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Operation Gird – Counter-terrorism Policing in Tense Times

19/05/2011

The new Independent Reviewer for Terrorism Legislation David Anderson QC has published his first review of counter-terrorism legislation, conducting a full inquiry into the case of six street cleaners working in London who were arrested on the eve of the Pope’s visit to London in September of last year. The report exonerates the police concluding, “I consider that the police acted responsibly and within the law in arresting the six men when they did.”

The report lays out in detail the evidential case behind the police decision to arrest the men. Apparently, at 4:30pm in the afternoon on September 16th, the day before the Pope’s visit to the UK, police received a tip off from an unnamed source who told them that they had overheard five of the men “talking about a possible attack on the Pope’s vehicle on the following day.” The source’s information is summarized thus:

· The five men were looking at a picture in the Metro newspaper of the Pope’s motor vehicle.

· They discussed a recent incident where the Koran was burnt and stated that a Christian should be killed for every page that was damaged.

· The view was expressed that whilst the Pope’s vehicle was protected, it could be stopped and that even if he survived, those around him would die.

· Comments were made to the effect that it would be wonderful if the Pope was killed and that there were virgins waiting for them.

· The men could all be working on the day of the Pope’s visit to London.

· The depot had recently taken delivery of new uniforms, ten of which had been stolen.

Additionally, police were told that ‘a close associate of one of the men’ was arrested and released under terrorism legislation some 3-4 months previously. Somewhat more speculatively, one of the men was reported to have recently returned from Paris (one of the men, a 26 year-old, held dual Algerian and French nationality, though it is unclear if this is the man that is referred to), with his head shaven ‘and to have become radicalised.’ Background checks on the men revealed one of them shared a name with an individual who had been arrested and then released during the course of the investigation into the Madrid bombings. The five men under suspicion were aged between 26 and 44, all worked for Veolia Environment Services, and were all of Algerian descent except for one who was Sudanese. The Algerians were all either married to European’s or held European citizenships as well – one British, one Spanish and another French.

After the decision was made to arrest the men in the morning, a sixth man (Subject F) described ‘as being a friend of the suspects’ arrived to the company HQ later in the day and became agitated saying ‘I’m not working now. Does everyone think we’re fucking terrorists? They’re treating us like animals with our hands on our heads.’ He then stormed off. The same person who reported this statement also said that he recalled Subject F requesting to work on the Pope’s route during the visit. Investigation into the company’s files uncovered that a number of men had requested to work together on the Pope’s visit and that a couple had taken holiday time at the same time.

All of which would I suppose paint an incriminating picture to a suspicious mind. It is worth remembering that at the time, security in the UK and Europe was on high alert after the information came out of Afghanistan/Pakistan that cells of Europeans had been activated to carry out Mumbai-style terrorist operations. Cells were swept up in Germany, France and Denmark – in some cases turning up weapons. Plotters had not yet emerged in the UK, though a report from Waziristan pointed to an individual allegedly called Abdul Jabber who was tasked to establish an al Qaeda cell in the UK. He was apparently killed in a drone strike. Another element to emerge at around this time was that a Norwegian-Uighur who was allegedly plotting something in Oslo was found to have in his possession a photo of Ibrahim Adam, a brother to Anthony Garcia, aka Rahman Adam, one of the plotters linked to the Crevice cell. The passport-sized photos showed him in a variety of different haircuts and were taken as evidence that he was trying to obtain fake identification to get back into Europe to possibly carry out some sort of plot (possibly further darkening the picture, Adam was of Algerian descent, the family changed their names years before).

So within this context, it is easy to imagine why police would react as they did. It is a bit surprising that Mr. Anderson fails to mention all this, though he does highlight that the “requirement for reasonable suspicion” needs to “be kept firmly in mind by all forces during future operations….particularly in view of the security pressures that are likely to attend the forthcoming London Olympics.” This element seems to have been leapt upon by today’s Independent.

Nevertheless, it is worth taking a moment to cast a further skeptical eye over this case – the evidence for the plot appears to be single-sourced and not fitting with any other direct intelligence that the security services received. Mr. Anderson himself describes parts of it as “barely credible.” It may be understandable that the police reacted as they did given the context, but the operation will have done little to win them support amongst the Muslim community. As Subject F so eloquently put it, “does everyone think we’re fucking terrorists?” Doubtless, this experience has confirmed this to him and the others. For Subject E, a 27-year-old Sudanese man, the case concluded with it being discovered that he had had his application for asylum turned down and was currently operating using a false identity. According to the investigation “this has resulted in further action under the immigration laws.” One imagines this might include expulsion from the country, though I am uncertain of whether the UK can send people back to Sudan. None of which will endear HMG to him or his friends and family.

It remains unclear whether the chap who had returned from Paris “radicalized” with a shaved head was still a cause for concern, though I imagine he will remain on police radars. Unlike the previous Operation Pathway plot that has been linked to a series of plots in New York and Oslo and with key plotters back in Waziristan, this lot seems not to have had any serious links and their release back into society is likely going to do little to increase the terrorist threat. The fact that the Security Services (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) did not feature in the investigation confirms that they were not involved and therefore did not have the intelligence.

Instead, it seems as though this was a case of a bad tip-off at a tense time, and hopefully lessons have been learned from this. It of course almost impossible to know to what degree this will have improved or worsened community relations – though doubtless it will be noted how loudly the arrests were reported and how quietly the report that declares “there is no reason to believe, with the benefit of hindsight, that any of the arrested men was involved in a plot to kill the Pope, or indeed that any such plot existed” was covered. But to blame the media is often a bit of a cheap shot, as ultimately, it only caters to the public’s desires and the discovery some people were innocent is less news grabbing than a dramatic arrest.

The purpose of this system of regulation with independent reviewers and inquests is intended to provide the citizenry with a way of watching the watchers. What might be perceived as being a problem, however, is that they continue to largely exonerate those they are overseeing. In the various investigations that have been carried out they continue to say the security services are doing a good job and that broadly speaking nothing is going wrong. Human mistakes are made and that is it. Now this may be the case, but in some cases one has to wonder about whether this might not be stoking further skepticism. Certainly with the Pathway lot, the absolute certainty with which everyone up to the Prime Minister claimed they were linked to al Qaeda was not supported by evidence that was subsequently released. I do not mean to doubt that the Pathway chaps were up to something (I have written a whole article detailing their supposed links to al Qaeda), but the problem of a presentational gap remains when no explosives or evidence of a bomb plot were actually found. In this case where six innocent men were swept up the cause seems to have been bad intelligence and a high level of background chatter.

Admittedly, it is unclear to what degree those who still doubt are a majority or whether it is merely conspiratorially minded obsessive’s or bereaved individuals for whom no comfort will be enough, but at the same time it is equally uncertain that the current structures the UK has set in place to watch the watchers are necessarily assuaging the concerns they set out to calm.