Thursday, February 28, 2008
The Harry Tapes
The stacks of tapes arrived on my desk with a thud.
That was way back in December when the British Ministry of Defence requested that we agree to an embargo. We, along with other broadcasters and newspapers, were asked not to report that Prince Harry was in Afghanistan until he came home in April. Television cameras were given unprecedented access to the prince fighting a war on the battlefield which we could run when the embargo was lifted.
The tapes came in and I reviewed them, hour after hour of Prince Harry in Taliban territory. I was absolutely glued to the pictures of Prince Harry taking on the Taliban, on patrol in Afghan villages, and calling in air strikes when he needed to. Prince Harry was honest to a fault during his interviews saying he didn’t miss booze, he laughed when his fellow soldiers called him the ‘bullet magnet’ (but not too hard) and he was basking in the anonymity that perhaps only a place like Afghanistan can afford him.
I was the first to tell my managers this would never work; surely someone would break the news blackout within days. I was dead wrong.
After watching hours of footage of Prince Harry, what impressed me most was the risk ‘Queen and country’ were willing to take with an heir. There is no question the royal family and the British government knew this would be an unprecedented piece of good PR if they could pull it off. And yet, call me naïve; I still refuse to believe a grandmother would send her grandson to war for the sake of a few good headlines.
No matter what you think of the British royal family or the war in Afghanistan it is hard to argue this was a shrewd, gutsy move. And every frame of video told me this was history in the making.
By CNN's International Security Correspondent Paula Newton
Farewell to Britain's Top Terror Cop
Peter Clarke (left) has been the face of British counterterrorism for almost six years. After his boss, Met Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, he's probably the best known copper in Britain. No surprise really, since his period running the Anti-Terrorist Branch (which became Counter Terrorism Command in 2006) coincided with the arrival in Britain of Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism.
The Met increasingly came to realise that Clarke was their number one media asset and increasingly lent on him to be the public face of their investigations. He cut a highly reassuring figure, even in the teeth of an operation just hours old. His style has a polished, lack-of-polish about it; basic tenets of detective work - "we'll go where the evidence takes us" - are delivered with unaffected, no-nonsense aplomb. There are also stock answers delivered with the straightest of bats. Ask Peter Clarke whether he's happy with the relationship with authorities in Pakistan and you'll get the following reply: "We work closely with our counterparts in Pakistan and we'll continue to work closely with our counterparts in Pakistan." Delivered deadpan, with what Paddington Bear used to call the "hard stare."
Speaking to reporters on his final day at New Scotland Yard, Clarke reflected on his six years in the job. A key turning point, he said, was the raid on the Finsbury Park Mosque, in early 2003. That operation, he said, showed the coterie around Abu Hamza, who ran the mosque, as well as their fellow-travellers in Britain and abroad, for the first time, that the UK was not a safe haven to raise funds, to recruit and to plot.
He also spoke about public scepticism towards counterterrorism. It's clear he believes that the intelligence failures in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and the corresponding collapse in trust in Government utterances on foreign policy, bled over into public attitudes towards what the police were saying about the terrorist threat. Put crudely, there was a significant body of people who thought the whole terror thing was concocted to boost support for the Iraq war, or, worse, as a deliberate attempt to discredit Muslims. Things were so bad by Spring 2004, Clarke suggested, that had Operation Crevice (the fertiliser plot) ended in failure - if the plotters had been released due to lack of evidence - it could have compromised his unit's ability to operate successfully in the future. Its legitimacy, among key sectors of the community, could have been seriously eroded.
The intervening period, of course, has witnessed three plots get through; only one of them, fortunately, resulting in loss of life. But on top of those attacks, Clarke cites something else as having helped turn public opinion around, especially in the Muslim communities. And that's the huge upswing in the numbers pleading guilty to terrorism offences. Rewind just a couple of years ago and almost all those facing terror charges would choose to go to trial; now, over half the number of successful prosecutions end with the defendants 'fessing up. That, Clarke reckons, is having a major impact on those who were previously denying the terror threat really existed.
Two men will effectively follow Peter Clarke at the head of British counterterrorism policing. One is Deputy Assistant Commissioner John McDowall, (above left), the new head of CTC; the other is Bob Quick (above right) who is the incoming Assistant Commissioner, Specialist Operations, and McDowall's immediate superior. Even together, they have a tough act to follow.
By Andrew Carey
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Words That Can Kill
Abu Abdullah (left) didn’t hesitate for a minute when I asked him what he thought of the Madrid bombings in 2004 that killed hundreds and wounded thousands.
“Well, they worked, didn’t they?” he shot back. Through two extensive interviews with Abdullah, known also as Atilla Ahmet, it was clear it wasn’t enough for this man to think and feel these controversial thoughts, he wanted to be known for them.
He now has his wish. Abdullah, his close associate Mohammed Hamid (left) and five of their acquaintances have either pled guilty or been found guilty of terrorism related offences.
There were striking pieces of evidence throughout the trial, including scenes, filmed on a mobile phone, of Al-Qaeda style training conducted not in Iraq or Afghanistan but in the English countryside
This is an important case for British authorities and the head of Britain’s Counter Terrorism Command, Peter Clarke, says it should serve as a warning to those who wish to recruit and groom extremists,
“The message is that even if you are not at the point of mounting an attack as a terrorist; if you are recruiting, radicalising, and looking to encourage other people to commit murder in pursuit of your cause we will investigate, we will use the law and we will put you before a court because we have seen what happens when these plots bear fruition. We have seen mass murder here in the United Kingdom," he said.
He says he hopes this case will serve notice to those who believe they are ‘underground’ and beyond prosecution. Much of the evidence gathered in this trial was collected by an undercover police officer who infiltrated this terrorist cell.
Among the audio recordings played to the jury was one that that glorified the July 7th terror attacks in London that killed 52 people.
Police hope this case will provide a potent preventative reminder to those who believe they can promote terror at will. The message from British authorities: free speech does not mean free reign to glorify and inspire terror. British courts have now given that assertion some muscle with these convictions and guilty pleas.
While this may prove a landmark case for reigning in the abuse of free speech, it raises a troubling question about whether those abuses have now simply moved to ‘secret’, underground places, where they cannot be debated, scrutinized or prosecuted.
Still, police would call this getting ‘upstream’, mitigating what they believe are the causes of extremism and those who hope to nurture it.
Click here to see my report
Posted by Paula Newton, CNN’s International Security Correspondent
Monday, February 25, 2008
Invasion of the 'Data-Snatchers'
Got your attention, didn’t I? It seems that’s what many newspapers are counting on these days as they plaster their pages with more stories about government ‘data-collection’. Here’s a selection: ‘Big Brother to Watch Air Passengers’, ‘Government Wants Personal Data of Every Traveller’, ‘Europe to Fingerprint All Foreign Travellers’, ’EU slams US on Passenger Data’.
All of this refers to the different and at times overlapping proposals flying between continents designed to document the who, what, where, when and why of the travelling public. All of it is in the name of security but suspicion rules the day. At issue: Exactly what kind of information do governments really need before you board an airplane? European officials are now considering controversial anti-terror measures that would collect up to 19 pieces of information on every air passenger entering or leaving the EU. But under an agreement reached last summer with the US Department of Homeland Security, the EU already supplies the same 19 pieces of information to the US for all passengers flying between Europe and the US.
I’ve been tracking these stories since last summer and if we restrict our conversation to ‘visa-free’ travel, very little has changed. You should expect to hand over your date of birth, reason for travel, the place where you’re staying, length of your stay, and on it goes.
But in the last few months several articles have been misleading, suggesting data as sensitive as sexual preference, health condition and credit card details would be required. So far, that’s just not the case even though I know it makes for a good headline.
Privacy advocates have made some very compelling arguments about governments mining personal data and why they shouldn’t be trusted with too much of it. Does this kind of profiling even make us any safer?
I only wish to point out that when it comes to ‘visa-free’ travel, the bread and butter details of getting away for a quick holiday or business trip, fess up or stay home. This is not an opinion, but a fact. International travel by most countries’ standards is still a privilege to be granted, not a right to be challenged. For now, the fact remains, many people voluntarily give up far more personal information on social-networking sites than they will ever be asked to surrender when they board their next flight.
From CNN's Paula Newton.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Israeli Nukes - The Great Unmentionable
The story of how Britain went to war in Iraq remains the biggest political controversy of the Blair/Brown era. New pieces of the puzzle continue to come to light, causing fresh, if diminishing, embarrassment to those involved, as well as revealing hidden little 'extras' along the way. The Security Files is a bit late pushing this one out but if you're not familiar with it, it's worth a quick read.
One of the British Government's key pieces of evidence against Saddam Hussein was a weapons dossier presented in September 2002. It contained the now infamous claim that the Iraqi leader needed just 45 minutes to launch an attack using weapons of mass destruction. The Government said the dossier was based on the collective assessment of the intelligence agencies.
This week saw the publication of the first draft of that dossier. Though it did not contain the 45-minute claim, it does bear a close resemblance to the final version. It was written by the then chief information officer at the Foreign Office, John Williams, leading to renewed claims that the case for war was based more on the work of spin doctors than of spooks.
The first draft was released complete with hand-written comments in the margin. These were made by an unnamed FCO official. The Guardian newspaper on Thursday reported that one of those comments, a one-word comment in fact, had been removed from the published draft. That word was "Israel" and it was a query to the assertion that "no other country [apart from Iraq] has flouted the United Nations' authority so brazenly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction."
Upsetting Israel by mentioning its nuclear weapons programme, or (implicitly) comparing it, on a single issue, to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, clearly remains a taboo subject for the Foreign Office. No matter that it's twenty years since the Sunday Times first published its scoop on Israeli nukes, or even that it's over a year since Ehud Olmert's Freudian slip on German TV, when he appeared to admit Israel's nuclear capability, the relationship is just too sensitive to withstand comment by flippant Brit officials.
Fortunately, the UK either cares less about, or is perhaps more confident in, its relationship with two other of its allies. Against the claim that "no other country [apart from Iraq] has twice launched wars of aggression against neighbours" is written "Germany?" and "US: Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico." These comments were not withheld from publication.
Monday, February 18, 2008
"How Do You Cut Them With a Knife? Show Me."
It’s been months since I first heard those chilling words uttered in court. It was pre-trial evidence presented against Parviz Khan and we were forbidden from reporting it. And then this afternoon, there it was again, that horrifying conversation that actually took place between a father and son.
Police say Parviz Khan, a British born father of three, was a committed and violent fanatic, the kind of extremist who even groomed his own children for terror. After bugging his home in Birmingham, England for months, police got a guilty plea out of Khan and he has now been sentenced to life for masterminding a plot to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier.
But it's the details of his conversations with his children that astound me:
Khan: “How do you cut them with a knife? Show me.” “Like this, Good.”
Prosecutors say Khan was coaching his child on how to behead 'traitors'. In another exchange with his five year old son he taunts:
Khan: “Who do you love?”
Child: “I love Sheikh Osama Bin Laden”
Khan: “Who do you kill?”
Child: “American Kill”
Khan: “Who else?”
Child: “Bush I kill” “Blair Kill”
Khan was born and raised in Britain but police say he adopted his extreme views on visits to Pakistan. In any context, it is difficult to comprehend how a person could dedicate his life to such violence. But over and over, those in the Muslim community tell us we must try to understand the anger of a terrorist, and where and how it is nurtured. Without that insight, they tell us, government, police and community leaders will be unable to stop criminals like Khan from poisoning the families to which they belong, the neighbourhoods in which they live and the mosques in which they pray.
Click here to watch my report
From CNN’s International Security Correspondent, Paula Newton
Friday, February 15, 2008
Values and War - A New Paper Pulls No Punches
Multiculturalism in Britain takes a fresh beating today with the publication of a paper titled "Risk, Threat and Security: The Case of the United Kingdom." It's published by the security think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute, and you can read it here.
The paper contends that Britain suffers from a confused sense of its own identity, and says this lack of confidence means it presents itself as a target for what the authors call Britain's "Islamist terrorist enemy." Though the piece makes no mention of it, the recent suggestions by the Archbishop of Canterbury, that the adoption in Britain of some aspects of sharia law "seem inevitable," would presumably be seen as further evidence of this confusion.
The paper goes on to suggest that the current era - characterised, it says, by social fragmentation, a shared sense that another (bigger) 9/11 is inevitable, and confusion over how to face this threat - resembles the years leading up to the First World War. This is an unambiguous analogy and one intended to provoke a response from Government that it supports the same idea of uncontested British values.
Let us know what you think.
Friday, February 8, 2008
THIRD EYE: British 'regret' after airport arrests
The informant who appears to have helped police bust a plot targeting the public transportation network in Barcelona is also reported to have told investigators that the alleged cell planned other attacks elsewhere in Europe. Among the countries reportedly named was Britain. That piece of information appears to have led to an incident at London’s Gatwick airport on the evening of January 22. Four days after the original swoop in Spain, and following a tip-off from Spanish authorities, a group of six Pakistani men were detained after arriving on a flight from Barcelona.
The men were met at the airport by officers from the Met’s Counterterrorism Command, who took them to Paddington Green police station in central London where they were formally arrested and questioned. A source told Third Eye the men were unable to persuade police they had a legitimate reason for visiting Britain; police were also apparently uneasy about the fact the men were planning to stay only one day in Britain and did not appear to have any accommodation booked. Even so, at just after half past four the following afternoon all six were “de-arrested” and put on a plane to Pakistan.
Fast forward five days to a meeting at 10 Downing Street between Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf. Occupying an unscheduled place on the agenda was how the brother and the son of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, along with four of their friends, came to be arrested under Britain’s anti-terror laws. The Web site of the British High Commission in Islamabad makes no attempt to hide the FCO's embarrassment. The British Government “deeply regrets the incident,” it says, adding that the men are free to return to the UK “at any time.”
According to Pakistani news reports, the former premier’s brother, Wajahat Hussain, had travelled to Europe as part of President Musharraf’s entourage. His role, according to reports, was to arrange receptions in Musharraf’s honour in the cities the President was visiting. While Barcelona was not a stop on the Musharraf tour it was selected, apparently, by Wajahat Hussain and his colleagues as a good place for a spot of shopping.
Amid accusations in Pakistan of British “Islamophobia” and suggestions of possible legal action, the obvious question, of course, is how did this whole incident come to pass? A senior British official quoted on the High Commission Web site says simply that police “acted on the basis of information that proved subsequently to be inaccurate.” There are, no doubt, theories around that offer more detail. But it seems safe at least to offer one thought: the incident hasn't exactly helped the relationship between Britain and one of its most important counterterrorism partners, Pakistan.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
U.S. Annual Threat Assessment or 'Groundhog Day'
Let me outline some relevant quotes from the CIA's Annual Threat Assessment, always a February ritual on Capitol Hill:
"Osama bin Laden and his global network of lieutenants and associates remain the most immediate and serious threat."
Iran has shown a "willingness to use terrorism to pursue strategic foreign policy agendas…"
In Afghanistan, the "chaos here is providing an incubator for narcotics traffickers and militant Islamic groups."
In Pakistan, "Musharraf's domestic popularity has been threatened by a series of unpopular policies that he promulgated last year. At the same time, he is being forced to contend with increasingly active Islamist extremists."
The Internet enables "terrorists to raise money, spread their dogma, find recruits and plan operations far afield," and "acquire information and capabilities for chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear attacks."
Does any of this sound familiar? It should, they are direct quotes taken from the threat assessment as released on February 7th, 2001, a full 7 months before the U.S. 'homeland' was attacked. All of it was practically rewritten for the 2008 U.S. Threat Assessment.
The highlights of the 2008 Threat Assessment, as delivered before a U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday, are depressingly void of detail or anything that approaches real insight into the virulent threat now faced by the U.S. and its Western allies.
Skepticism is a good thing, cynicism is not. Unfortunately I confess to feeling much of both as I listened to what the best minds in the U.S. intelligence community had to offer on the state of the threat.
They seem unwilling to share any of their material "intelligence," the kind that would have potentially tipped off a few suspecting citizens as mass terror plots have unfolded around the world in the last decade. The intelligence community would doubtless argue that to do so would compromise operations and compromise important individuals. I would argue that without real and specific information to enhance their threat assessment, the entire exercise is essentially meaningless, as the 2001 assessment so tragically proved.
From CNN's Paula Newton
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