January 2, 2012 7:25 pm
As London enters its Olympic year, one question is dominating the agenda for Britain’s domestic security service, MI5: what is the risk of a terrorist attack against the Games and how can the threat be reduced?
With six months until the Olympics begin, MI5 is confident the security outlook for the event is better than it was a year ago. This is because the past 12 months have seen significant setbacks for jihadist movements around the world.
In 2011, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s founder, was assassinated. So was Anwar al-Awlaki, the leading jihadist in Yemen and instigator of several plots. The outlook improved enough for the Home Office to lower its threat assessment in July from “severe” (where an attack is deemed highly likely) to “substantial” (where one is deemed merely a strong possibility).
Nobody at MI5, however, is ready to relax. In Somalia, about 40 British nationals continue to fight on behalf of jihadist groups in a civil war – and could yet turn their attention to the UK.
In Nigeria, the activities of Boko Haram, an increasingly active jihadist group, are of growing concern, amid fears they might internationalise their efforts to gain publicity.
Above all, there is fear of the unpredictable. “We have been very good at disrupting plots but you can never see everything that’s coming,” says a Whitehall official. “There is simply no such thing as guaranteed, 100 per cent security.”
How then does MI5 approach its task? As it surveys the risk of terrorism at the Olympics, MI5 divides the threats into four categories.
The first would be a plot hatched and planned by al-Qaeda overseas. This is something the terror group’s central leadership has aspired to do once more in Britain following the July 7 2005 bombings in London. But intelligence officials question whether al-Qaeda would be capable of pulling off such an attack when they have repeatedly failed to do so in the past six years.
The second category – and the one deemed most likely – is an action by a British individual or group, inspired by al-Qaeda or other extremist beliefs but operating alone. A bloody example of this category came in Norway last July, when Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian rightwing extremist, killed 69 people, mostly teenagers, in a bomb and shooting attack.
The third category is an attack by a dissident Irish republican group hostile to the Northern Ireland peace process.
MI5 has recently highlighted its concerns about a revival of dissident republican groups and the threat that they could launch an attack on the UK mainland. But an assault on the Olympics would trigger such widespread international opprobrium that MI5 finds it is hard to see what the rationale for such an action would be.
The final category is terrorism as a byproduct of an international dispute between two nations or groups. Such an event has always been feared at the Olympics since the killing of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 summer games. As one Whitehall official puts it: “The fear here is that we end up with a terrorist attack that is the result of a political dispute we know nothing about.”
As it prepares for the Olympics, pressure on MI5 will be intense. The agency will encounter a huge increase in reporting of possible threats, whether justified or not. “As a major event approaches, there is always a tendency for people to discuss threats and all those discussions have to be investigated,” says a Whitehall official. “Foreign intelligence agencies whose athletes attend the games will also be a lot more keen to send us pieces of information.”
MI5 and the police face a second challenge that comes with any big threat – the need to investigate possible plots within a collapsing time frame. “In our regular operations we want to give ourselves as much time as possible to investigate plots, maximising the chances of securing convictions,” says one security expert. “With an event like the Olympics you cannot do that. You know that there is a set deadline by which terrorists want to act. So you may need to charge in and arrest people with the aim of disrupting things until the Games are over.”
Ultimately, the biggest challenge for MI5 will be the one to its own reputation. After the 7/7 London bombings, MI5 argued it had been under-resourced – and that this was one of the reasons the attack was not foiled. In the past six years, however, MI5 has received significant extra money and manpower. Should terrorists strike at the Olympics, it would be much harder to explain how they got through.
Policing 2012: Potential sources of terrorism identified by MI5
Al-Qaeda: Category 1
MI5’s first category would be a large plot hatched and planned overseas by al-Qaeda. The terror group was behind the bombings on July 7 2005 when it attacked London’s transport system
Lone operator: Category 2
Action by a local individual or group inspired by extremism but operating alone. An example of such an action was the massacre in Norway in July in which Anders Breivik, a militant ideologist, killed 69 people
Irish dissident: Category 3
An attack by a dissident Irish republican group not reconciled to the Northern Ireland peace process. MI5 says an attack on the Olympics would cause such international outrage it is hard to see what the rationale for it would be
External row: Category 4
Terrorism that is the result of an international dispute between two nations or groups. An example of such an attack would be the killing of Israeli athletes by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 summer Olympics
Other causes for concern
Somalia Around 40 British nationals are fighting on behalf of jihadist groups and could train their sights on the UK
Nigeria Boko Haram, an increasingly active jihadist group, is a growing worry
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