The bomb attacks on London have raised questions about how Britain’s counter-terrorist services handle radical Islamists with suspected ties to terror groups – and emphasised differences between the UK and US that have on occasions raised tensions between the two sides.
According to Intelligence experts in the US and Europe say the UK security services led by the domestic security agency MI5 often keep suspects under extended surveillance, using information gathered to build a more precise picture of their activities and connections.
But US agencies have preferred early action against suspects in the hope that doing so will disrupt possible plots and unnerve other conspirators.
One former senior US intelligence official said the overall relationship between US and UK intelligence authorities was excellent. However, he said theUS and UK intelligence services had differed in their approach to suspected terrorists.
“They have a tendency to survey and follow longer than we are inclined to do,” said the former official. “[That is] in part because of our great impatience since 9/11 when we have tended to move fast and aggressively on any target, perhaps unwisely.”
But another former senior US intelligence official said the UK-US intelligence relationship on counter-terrorism was more fraught – though part of this, the US recognised arose out of British concerns about human rights, civil liberties and its justice code. “It is worse than that,” said the former senior intelligence official. “The British view themselves as somehow superior – they did a good job with the IRA, and [they think] everything follows the IRA model.”
He was critical of what he saw as dangerous and unnecessary delays in arresting radical clerics in London, such as Abu Qatada, a radical Palestinian preacher wanted on terror charges in Jordan, and Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Egyptian who took UK citizenship and came to London in the 1970s.
“They have a really hard time understanding that people that like Masri and Abu Qatada are real goddamn problems. It took a long, long time before they began taking those threats seriously . . . There is a certain amount of reluctance on the British to move quickly. What they never seem to realise is that by the time they know they have a problem it is too late.”
The different approaches clashed last August when US announcements and the naming of an alleged UK-based al-Qaeda suspect, Abu Musa al-Hindi, triggered arrests in the UK of 13 people the UK was keeping under surveillance.
British security officials say there will be an examination of intelligence techniques to see if lessons can be learnt from Thursday’s attacks, of which they say there was no advance warning. But they claim argue thatheir record shows 11 years of success before that in which at least half a dozen possible terror attacks, before and after September 11 2001, were thwarted.
Britain has also put greater emphasis than the US in trying to maintain a balance between effective counter-terrorism and human rights, trying to engage the support of the moderate majority of Muslims. As well as gathering more information about other components of a suspected cell, British tactics are also aimed at gathering evidence that will stand up in court.
Such tactics were used regularly with the IRA but have been more difficult to sustain because of the nature of the new terrorist threat, in which warnings are not given and suicide bombers are potentially used. To deal with this, theUK government has introduced what it calls control orders – to give police powers of restricting the movement of individuals without necessarily having court-ready evidence.
UK Police and security officials also say that a new offence of acts preparatory to terrorism is needed to plug the loopholes their US counterparts see in the UK legal system, to allow more prosecutions.
Criticism of British approach has also come from France. Since terrorist attacks on Paris in 1995, French security services have clamped down much harder on suspected radical groups than has the UK.