The leadership of al-Qaeda is still planning operations in Britain as it radicalises and recruits cells for operations overseas, the Home Secretary has warned.
By Duncan Gardham, Security Correspondent, in Washington
11:32PM BST 19 Sep 2011
The terrorist group is getting more “agile” and there is now a “new landscape of terrorism,” Theresa May told an audience in Washington, as she warned that the progress made since 9/11 could be wiped out.
She said the terrorist threat had changed significantly over the past ten years as al-Qaeda lost people, facilities, and freedom of action, along with much of its support,
But the Home Secretary warned of the need to be “realistic” about the threats that remain, adding that the leadership of al-Qaeda continues to “plan operations in the UK.”
“They attract people for training, they have sections dedicated to overseas operations, they radicalise and recruit,” she said during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“And even as the capability of the al-Qaeda leadership has reduced, other threats have emerged which, in the UK, affect us directly.”
There is now a wider range of terrorist groups active in Pakistan, some new, others well-established, the Home Secretary warned.
“The new terrorist threats are no less complex and difficult than the old. In some ways they are harder to deal with. They challenge our systems and structures,” she said.
“The new landscape of terrorism is more diverse, decentralised and perhaps also more agile than the landscape of 09/11.”
Mrs May, who is on a trip to meet US leaders to discuss security, warned of the easy availability of sophisticated off-the-shelf communications devices for terrorists.
“The pace and availability of technology has the potential to more than compensate for the progress we have made since 9/11,” she added. “It can make the ideological struggle look irrelevant – technology can give much more lethal power to many fewer people.”
She called for a “new and rather different relationships with our private sectors, who of course own much of this technology and who – for our wider benefit – will develop it as fast and as aggressively as they can.”
The Home Secretary also told her US audience of her determination that the internet “must not be a no-go area for government, where terrorists and extremists can proceed unhindered.”
Britain has faced difficulties persuading the US authorities to shut down extremist websites because of their First Amendment right to free speech but Mrs May said she “commended” the British model of combining law enforcement with voluntary reporting to internet companies of extremist activity.
“The internet facilitates not only terrorist attack planning and recruitment, but also radicalisation and the circulation of extremist ideologies.
“We know that terrorist and extremist use of the internet is becoming more sophisticated and we know that much of the extremist material that concerns us is hosted overseas, including here,” she said.
Britain and the US use comparable language to describe the threats but have taken very different approaches to it, she said.
“From very soon after 9/11 – and certainly by 2005 – we in the UK realised that terrorist groups had become embedded into the fabric of our society and in particular our cities,” she said.
“In America, for many years you saw the terrorist threat as something external, practised by people ‘over there’ who wanted to strike at American citizens ‘over here’.
“Our different sense of threat led us to respond in different ways. Your response has often been framed by military action overseas. Ours has been grounded in policing and law enforcement in our own country. Neither approach was wrong. ”
But America has increasingly seen home-grown terrorism and Britain has increased its efforts to catch terrorists overseas.
However, the Home Secretary warned that in countries where terrorists are most active, they are often least likely to be prosecuted.
“In these countries, agencies may not have the skills to investigate terrorist cases, the judicial system may be weak or corrupt, or both, and there may be an absence of political will.
“The consequences are far reaching. When we identify terrorist threats we cannot always resolve them. The absence of a functioning judiciary may lead to the violation of human rights.
“It may then be impossible to co-operate with states in the way that we would wish. And we cannot then deport to these countries foreign nationals engaged in terrorist activity on our own soil.”
Mrs May said it was hard to see how to deal with terrorism in the long term without better promoting the rule of law overseas.
“Promoting the rule of law must be a hallmark of our global counter-terrorism work in the years to come,” she added.
The Home Secretary warned that the period ahead was likely to be unstable and added: “We will have to use our imaginations to anticipate future trends. Terrorism in 2015 is likely to be very different from terrorism today.”