These are busy and difficult times at New Scotland Yard, Thames House, Vauxhall Cross and “the doughnut.” Over the last few days, British Police have separately arrested two men and one woman at London’s Heathrow Airport, another man at London’s Stansted Airport and a further woman in North London. The common theme? The suspects travel/intended travel either to or from Istanbul. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on here. Turkey is Europe’s launching pad for the Syrian civil war. Jihadist threats from Syria are now actively threatening to spill across British borders.
Placed alongside recent MI6 meetings with the Assad regime, this rapid succession of arrests tells us something — the UK security establishment is greatly concerned. Very public counter-terrorism operations such as these aren’t the favored British way.
Like the U.S., the UK applies a blend of persuasion and pressure to recruit its sources. However, where U.S. domestic counter-terrorism strategy predicates early interdiction of terrorist suspects as its key priority, the British approach is rooted in a different formula. For the UK, it’s about identifying the individual terrorist, finding the cell, developing the network picture and then constricting the larger group’s operational flexibility. Put more simply, where the U.S. likes to take people off the streets quickly, the UK prefers to keep people “in play” until the last possible moment. While each approach has merits and risks, facing al Qaeda’s 2006 Transatlantic Plot, the diverging UK/U.S. philosophies caused a major row.
So why is the situation in Syria forcing the UK to buck its counter-terrorism tradition?
For three reasons.
First, British citizens/nationals are actively fighting alongside supranational Salafi terrorist groups inside Syria. While some Britons in Syria assert that their enemy is Assad’s regime and not the UK, others are proud to broadcast their hatred for British society. Regarding the latter individuals, the security challenge is clear. When these men and women return home from Syria, they’ll no longer just be disaffected rejectionists. Instead, they’ll be lawful British residents with the military knowledge, combat experience, and ideological desire to cause havoc on UK streets. This threat is made especially profound by the fact that some British citizens have joined ISIS (the jihadist group responsible for unrestrained carnage in Iraq and Syria). As Jessica Lewis notes, ISIS has a reconstituted cadre of highly capable and strategically minded explosives experts. Some of these killers are almost certainly now training British and other European citizens.
Second, Western intelligence services lack effective penetration of terrorist groups operating inside Syria. That’s a major problem. Without physical access to a particular locale, it’s extraordinarily difficult to develop human sources. In Syria, the constantly shifting battlefield makes force protection concerns a major issue — SIS can’t simply throw teams of case officers or agents into the meat grinder of war and hope for the best. Again, the outreach by UK Intelligence to Assad further proves their concern.
Still, there’s another collection-related difficulty for the UK — the Syria related terrorist threat is not the same as that of Pakistan. It’s well known that the greatest terrorist menace to the UK is posed by marginal but embedded elements of the British-Pakistani community. What’s less well known, however, is that the presence of such a large Pakistani community is also instrumental to the success of the British security services. After all, a good number of citizens from this community actively support British counter-terrorism efforts. With their cultural awareness and Pakistani roots, these individuals afford a unique “access” capability to the British state. Conversely, the British-Syrian community is far smaller and far more disconnected from foreign jihadists in Syria.
Third, the UK Intelligence Community is severely strained by its present operational taskings. While their budgets were recently increased, British Intelligence agencies are grappling with a vast array of adversaries. Alongside their state to state intelligence and counter-intelligence responsibilities, MI5, SIS, and GCHQ face Northern Ireland linked splinter groups, new crops of “homegrown” terrorists and of course, a multitude of homegrown-foreign fusion cells. The attacks in Nairobi and Mumbai have provided another component to the threat.
So does Edward Snowden. These days, facing new media interest and a growing public skepticism, British Intelligence officers are finding it much harder to stay in the shadows. Indeed, in a signal of their grudging acceptance of this changed reality, “C” and co. are adapting. In an unprecedented display, the UK Intelligence Chiefs recently gave open testimony to Parliament. It’s in this sense that Syria originating threats come at a most difficult time. In the context of limited resources and difficult organizational changes, Syria is forcing British intelligence to make precarious choices about where to allocate its capabilities.
From overflowing refugee camps to incinerated playgrounds, Syria’s tragedy is obvious for all to see. Yet, just as the wanton destruction moves most of us to anger and sadness, others see pernicious opportunity in the violence. For all the cosmopolitan virtues of British society, not all its citizens are proud supporters of secular democracy. Correspondingly, the tremors of this brutal conflict are now reverberating across British borders in deeply troubling ways.