Full Text :COPYRIGHT 2007 Scotsman Publications Ltd.
Byline: James Kirkup
EYES wide open to the camera and a knife at his throat, his death would have burned a terrible new image into Britain's collective nightmare of Islamic terrorism. That is the bloody outcome intelligence officers believe was averted yesterday with a string of arrests in Birmingham.
The men arrested had been planning to abduct a British soldier and behead him in a internet broadcast, security sources said yesterday. Intelligence analysts said the plot was disturbing proof that Britain's domestic terrorist threat is still evolving.
Moving on from bomb attacks intended to kill and maim as many as possible, extremists are instead trying to spark political panic and social tension with individual acts of murder live on camera.
The new tactics of terror have been drawn directly from Iraq, where several hundred British Muslims have taken part in the bloody insurgency against Western troops and the country's post-war government.
In 2004, Britain was traumatised by the abduction and beheading in Iraq of Ken Bigley, a British engineer who was killed after being taken hostage. Still, the worst atrocities of the Iraqi turmoil have been committed by Muslims against Muslims, and so it could have been in the UK.
The soldier targeted in yesterday's alleged plot was, like them, a British-born Muslim, the plan to kill him apparently calculated to inflame the tensions within British Islam still further.
The nine men being questioned in a Coventry police station last night were said to have fallen under the sway of extremist interpretations of Islam as they grew up in Britain's second biggest city.
Yet their victim, who was raised in the same area in the same wider community, made an entirely different choice: joining the British Army and serving Queen and country. Last year, he was deployed to Afghanistan, trying to break the grip of the Taleban militia.
Last night, the targeted soldier, an unmarried man in his 20s, was under police protection, and the Ministry of Defence was reviewing security precautions around the 330 or so declared
Muslims serving in the British armed forces.
Police and MI5 officers involved in the six-month operation that led to yesterday's arrests believe the plan was to abduct the soldier then issue a series of films of his captivity via the internet, before eventually beheading him.
Pre-dawn raids were launched after intelligence officers at MI5 declared a "threat- to-life" situation, assessing that there was an "intolerable risk" that the plotters were about to act on their plan. Despite that conclusion, the official government assessment of the terror threat to Britain remained last night unchanged at "severe".
Combining broadcasts of a kidnapped soldier with demands for British withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as warnings to other British Muslims, the plotters were said to have been hoping to put enormous pressure on government ministers and traumatise the nation as a whole.
Professor David Capitanchik, an expert on terrorism at Aberdeen University, said: "What we have witnessed today is a change in terrorist tactics. This is something that happens more and more as splinter cells constantly try to slip under counter-terrorist surveillance."
He continued: "The security forces have yet again done a good job in foiling this plot, but if the scale of the threat is as large as we believe it to be, we will yet again need to bulk up the numbers of personnel working in counter-terrorism."
John Reid, the Home Secretary, said yesterday's arrests demonstrated again the "real and serious nature of the terrorist threat we face".
He declined to discuss details of the case and later issued a statement warning the media not to prejudice any eventual trial that the arrested men might face.
None of the nine was charged with any crime yesterday and police have 28 days to question them. Assistant Chief Constable David Shaw of West Midlands police, who oversaw yesterday's operation, appeared to signal a lengthy process of questioning and investigation, saying that officers were "at the foothills of what is a very, very major investigation".
About 150,000 of Birmingham's one million population are Muslims.
Mr Shaw praised Muslim community leaders in the city for their co-operation and understanding over yesterday's arrests. But Islamic leaders in the districts where the arrests took place warned that the operation had harmed community cohesion.
"I just wish the police could have been more discreet because, at the moment, it's just suspicion. At the moment, the whole of the community are labelled as terror suspects," said Allah Ditta, of the Alum Rock Islamic Centre.
And Adam Yosef, of the interfaith Saltley Gate Peace Group, said the raids had "affected our relationships between local community and police and between the community itself".
The city's Islamic community also produced the only British Muslim soldier to be killed in Afghanistan.
Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, 24, a member of the Intelligence Corps, was killed in Afghanistan last July. His death attracted nationwide political and media attention.
It also led al-Ghurabaa, a radical Muslim group, to post images on the internet of the dead man wreathed in flames, accusing him of "terrorism" against his fellow Muslims.
Al-Ghurabaa has since been banned, but several of the figures behind the group remain at large and are said to use internet sites to spread extremist interpretations of Islam.
According to local MPs briefed by West Midlands police officers, the operation that led to yesterday's arrests began six months ago, shortly after L-Cpl Habron's death.
Source Citation:"A new kind of terror comes to these shores." The Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland) (Feb 1, 2007): 1.