On November 6, 2014, Nadir Ali Syed, a 23-year-old from Hounslow, appeared in Ealing Magistrate's court relating to a minor offense committed in September of that year. On his way home from the hearing, he stopped at a hardware store and bought a large knife and knife sharpener. That evening, detectives swooped on his home, arresting him for planning to carry out a terrorist attack.
What Syed didn't know was that for months a team from the Metropolitan Police's Counter Terrorism Command had been following his communications on social media. The previous January, Syed and another man had tried to board a flight to Istanbul. Syed had been blocked from traveling—his companion ended up in Syria fighting for Daesh, or the so-called Islamic State. Since then, police had followed Syed's activity across instant messaging, encrypted cloud-based apps, social media networks, and "secret chat rooms" as he shared footage of beheadings and urged others to commit terrorist attacks around the world.
The police watched and waited as his plans came together. He had decided on an attack on Remembrance Sunday, a few days later, mirroring the murder of Lee Rigby by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in 2013. Buying the knife was the final trigger for the police to make their move. In June of this year, Syed was jailed for life, with 15 years before he is eligible for parole.
The case generated a few headlines, but chances are you never really heard about it. Most likely it just drifted into the general cultural background noise: attempted plot, extremism, radicalization, police surveillance—the buzzwords that have come to make up the vocabulary of the home front of the British war on terror.
Working in counter-terrorism must kind of suck, in the same way that working as an air-traffic controller must kind of suck. You can safely land 100 planes a day for years without anyone taking notice, but the one time you slip up—well… Still, according to Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, British authorities have prevented 12 terror attacks over the past three years.
The security services are understandably protective of those involved in fighting terrorism. When I was finally granted an interview, the officer I spoke to chose to only be identified as a "spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police with knowledge of this area."
The first issue that immediately jumps out when looking at recent failed terror plots is the role of social media. Terrorism, extremism, and radicalization have followed everything else that young people do in going online (and it is usually young people—and specifically young men). When I ask my police contact about rooms full of cops trawling through people's Facebook and Twitter feeds, she laughs.
"Well, we're always working on a shoestring, so maybe not rooms—but every investigation has a serious online data investigation element. Social media has changed everything. In the old days, pre-internet, it would have been much more about physically watching people and seeing who they are meeting. Now people don't even physically meet up. As an investigator, you still need the same legal authority, though. With phone calls, it's relatively easy to plot out that A talked to B—you know that conversation has taken place, even if you don't know exactly what was said. But online there are whole encrypted areas we can't even look at. I know a lot of people are worried about the new Investigatory Powers Bill going through Parliament, and I understand that—but from our point of view, we're just trying to keep up with technology."
This type of data-based evidence was certainly key in the case of Shazib and Junead Khan, who in May of this year were jailed for 13 years and life, respectively. Officers from SO15, the Met's counter-terrorism unit, trawled through 66,000 texts, emails, and social media messages to put together the Khan's plot to stage a road accident near a US military base in order to lure soldiers out of a car, in order to then attack them with knives and a homemade bomb.
"Digital forensic analysts" tracked a conversation between Junead Khan and a Daesh contact in Syria who offered to help him locate American soldiers in the UK as targets. Khan described how he had previously missed an opportunity on his rounds as a delivery driver in Bedfordshire.
"When I saw these US soldiers on road, it just looked simple, but I had nothing on me or would've got into an accident with them and made them get out the car," he said.
His contact replied: "That's what the brother done with Lee Rigby."
The Lee Rigby murder seems to have become something of a touchstone for other would-be terrorists. My contact explains, "We're a lot busier than we used to be—a lot of that has to do with the growth of Daesh versus al Qaeda. There may not even be plots that are directly instructed by Daesh—but plots that are inspired by them. It all changed after the al Adnani fatwa. He has had a lot of influence on the cases that we've seen going before court. Internationally, there was a spike of activity after that speech."
What she is referring to is a speech on September 22, 2014 by the Daesh deputy leader, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, in which he first set out the principle that if devotees could not make it to Syria to fight for the caliphate, then they should try to kill unbelievers in their home countries. The fatwa is thought to have been a significant influence in recent terror attacks in France and Belgium, but also signified the beginning a broader shift in counterterrorism—from spectacular 7/7-style attacks that take massive coordination and months of planning, to more random, so-called lone wolf attacks: one or two guys rushing someone with a knife, or a crowd with a hijacked truck.
This shift has necessitated an expansion of the cooperation between the various branches of the security services that are involved in stopping terror plots before they happen.
"We work very closely with both MI5 and MI6," my contact explains. "MI5 do their own investigations, a lot of the big data analysis takes place there. They watch and collate information, but when there is evidence of criminal activity, the police take over and begin to gather evidence towards an arrest and prosecution. But if we get information from a member of the public ourselves, we would immediately target that individual. It is very targeted—we don't just hang around trawling the internet going, 'Oh, what shall we look at today?' We work on specific information."
This taps into another concern that my source feels is urgent to get across. That for all the noise about "big data," and the fights over how the security services harvest digital information, what the vast majority of counterterrorism operations are built on is the old-fashioned business of policing: officers on the street, in communication with people as they go about their lives.
"It's still about working with communities at grassroots level, and maintaining relationships," she says. "Working with the public is absolutely paramount, whether that's people talking on social media, or person-to-person. It's about maintaining the confidence of the public to report stuff to us wherever they've seen it. And we are lucky as, by and large, we do have excellent working relationships with the community."
In a way this claim surprises me. Having been involved in discussions about the balance between security and civil liberties in the war on terror for the last decade or so, and reading extensively about controversies surrounding the government's Prevent strategy, I am skeptical about how rosy the relationship between the security services and "the community" really is. But the officer I am speaking to is insistent.
"The Prevent Strategy is a Home Office program around extremism, which is hard to get absolutely right —but there's also a dangerous myth that Prevent is only to do with Muslim extremism. It includes all types of extremism, particularly on the far-right," she says. "But the wider picture is not just about Prevent—it's about community police officers talking to people every single day. And people do ring the anti-terrorism hotline with information; they do ring 101; they generally have the confidence to come forward."
And, in fairness, the evidence does somewhat bear these claims out. The anti-terrorism hotline averages about 30 calls a day, and one-in-five referrals under the Prevent Strategy have been for non-Islamic extremists.
Perhaps the most interesting thing for me about our conversation is the extent to which counterterrorism intersects with other branches of policing.
When Tarik Hassane and Suhaib Majeed went on trial for terrorism offenses last April, they were tried alongside two other men, Nyall Hamlett and Nathan Cuffy. Hassane was a medical student who had studied in Sudan and operated online under the codename the "Surgeon." On his return to the UK, he and Majeed began planning an attack on Shepherd's Bush Police Station and the Territorial Army Centre in White City. But part of what alerted the police—along with the usual mountains of texts and emails, etc.—was that they bought the gun for the attack from local petty criminals, Hamlett and Cuffy.
Hamlett and Cuffy both pleaded guilty to the firearms offenses, but managed to get off on terrorism charges by claiming they didn't know what the pistol, silencer, and ammunition they sold to Hassane and Majeed were going to be used for. However, my contact is keen to use the case to point out the key intersection between the policing of organized crime, drugs, and financial crime with counterterrorism.
"People who are involved in the supply of illegal firearms need to think about who they're selling to," she says. "If they've supplied a gun to someone, and we can prove they knew of terrorist links, then chances are we would charge them with terrorism offenses. Even when there's not enough evidence for terrorism offenses, we may arrest someone for possession of a weapon, just to interrupt their activities."
And this is borne out in the stats: Earlier this week, senior police officers revealed that half of the foiled UK terror plots over the past two years have involved extremists trying to buy guns.
This dynamic is not just confined to street level weapons dealing. Many terror plots are foiled by following the money. "We have the National Terrorism Financial Investigation Unit, which investigates the financial links to terrorism," says my contact. "Often people will be nicked for fraud. There's one huge case that I can't talk about too much, where people were actually pretending to be coppers and conning money off others. That started out as a terrorism investigation, but we ended up getting them on fraud."
When I ask how many counterterrorism operations the security services have going at any one time, I am met with a curt "we don't give away capabilities or numbers." When I press a bit, I manage to get "dozens… high dozens… everyone is aware that right now there is an issue with people returning from places like Syria… we need to be constantly reviewing the threats."
And when I try out my "air-traffic controller" analogy, asking if counterterrorism forces feel like they don't get enough credit for the plots they do intercept, my contact laughs, but then gets very serious again. "I've worked in almost all areas of policing," she says. "In terrorism, you have far more eyes on you, and there's different concerns—but really, whatever area of policing you're in, you can't underestimate the impact that crime—any type of crime—has on the victims."
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