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interview: david veness

Somebody's described it to me that Al Qaeda have gone global. The question to all of us: Have we?Give us an assessment of the jihad threat here in the United Kingdom and specifically in Europe since 9/11.

Yes. It's important to note that this was not novel at the time of 9/11. The dimension of international terrorism has been present, notably in France in the attacks of '95 and '96, and we were engaged in many common operations, for example with French colleagues, at that stage.

There is absolutely no doubt that the key change since 9/11 has been the new threshold of threat. One can describe this in a great many ways, and there are arguments to and fro in respect of to what extent this is a new terrorism.

From the point of view of a counterterrorist operator, it's absolutely clear, because our judgment is based upon the impact upon the public. And this new dimension of terrorism, this new threshold, is clearly based upon an agenda of mass murder. That, in our view, is the single most significant factor of the change of the threat of international terrorism since 9/11.

Creating chaos.

Absolutely. Mass murder as the unequivocal intention, based upon mass casualties and with the inevitable consequences of enormous disruption to any civilized, democratic society.

Is that what was in the works when it was reported that you stopped at least five incidents in the United Kingdom and maybe more since then?

Clearly I can't comment on cases that may come before the courts. What is absolutely clear is that not only the endeavors within the United Kingdom, those with European partners, but those internationally have prevented attacks that otherwise would have occurred, and I'm certain that includes the United Kingdom.

But why is it that we hear all over Europe, from Muslim families, for instance, whose brothers have gotten involved or children have gotten involved in the jihad, that they got involved after they came to London; that London is where they were recruited; that London is where, if you will, the communications and recruitment operations are centered?

London is not unique. Many major Western European cities and cities indeed elsewhere in the world are crossroads because of their history, their populations, their traditional trading and communications links.

photo of veness

Sir David Veness heads Scotland Yard's Specialist Operations department, where he is in charge of intelligence, counterterrorism and security. He says that the Sept. 11 attacks demonstrated the key difference in today's international terrorist threat, what he describes as "an agenda of mass murder." Veness objects to the characterization of London as a communications and logistic hub for jihadists in Europe. "I recognize entirely that there are particular factors in relation to London as an international center," he says. "But not for one moment have we been or are we complacent around that issue." This interview was conducted on Oct. 14, 2004.

London is exceptional in that regard for a whole variety of political, economic, indeed media reasons, in being a global crossroads of activity between effectively the Third World, Western Europe and indeed the New World and elsewhere. And you then need to factor in our traditional links through commonwealth associations across a broader span of the world. So the particular challenge of London is one that we keenly recognize.

Is it a particular challenge or a peculiar tolerance of the British? For instance, bin Laden's spokesmen were here after 9/11; the Saudi opposition people are here. The Finsbury [Park] Mosque is here as a recruitment center. All of these things are going on here.

Those factors are not unique to London. That degree of diversity and complexity -- as I describe it, an international crossroads -- can be found elsewhere within European and other cities. I recognize entirely that there are particular factors in relation to London as an international center. But not for one moment have we been or are we complacent around that issue.

The linkages that I've touched on, that existed between ourselves and the French authorities in combating international terrorism through the 1990s, particularly when bombings were affecting markets and metros, places of mass gathering in Paris in '95 and '96 -- and we have manifestations of that activity in terms of logistics and support, activities in relation to the Far and Middle East, where we know there have been linkages to London, where it's absolutely critical that there is vigorous and robust enforcement here. ...

I wonder if you could give us a profile of a young recruit who comes to an Islamic militant group in Britain today and gets involved.

If I gave you a profile of a contemporary international terrorist, I would not have been involved in terrorist investigations for some period of time, because the harsh reality of the knowledge of international terrorism is the complexity and the unpredictability.

And indeed, if you look at the range of groupings that are now sparked around the world on a span that would take you across North Africa, through the Middle East, the Far East and into Southeast Asia, one sees a broad range almost of secondary activity -- affiliated, linked groups -- that produces a complexity which makes profiling challenging. And then even if you look at the particular groupings, this is no longer merely the disadvantaged young man who might fit a particular preconception. This is a range of disciplines and skills.

I think in many ways, we'll reflect on this era of development of international terrorism, and maybe view Al Qaeda as being the perverted banner, the group that brought this about in terms of moving to this threshold of terrorism, but that the second tier of affiliated, linked groupings across a much broader span of global activity might be -- certainly is currently within Western Europe -- the most likely source of the attack.

So when you hear descriptions, let's say, coming from the United States of "We have taken out three-fourths of Al Qaeda," it's not that simple.

No. Al Qaeda is no longer the problem. Al Qaeda is of course a grouping and a series of linked groups that are still unequivocally intent on delivering the mass-casualty, long-prepared, long-reach, utterly reprehensible form of attack, as evidenced by 9/11.

I'm not suggesting for one moment that that has gone away. In fact, it may be more sinister in relation to the add-on dimensions. But if we look at this problem as I believe we must, in a truly global sense, I think we need to be paying cognizance to the groupings that are being spurred, inspired in a perverted sense, by the agenda defined by Al Qaeda at this tier and look at their development around the world.

So this is more than just a police problem. This is, in many ways, a political problem.

If we define it as a police, law enforcement or a spies problem, we have completely and utterly missed the point. What is absolutely essential [is] that this tier of terrorism, which, as I refer, has an agenda of mass murder, we must approach this on a grand alliance concept. That means politics; it means diplomacy; it means military action. It means a degree of engagement, international law enforcement, international security, intelligence agencies, financial attack, attacking root problems -- all of those, as indeed there is good grounds for the progress that has been made. Clearly [there is] more to be done.

But unless we have that grand coalition concept, then we do not understand the problem. Somebody's described it to me that Al Qaeda have gone global. The question to all of us: Have we?

Last August, for instance, the United States went to an extremely high level of threat, but the same threat level wasn't reflected here, publicly.

Well, the level of high concern in relation to international terrorism had accelerated here at an earlier stage. Although the threat is global, inevitably there are going to be shadings within particular areas of the world. We're all going to operate at a level which is a significant degree of concern.

But I think it is the task of law enforcement and the security agencies to try and provide some shading to that which assists the public to try and achieve some balance in their lives. Clearly we want to achieve normality.

So we shouldn't be surprised by the fact that, as in the example you take, the European dimension, particularly the United Kingdom dimension, had moved to a higher level at an earlier stage, because we had particular concerns that affected ourselves. Clearly the issues that were highlighted within the United States in August were also of concern for us here. ...

How has Iraq affected the level of threat here in the United Kingdom?

I think any location in which circumstances prevail in which people from outside the borders of the country may be drawn and may gain experience, which are either in country or subsequently could be a danger in the sense of terrorist knowledge, clearly is an issue of keen concern to counterterrorists globally. It is readily apparent, and nobody would have wished these circumstances that [are] a fact within parts of Iraq at the moment.

Is there recruitment going on in the Muslim communities here in the United Kingdom for jihad warriors in Iraq?

I think any Western European country, including the United Kingdom, would be complacent in the extreme if it did not recognize the very reality of people moving -- let's look at the historical precedent. Let's look at what happened throughout the late 1990s, up to October of 2001, with the movement into the Pakistani border areas and across into the camps in Afghanistan, and the subsequent diaspora of those people back into other locations, the Afghan alumni. We would be foolish in the extreme if we did not recognize that that lesson of history could not be repeated.

You think it's going on now.

I think we must assume that to be the case. ...

What has been the effect of the bombings in Madrid and in Istanbul?

Those are very important events. I do not think there had been the understanding in the period, now three years or so, since 9/11 within a European context of what the impact of this level of international terrorism would mean.

The events which occurred in Istanbul on the 15th and then the 20th of November [2003] are very important, because this represented European context, people drawn into a European arena, who were attacking synagogues and then transparently European targets -- in fact, British targets on the 20th of November. So Istanbul, in my view, was a very clear wakeup call in relation to this dimension of terrorism in reality --

It was an attack on England.

It was, certainly to an extent. I need to remind you and others that the vast majority of people who died in those attacks were, of course, Turkish citizens. Regretfully, also British lives were lost.

Let's bring that forward to March of this year from November last and look at Madrid, because here was the wakeup call echoed. And again, a graphic depiction which everybody could recognize, those scenes of carnage at railway stations with suburban commuter trains is something that we could all identify with in any Western city.

It's particularly evocative within the Western European dimension. Here again, one sees people based in Europe for some time who had engaged in these forms of activities. So I think the twin lessons of Istanbul and Madrid are enormously important in the understanding of the reality of this threat within a European context. ...

The surprise that there would be this number of people who pass through Britain, who have come here for training or ideological transfer, how does that happen in this country where you are so focused and have so much experience with terrorism?

I would regard that depiction as inaccurate and, in any event, out of date. I would point to the fact that this country has been vigorously engaged in combating international terrorism back to the end of the 1960s and the early part of the 1970s. The first attacks of international terrorism that caused deaths in London date back to that era. We had incidents involving the Iranian Embassy in 1980, the Libyan People's Bureau in 1988, a rash of activities. Regretfully, international terrorism is not a stranger to London or the United Kingdom.

It became particularly acute when those attacks began to be truly murderous without warning, bombs in Paris in '95 and '96, and we were vigorously engaged with our French colleagues at that stage. No doubt they would wish us to have been even more vigorous.

So the knowledge of the nature of the threat is well understood here. London is a complex city. It is an international crossroads. It is one of the world's international stages for a whole variety of reasons. We have to police and achieve effective security within that context.

But everybody is committed here that nothing that may be planned or supported, that produces death elsewhere in the world, is going to achieve any degree of complacency from British law enforcement. ...

All of your colleagues that we've talked to in various countries have said, "Iraq has simply made our job more difficult."

Iraq is a dimension of the global threat of international terrorism; [that's] quite clear for the reasons that I've described.

But has it increased the threat?

Clearly it is an aspect of the threat of global terrorism. I think it would be simplistic to focus in relation to one country alone clearly where there is an enormous, regrettable degree in parts of activity occurring. I would point you to a broader lens. Let us look at what is occurring across the span of North Africa, elsewhere in the Middle East, through Southeast Asia, through the Far East. All of these are relevant to the impact on Western cities.

What distinguishes this new jihadist movement from other forms of terrorism?

In terms of impact, unequivocally the degree of public harm that not only has occurred but could occur from this level of terrorism. That is why I think it's appropriately described as a new threshold of terrorism. Regrettably, in the post-Second World War era, we've seen a series of manifestations of terrorism.

This country has seen terrorism since the end of the 1960s, both domestic extremism and international terrorism here on the streets of London. What we've not seen, what is different about this form of terrorism, is the unequivocal intention to cause mass murder by means of terrorism that are delivered without warning in any form to the public.

But it seems like it's not organized like the terrorist organizations we had come to know.

It's more diffuse. The terrorist organizations of yore represented either insurgency movements, parts of countries that wished to be apart from others; [or] they represented clear, political, left-wing/right-wing agendas. These were rather more understandable in political science terms.

This is more diffuse and more complicated. It claims an association with one of the world's great religions. In our view, that is a perverted claim because it is abusing, clearly, that linkage. It is claiming to act in relation to a complex political agenda that appears to be, in any rational sense, unachievable. I mean, these are different dimensions than the understanding of terrorism as you've described. ...

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posted jan. 25, 2005

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