Are you scared yet?
I'll admit it. I'm an unreconstructed class warrior. It makes me want to spit to even have to type the name Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the current head of the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI5. Not only is she a "Dame", but the double-barrelled name just puts the saliva on a cake which has, shall we say, a surprise filling.
I'll also not bother to hide my contempt for another reason. Manningham-Buller was earlier this year asked to give evidence to the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. She refused, without explaining why. Perhaps her excuse is, as she says at the start of her speech, "that she prefers to avoid the limelight and get on with my job." And who could possibly disagree with that? Manningham-Buller has the starring role in protecting this country from exploding jihadists, keeping us safe from the mad mullahs which the Sun and others cannot stop talking about.
Then again, maybe we should examine what this woman who wishes to avoid the limelight really thinks. Back in 2003 she made a speech to the Royal United Services Institute, where she said she fully supported the war on an abstract noun (terror), and told the salivating audience that "renegade scientists" had given terrorists the information needed to create what are usually described as weapons of mass destruction. Three years later, and those terrorist groups which don't usually hold back from showing us just how spectacular their attacks can be, haven't managed to move on from their usual tactic of suicide bombings. Last year, this shy, retiring, limelight avoiding woman made another public utterance, informing us that we may need to give up some civil liberties in order for others not to become smears on tube-train windows. Then there was the leaked evidence from her submission to the law lords, where she made clear that she couldn't give a fig if "evidence" is obtained from detainees who have been tortured.
Have you spotted a pattern? Yes, Ms Double-Barrelled Name is a spook almost made in Tony Blair's image. War on terror supporting; scaremongering about terrorists getting hold of WMD, which was one of the justifications made for the Iraq war; thinks that civil liberties need to be curtailed in order for the threat to be reduced; and yes, rendition, torture, and probably even Guantanamo Bay are all A-OK in her book. Why else would she refuse to give evidence to a parliamentary committee investigating human rights abuses?
Just to be fair to Ms Manningham-Buller, I wondered if her speech yesterday night at the Queen Mary University of London had been perhaps influenced by her finances, despite also her being invited by Peter Hennessey. The Queen Mary University website talks of a communication office, which seems to go out of its way to be hospitable towards journalistic requests of seemingly any nature. Unless it seems, if you're either: A. a blogger or B: asking about whether the head of MI5 was paid for her appearance, even if just for expenses. As of writing this post at 23:43, having sent the email in the early hours of this morning, I haven't so much as got a reply telling me to piss off.
There were seemingly also no questions asked of Ms Manningham-Buller afterwards, or at least if they were, there are none recorded on either the MI5 website or on the Queen Mary's. This might, just might, be down to the fact that yes, any potentially unruly students or off-message journalists weren't in the audience, as it was invitation only. The Guardian, which splashed the lecture on its front page, seems only to have been given a copy of actual speech. Later editions of the Sun, which as we have already seen this week are determined to keep their readers as scared of terrorism as humanly possible, also jumped on the talk.
As the news bulletins and reports have repeated throughout the day, the numbers crunched out by Buller are, on the face of it, rather frightening. According to MI5's head, there are around 200 various terrorist groups or networks which are currently operating in the United Kingdom. Of these, there about 1600 individuals who are actively engaged in either plotting or facilitating attacks, either here or abroad. She says there are nearer 30 than 5 or 10 plots of which they know about, either designed to kill members of the public or "damage" the economy, which seems rather euphemistic.
And err, that's it. Almost everything else that Buller says is pretty much what has been said by politicians of various ilks before, as well as by supposed "security specialists" who usually have their own businesses to promote when they do so and by "well-informed" journalists. She claims that five "conspiracies" since 7/7 have been stopped, as John Reid has previously stated. Again, we don't know yet know anything about those plots, whether those involved have been arrested or just disrupted, as she provides no further background about them. We also don't know whether she's including the alleged liquid explosives plot in those 5, as she doesn't say, but she would doubtless claim, as she does, that she would prejudice cases to do so. The BBC also reported that the speech was specially scheduled so that it fell between two terrorist trials.
Of the 200 groupings she mentions, it's unclear whether all are extremist Islamist groupings, as again, she doesn't infer. She just simply goes on to explain what she feels the average radicalised Muslim is influenced by/and or angry about. All these numbers though seem utterly meaningless. Britain as a country has a population of around 60 million. Of that 60 million, about 1600 are engaged, according to Buller, in frontline terrorist activity. They don't seem to be just the type that posts on jihadist message boards, or goes on the al-Ghuraba affiliates protests. They're either actively planning attacks, or involved in crimes associated with funding terrorism, such as fraud or charities which are actually fronts for terrorist groups. The thing is, Buller doesn't make clear whether these 1600 are working for terrorist cells here, or even for groups such as Hizbullah, Hamas, etc. There have been allegations made repeatedly that charities here are funding Hamas's social work, for example. We don't know whether they would be included in that 1600.
Then there's whether these 1600, are, like Dhiren Barot, fantasists with no funding and no weapons/explosives or otherwise. As Buller says later on in her speech, once she's got the juicy stuff out of the way, the soundbites for the media to devour:
Who are merely talking big, and who have real ambitions? Who have genuine aspirations to commit terrorism, but lack the know-how or materials? Who are the skilled and trained ones, who the amateurs? Where should we and the police focus our finite resources?All of which are good questions. Yet while Barot definitely had ambitions and aspirations to commit terrorism, he lacked the know-how. He's now destined to become known as the "smoke alarm bomber". He lacked the funding, despite the police desperately telling us that they're certain it was either coming or that he had gone to Pakistan to meet "al-Qaida" leaders to deliver his botched, laughable plans. Barot was however, skilled and trained, unlike Kamel Bourgass, who had just ambitions and aspirations. Not only did Bourgass not have the materials for the "ricin" plot, he also lacked the know-how, wanting to smear a substance he didn't have onto doorknobs, when it has to pierce the skin to be effective. Let's not even mention the Forest Gate raid. Naturally, none of the above is spoken of by Buller.
As part of her conclusion, she also wants to make clear just how unbiased or otherwise her speech has been, and says:
I do not speak in this way to alarm (nor as the cynics might claim to enhance the reputation of my organisation) but to give the most frank account I can of the Al-Qaida threat to the UK. That threat is serious, is growing and will, I believe, be with us for a generation. It is a sustained campaign, not a series of isolated incidents. It aims to wear down our will to resist.Whether the latter point is true or not is debatable, but I think she is at least being honest in saying that the threat will be with us for a generation. The main problem though is that she, like so many journalists, falls into the simplistic trap of referring to all extremist Muslim terrorism as being the "al-Qaida" threat. This not only gives too much credit to Osama bin Laden, although it's obvious that he has been exceptionally successful in spreading the Salafist millenarian ideology quickly, but it also makes people think of al-Qaida as some monolithic organisation either headed by bin Laden or al-Zahawiri, running things from Pakistan. This is complete and utter rot, and she must know it is. Even though there is some truth to the fact that al-Qaida, removed mostly from Afghanistan, is now regrouping in Pakistan, the group is still mostly in flux, and will continue to be as Musharraf looks likely to crackdown even further shortly. There is no great head group in Pakistan which orders or gives the go-ahead for attacks; what there is, at the most, is sympathetic groups over there that are helping train potential jihadists. Most however, are from Pakistan or the Middle East itself, and are going at the moment, to Iraq. Dhiren Barot had some contact with such a group, having previously fought in Kashmir. Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer went to Pakistan, possibly to visit a madrasa, but also to find someone who could teach them how to prepare their explosives. They also recorded their martyrdom videos there, with them afterwards being shipped off to where al-Qaida got hold of them.
The true nature of the current mainstream extremist Islamist ideology, as Buller must know, is that it is autonomous. Various groupings across the globe are using it mainly in struggles which are nationalist in nature, seeking to liberate territory, or to establish an Islamic state. al-Qaida's variety is a mixture of doing this while also targeting the West for its support either for the governments which are oppressing, in their belief, Muslims, and just also generally for existing and being "kafir". This is what is now generating the cells which are appearing across the Western world. Inspired by al-Qaida and other notorious firebrand preachers or scholars, such as Sayyid Qutb, yes, but actually al-Qaida, members of al-Qaida or being directed by al-Qaida? No. Buller's speech in sections comes close to admitting this, when she refers to the "powerful narrative" of this ideology, but instead carries on blaming al-Qaida as if it's the only game in town, so to speak.
Buller does at least in sections make some decent points. She admits that foreign policy has led to the radicalising of more Muslim youth than otherwise would have been. She recognises that intelligence needs to be assessed objectively, with integrity, and sceptically, although considering the fact that she doesn't seem bothered whether intelligence comes from tortured prisoners, this might be posturing for the press. Mentioning Iraq will also probably be moot. Her best, and naturally, the least reported part of the speech, is left for towards the end:
We also need to understand some of the differences between non-Western and Western life-styles; and not treat people with suspicion because of their religion, or indeed to confuse fundamentalism with terrorism. We must realise that there are significant differences between faiths and communities within our society, and most people, from whatever origin, condemn all acts of terror in the UK. And we must focus on those values that we all share in this country regardless of our background: Equality, Freedom, Justice and Tolerance. Many people are working for and with us to address the threat precisely for those reasons. Because all of us, whatever our ethnicity and faith, are the targets of the terrorists.Again, Buller can be regarded as something of a hypocrite, having been involved in the "ricin" case where those accused and found not guilty have since been re-arrested, which seems to be spite rather than justice, and she seems to regard freedom as expendable when it comes to fighting terror. This shouldn't take away though from what is a decent message, often drowned out in the hysteria and sensationalism which seems to grow like a cancer out of the threat.
The main basis for the speech however, despite Buller's protestations, does seem to be to add to the scare mongering and the politicisation of the threat which has been developed by Labour as an electoral asset. Margaret Beckett also made a speech yesterday which had a decent amount in it about terrorism, ably mocked over on BlairWatch. The Sun won't let us forget for a second that we're all the targets for extremists. The Queen's speech seems likely to introduce yet more terrorism laws, and Gordon Brown appears sold on the idea of reintroducing 90 days once he becomes PM. This is the politics of fear, and if you're not scared yet, then in their eyes there must be something wrong with you.
Update: Only 5 days late, the communications office at Queen Mary responds:
No, she was not paid.Worth every penny, I'm sure.
I'm not familiar with your website and have been unable to access it. Do you have another link you could send me please?