly come to the UK on student visas, during aninvestigation into a suspected plot for multiple terrorist attacks onsoft targets draw attention once again to possible threats fromlegitimate visitors to the UK . Residents of Pakistani origin in theUK ---characterised as home-made jihadis--- had played the lead rolein the terrorist strikes of July, 2005, in London and in the thwartedconspiracy discovered by the British Police in August,2006, to blow upa number of US-bound flights. The perpetrators or the intendedperpetrators had independently, on their own, decided to organise theattacks and those involved in the July,2005, attacks had then gone toPakistan for being trained in the fabrication of explosives fromcommonly available materials and using them in improvised explosivedevices (IEDs).

2. Threats from legitimate visitors to the UK---as distinguished frompermanent residents--- are not new. The attempted terrorist strikes inLondon and Glasgow in June 2007 saw the involvement of legitimatevisitors---one of them an Indian Muslim student who died of burnsafter a thwarted attempt to blow up the Glasgow airport. There was nodefinitive evidence to connect those involved in the London-Glasgowincidents with Pakistan.

3. The latest arrests are significant for the larger number ofsuspects involved and their arrival in the UK ostensibly for higherstudies with legitimate visas issued by the Britishdiplomatic/consular missions in Pakistan after due verification oftheir antecedents. The issue of the student visas to them would showthat they had not come to the adverse notice of the British earlier.

4. The investigation is in a very preliminary stage due to hasty,premature arrests of the suspects caused by a breach of security byAssistant Commissioner of Police Bob Quick, who carried openly in hisarm in a manner readable by journalists with powerful cameras adocument, which had reportedly summarised the reasons for thesuspicion against them. The Police officer admitted the breach ofsecurity committed which could have compromised the pre-arrestinvestigation and alerted the Pakistanis that they are underinvestigation. To pre-empt the persons figuring in the list fleeingthe country or going underground, the police organised hasty raids ata nember of places such as the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester,Liverpool and Clitheroe in Lancashire. The indications till now arethat the police were able to arrest all those suspected and that noone figuring in the compromised document has managed to evade arrest.

5. The resignation of the distinguished police officer and thesubsequent arrests have given rise to considerable media speculationregarding the nature of any plot in which the arrested suspects mighthave been involved. It has even been speculated that the arrestedpersons were planning to carry out simultaneous explosions at crowdedplaces during the Easter holidays.

6.From the acceptable indicators available so far, all one can saywith confidence is that the British technical intelligence hadprobably overheard these persons discussing among themselves whatappeared to be a terrorist plot. They had identified them, put themunder surveillance and were making enquiries about them. Before theseactions could be completed the breach of security by the policeofficer occurred forcing the police to pick up the 11 suspects evenbefore their investigation had made significant progress. As a result,while the police had been able to collect evidence of a possibleterror talk by the detained Pakistanis, they had not been able tocollect evidence which would show that the plot had progressed fromthe talk mode to the preparations mode. The interrogation of thedetained suspects should show whether the suspects had made anypreparations on the ground for making their talk a reality.

7. During the investigation, the British Police would, inter alia, befocussing on the following questions: To which part of Pakistan thesuspects belonged----tribal or non-tribal areas? Where did they studyin Pakistan? Had they known each other before coming to the UK orwhether they came to know each other after arriving in the UK? Didthey have any association with any fundamentalist or terroristorganisation in Pakistan? Which organisation contacted them topersuade them to volunteer themselves for the terrorist strikes? Hadthey been recruited for the terrorist plot before they left Pakistanor after their arrival in the UK? How were they planning to carry outthe strike---with explosives or hand-held weapons?

8. The past terrorist strikes or attempts in the UK were in anger forthe British role in Iraq. The anger has now dissipated. The Britishtroops have also started withdrawing from Iraq. Anger over the Britishrole in Iraq is, therefore, unlikely to have been the trigger.However,there is considerable anger in the Pashtun tribal belt in theAfghanistan-Pakistan region over the British role in southern andeastern Afghanistan. Next to the US, the UK is playing the most activerole in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the Af-Pakregion---particularly in the Helmand provice of Afghanistan.

9.There is, therefore, a strong possibility that the plot thwarted atthe very beginning in the UK had its motivational origin in the Af-Paktribal belt. Sections of the British media have projected the plot asof Al Qaeda inspiration. For security reasons, Al Qaeda avoids directcontacts with Pakistanis either in the Af-Pak region or abroad. Itprefers to have them recruited through intermediaries such as theLashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), theHarkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) or theTehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). A direct Al Qaeda role in thethwarted London plot is of low possibility.

10. The LET, the HUM, the JEM and the HUJI have trans-nationalsleeper cell networks---- all of them across the sub-continent and inSouth-East and West Asia, the HUJI in Central Asia too and the LETand the HUM in the UK and the US too. The TTP did not have atrans-national network outside the Af-Pak region till the beginning oflast year---not even in India. Pashtun terrorists had never operatedoutside the Af-Pak region. The reported discovery by the SpanishPolice of a suspected sleeper cell owing loyalty to Baitullah Mehsud,the Amir of the TTP, in Barcelona in January,2008, was the firstreported instance of a TTP presence in the West. The London cell justunearthed by the British police may turn out to be the secondinstance.

11. As a result of the considerable tightening up of anti-explosivecontrols in the West and Australia by the Police with theco-operation of the public, terrorist attacks of the 2005 type arebecoming very difficult to organise. That is why the London-Glasgowplotters tried using gas/fuel cylinders. This option is stillavailable to the terrorists even in the West and Australia.

12. One has been seeing since the Mumbai terrorist attack of November26 to 29,2008, that mass casualties and mass publicity through themedia are becoming the driving force of terrorist attacks. It was soeven in respect of 9/11, but repeats of 9/11 have become verydifficult due to tightened physical security. Terrorists are revertingto commando-style attacks with hand-held weapons to achieve theseobjectives. After Mumbai, one had seen them doing this in Kabul,Lahore twice and in Kandahar.

13. Commando-style attacks with hand-held weapons are much easier toorganise in the West and Australia than attacks with IEDs. There ishardly any gun control in the US. Gun controls are stricter in othercountries, but the controls are not yet foolproof as one saw in arecent incident in Germany.If it is still easy for irrationalindividuals to play havoc with guns, how much easier it should be forwell-organised and well-motivated terrorists? That is a question whichshould worry counter-terrorism experts and which should call for theirfocussed attention. (12-4-2009)

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt.of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For TopicalStudies, Chennai. E-mail: )