Tuesday, March 24, 2009

UK terror threat growing, govt says

"The threat of a serious terrorist attack on Britain has grown"

British Home Secretary has put forward plans to train workers in hotels, airports and supermarkets as part of its ongoing anti-terrorism strategy. During a debate in parliament on Wednesday, Jacqui Smith thanked the hard work already done by the security services in helping to keep Britain safe, “We’ve disrupted more than a dozen terrorist plots in the UK” Jacqui Smith, British Home Secretary, told MPs as she laid out plans to increase the annual anti-terrorism budget to more than £3.5 Billion by 2011. She said the key strategy in fighting terrorism was to Pursue, Prevent, Protect & Prepare. But she insisted that while the government was making every effort to thwart the terrorists, the UK government was “against torture and extra-ordinary rendition”.

Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, was supportive of the general effort to battle terrorism but was critical of the implementation of the government’s initiative. He said that anti-terror training of shopping centre staff as part of Project Argus amounted to a 3 hour seminar including a coffee break. The Conservative MP said that some stores he his office had contacted knew nothing about plan except for reports in papers [BBC].

Jacqui Smith was defensive of the project and insisted that 700 programs had been carried out and more than 30,000 individuals had been trained.

She also came under fire for failing to compensate those injured in terrorist attacks abroad. Ian McCartney, a Labour MP, talked of some 200 British citizens who had been killed abroad and more than 150 maimed. Asking why there was no specific compensation for such victims, Jacqui Smith said she understood his impassioned statement and added, “I will talk to colleagues about that”.

The risk from terrorism exists not only abroad, but much is exported back to Britain. Sky News today reported that some 20 extremists had returned to the UK after being trained in Pakistan. Sky said that many more radicalised individuals, possibly hundreds, could be following them. It has prompted US authorities to carry out surveillance on British Muslims living in the UK [Sky News].

The types of attacks that might be perpetrated was mainly focused on CBRNE, Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear & Explosive [BBC / Sky News / CNN]. But former Home Secretary David Blunkett raised the risk of a potential cyber-attack. He said that such attacks, seen recently in places like Estonia, could even threaten lives as well as the financial stability of Britain. Jacqui Smith said that the cyber-security was a concern and that there was “work going on in government”.

“We must ensure we are safe in the virtual world as we are in the real world” the Home Secretary added.

Some MPs were concerned as to how the terrorist initiatives were affecting the lives of ordinary people. While Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne applauded efforts to thwart terrorism, he asked why citizens were being continually intimidated by police for otherwise law-abiding activities.

Kerry McCarthy, Labour Bristol East, also criticised the arbitrary use of such powers. Smith insisted that “guidance was given to police”. But there is growing anger amongst some members of the public who are seeing their rights eroded. A trainspotter was recently banned from Macclesfield station in Cheshire after Virgin Trains deemed him a security risk [BBC]. Natioanl Express have also put plans in place to ban trainspotters from its East Coast line, again citing security concerns. One disgruntled man told a London paper, "Trainspotters may be seen as a bit odd but we are friends of the railways. We don't smash it up, steal cables or blow ourselves to bits - so why are they picking on us?" [This is London].

The irony is that many such individual may serve as the front line in surveillance. Trainspotters may well be able to give authorities first hand information of suspicious behaviour on the rail network.

The threat comes not only from Pakistan’s training camps but also from terrorist websites. Stewart Jackson, a Conservative MP, questioned the Home Secretary why not one terror website had been shut down despite pledges to do so. Powers outlined in the 2006 anti-terrorism act aimed to shut down such sites. However the Daily Telegraph revealed this week that the government had failed to make any headway in this effort. It remains to be seen what effects the news proposals announced by the government will have in pursuing and preventing those intent on perpetrating such acts.

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