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International terrorism expert Gavin Proudley, chief of intelligence at London-based Quest, and Roula Khalaf, the FT’s Middle East editor, answer your questions. More background reading
Q: What is the significance of the review process being carried out by Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the stance of al Gamaa on violence for the wider debate inside and outside Egypt among salafists on the morality of militaristic jihad? I note the sarcastic comments by Zaharawi in his video 4/7 about fax machines in jails, and web-comments by El Khalil el Hakayma.
Chris Langdon, Brighton
Roula Khalaf: It is possible that the “revision” of the Gama’a (and parts of the Jihad) will convince other militants in Egypt and elsewhere to give up militaristic jihad - I’m sure this will be attempted, particularly in countries where there is a de-radicalisation programme. But the denunciation of violence has come after many years in captivity and there is a school of thought in Egypt that dismisses it as a reaction to captivity. There are also many factors that influence radicalisation, beyond the religious “justification” that some clerics promote.
Gavin Proudley: The journey of the EIJ and the GI has been an interesting one. Perhaps there is space in the market for a follow-up to Sayyid Qutb’s classic book. It could be called Signposts, Junctions and U-Turns. Elsewhere, former extremists have also denounced terrorism and violence, for example in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Singapore, invariably under pressure from authoritarian Governments. I’m sure that these statements cause some radicals to pause - but against the strong message of al Qaeda, they will seem weak to most extremists.
Q: In view of the fact that some of the suspects in the recent London and Glasgow attacks appear to have been on the security services files, is there a case for some sort of internment for those considered a risk? Tagging does not seem to have worked as some people who have been tagged have absconded.
Alexander Padget, Brussels
Roula Khalaf: No. This is very dangerous territory.
Gavin Proudley: No. Because there are a very large number of people on the files of the security service and there simply isn’t the space! More seriously, a solution needs to be found which ensures that the security service are making the most of the intelligence that they possess, and are able to share this intelligence effectively with other partners, including Police forces. I am not yet convinced that the intelligence community has the resources it needs to make sense of all of the information that it receives. Just locking people up could exacerbate the problem, especially given the fact that several extremists have been radicalised whilst in prison.
Q: Are the British security services and policymakers facing a radical reappraisal of their tactics in trying to prevent further attacks or is Britain’s intelligence service well enough equipped to deal with the terrorist threat?
Darren Owen, Sussex
Roula Khalaf: Al-Qaeda has been very good at adapting to changing circumstances - and security services are having to do the same. One of the new elements they’re having to deal with is whether Iraq is now turning into a jihadi hub that exports militants abroad. The latest terrorism plot may well require a reappraisal: unlike the 7/7 bombings, the suspects in this case appear not to be home-grown but to have come from abroad.
Gavin Proudley: The intelligence services have faced a radical reappraisal and have secured impressive increases in funding to cope with the threat. It is clear from the number of recent court cases, that the intelligence services and Police forces are having significant operational successes. They understand the threat better, they are better able to tackle it, and the legal structures are now more effective in dealing with those brought to trial.
But Whitehall is still not well enough equipped. Most of all, it lacks knowledge of the nature of the problem, and this is not something that can be easily obtained. For example, there is still no clear understanding of what motivates extremists, not least because each case appears to show a very different profile. The area where Government continues to struggle most is in combating the ideology.
Q: Do you think the change in the UK government will increase or decrease the threat of terrorist attacks in Britain?
Judith Rosenberg, Slough, UK
Roula Khalaf: It will take a very long time to see an evolution in the terrorist threat.
It’s not clear what kind of policies the new government will adopt on terrorism. So far though it has been praised for its measured response and careful rhetoric.
Gavin Proudley: Neither. I was surprised that people drew the link so strongly to Brown’s appointment. And I don’t believe that the Brown Government will either take, or be seen to take, a signficantly different approach to counter terrorism.
Q: The London and Glasgow bomb attacks seemed to be a bit amateur. Do you think this means small cells are opting for ‘do it yourself’ terror without the type of training in camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan that other Islamist terrorists have attended?
Richard Allen, London
Roula Khalaf: Possibly. There is growing concern about “self-recruitment” particularly on the internet. It’s shocking what you can find on jihadi websites - from propaganda videos to detailed accounts of how to build a bomb and wage a suicide attack. The websites are often raided but they tend to appear again under a different name.
It is, however, too early to tell whether the perpetrators of of the attempted London and Glasgow bombings fall into this category. Until now, nearly every plot uncovered in the UK has included some foreign element, either direction or money or expertise.
Gavin Proudley: I wonder if the phrase ‘amateur’ would have been used had they gone according to plan. The devices themselves were in fact maybe too complicated when a simpler plan could have been more effective. So I am hesitant to call these incidents amateurish. I am also hesitant to read too much into the nature of the incidents in relation to whether it means it was a small cell acting independently of core al-Qaeda terrorists.
The shoe bomber Richard Reid couldn’t light his fuse when it came to his time to carry out an attack - but he was being directed by al-Qaeda leaders. The Madrid train bombings were extremely successful, but seem to have had no links to leading al-Qaeda figures. So it remains the case that some terrorists in the UK and elsewhere have been given expert training, advice and guidance by al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan, and some have not. And unfortunately both can be equally effective.
Q: Can we continue to wage war on countries that allegedly harbour terrorists? We’re fighting an ideology, not a country. Haven’t the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq played into al-Qaeda’s hands by, if anything, helping nurture Islamic extremism?
How can a global terrorist movement be beaten? Surely diplomacy and sanctions are more effective than war?
Karl Balsam, Poland
Roula Khalaf: You’re absolutely right to point out that this is a fight against an ideology and that military interventions have played into the hands of al-Qaeda. There are times, however, when military action is the only way to deprive a network like al-Qaeda or a haven or a base. But when this is the case the intervention has to be accompanied by measures that win the hearts and minds of the broader population, instead of alienating it.
Gavin Proudley: I agree with your thought, that we are not fighting countries. What was interesting after the 9/11 attacks was watching the institutions in the US and UK trying to identify the right targets for the response to the attacks.
Very quickly, the response became as much against the Taliban, as against al-Qaeda. It seems that institutions need to interact with other institutions, and struggle to interact with networks. The war in Afghanistan did have a significant initial impact on the al-Qaeda network, reducing its effectiveness, but I was always concerned that the emphasis placed on defeating the Taliban would make the Coalition forces vulnerable to the charge that this was a war against Islam. Would diplomacy have worked? The UK’s current Ambassador in Afghanistan recently revealed in an interview with the BBC that the Embassy there has not understood clearly what has been going on among the different Afghan factions, and that is after a significant effort by the UK in Afghanistan for nearly 5 years. Diplomacy was tried for several years before 9/11 - particularly by the Saudis - and did not result in the Taliban taking action against the al-Qaeda groups that were operating in Afghanistan.
Perhaps under its new leadership the UK foreign office will become increasingly effective, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. And sanctions only seemed to hurt those we should have been helping, and helped those we wanted to hurt. The war in Iraq was not initiated because Iraq harboured terrorists (although Saddam gave support to some terrorist groups, and seemed to tolerate the presence of the late Al-Zarqawi in Iraq), but clearly it has helped to nurture extremism. Overall, I think that the most suitable methods of beating this global terrorist movement are through extremely good intelligence, effective and clear law enforcement structures with strong international cooperation, but also, unfortunately, some military measures in places where law enforcement structures are ineffective.
Q: Where do you draw the line between increasing security to prevent terrorist attacks and infringement of civil liberties? Where does the panel stand on ID cards and the UK terrorism act where suspects can be detained after arrest for up to 28 days?
Dave Sydney, New York
Roula Khalaf: This is the debate that democratic societies are struggling with. I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that infringements on civil liberties can end up undermining security.
There are plenty of examples of this in the Arab world, where repression has radicalised Islamists. We should not forget that one of the reasons that the lack of democracy and respect for human rights are repeatedly cited by Americans and other western officials as one key reason behind religious extremism in the Middle East.
Gavin Proudley: The terrorist threat does raise really difficult policy questions: what does the security service do if they believe someone has the potential to become a violent extremist, but at present has not committed any terrorist offence? Arrest them? - on what charge? Keep a watch on them? - not enough resources? Hope that they don’t go further down the extremist path? Too risky.
Personally, I think the UK is getting the increased security side of the equation about right, and I know a lot is still happening behind the scenes to improve security in key areas. I am not convinced ID cards will help combat terrorism, and I worry that effort focused on the policy could be better spent elsewhere. On the length of detention, there is still not enough information on which to base the decision.
Q: Is it realistic to think al-Qaeda can be ”beaten”?
Lesley McCarthy, Bristol, UK
Roula Khalaf: It depends what you mean by ”beaten.” Al-Qaeda is not a well defined enemy, which is why the so-called ”war on terror” has failed to contain it. But it is possible that it could be tamed, both in terms of recruitment of new jihadis and addressing the issues that are exploited by al-Qaeda leaders.
Gavin Proudley: Yes. Firstly, there is a network of people who could be called the core of al-Qaeda. A large number of these people were captured or killed in 2002-2003 after the fall of the Taliban, and after huge counter terrorism efforts across the globe. This did reduce the effectiveness of the core group, and forced those that were still at large to reduce their activity.
The efforts of the intelligence services around the world are still focused on those who they have identified as leading al-Qaeda figures, and significant detentions still occur from time to time. So the core group - even as it recruits new people - can be beaten.
But some people say al-Qaeda is now more a ‘movement’, and as such is much harder to tackle. I would agree that al-Qaeda is also movement that will be extremely difficult to ‘beat’, and certainly governments alone cannot (and do not) hope to beat it. I believe the movement will eventually dissipate, and when it does, it will be impossible to define precisely how it was beaten. But that is some way away yet.
Q: What would be the consequences for al-Qaeda if the US withdrew from Iraq?
Lawrence Weinman, Los Angeles
Roula Khalaf: Al-Qaeda would lose one of the main justifications it now uses for recruiting a new generation of jihadis so that should, in principle, weaken the global network. But the violence in Iraq has evolved to the point where the country could go through a long civil war after the departure of US troops, which means al-Qaeda groups in Iraq would be fighting the Shia government (as they are now) and may indeed have greater freedom of action than today.
Gavin Proudley: I have no doubt that a withdrawal from Iraq by the US (and the UK) will be presented as a victory by al-Qaeda - because it seems increasingly certain that a withdrawal will occur before stability is established. So in that sense, it will serve as a boost for the movement - sitting alongside the movement’s other ‘victories’ in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in Somalia in the 1990s, and also its success in forcing the Spanish withdrawal from Iraq after the Madrid bombings.
On the other hand, Iraq, and the US and UK’s involvement there, is also part of the problem, so withdrawal could eventually reduce the anger felt by many within the Muslim population. Which has the most impact will be determined by the nature of the withdrawal and the ability of the US and UK’s to counter the al-Qaeda propaganda effectively (and neither have managed to do this well so far).
The recent attempted terrorist attacks in the UK have highlighted once again the threat of jihadi extremism. The main suspects in the failed attacks in Glasgow and London appear not to be British-born as in the July 7 bombings two years ago. Their tactics too are different, and this time are similar to those used by al-Qaeda militants in Iraq.
How has the nature of the terrorist threat changed in recent years? What role is al-Qaeda playing and to what extent has it been able to survive, and expand? What are the potential links between the core of the network and the apparent franchises that have emerged?