How British Intelligence Cracked a Plot

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British intelligence agencies have come in for loud praise this week after apparently thwarting a terrorist plan to bring down as many as 10 commercial flights bound for the United States. Anthony Glees, director of Britain's Brunel University Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, discusses the investigation with Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

British security officials are being lauded for stopping an alleged terrorist plot this week. Twenty-three suspects are in custody in London, accused of planning to blow up commercial airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean. The arrests were made with the help of the government of Pakistan. At least 17 people are being questioned there.

Anthony Glees is the director of Brunel University Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies in London. I spoke with him by telephone earlier.

Mr. Glees, would you refresh us, remind us how the British intelligence group, MI5, how did they know about this plot?

Mr. ANTHONY GLEES (Brunel University Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies): What seems to be the case is that there was a mixture of intelligence. There were some secret agent intelligence from people close to this conspiracy. But there were also other methods used. In particular, I understand that MI5 quickly worked out the way that this conspiracy was proposing to operate. That is to say, to use bits and pieces - none of them identifiable in themselves as part of an explosive device - bring them separately onto at least 10 transatlantic airplanes and then assemble them onboard.

ELLIOTT: Had MI5 infiltrated this group?

Mr. GLEES: It seems highly likely that MI5 had infiltrated the outer circles of the group. I have to say, our security and intelligence community never ever disclose what their sources have been, for fairly obvious reasons. But it is fair to say, I understand, that there are links between this group of conspirators and other people the security service have been looking at, some of whom may actually be on trial in the United Kingdom at the moment.

ELLIOTT: What would those people be on trial for?

Mr. GLEES: Well, because of our legal position in the United Kingdom, we can't comment any further about that at the moment. But the big point is, we're dealing here with networks. The original view - and it was a view that MI5 had - was that these were isolated, crazy terrorists who probably were acting alone, gaining their information and indeed their training from the Internet.

The more we know, the more it appears we are dealing with discrete networks, often interconnected, often recruited in the same way on university campuses, in mosques. And far from training themselves, these are people who go to Pakistan and receive training over there.

ELLIOTT: Now, British intelligence worked with Pakistani officials in this investigation. There are reports that the U.K. actually notified both the U.S. and Pakistan early on in this investigation of their suspicions. Is this a sign of some new cooperation between intelligence communities around the world?

Mr. GLEES: Well, I think it is. Our understanding is that British intelligence officials - that is to say, officials from MI5, the domestic security service, and SIS, the foreign Secret Intelligence Service - will have participated in the interrogation of suspects by the Pakistani security agencies. Whether they were directly in the room, or whether they simply saw the investigations and guided them by remote means, we can't tell.

But this is a fairly unique development in the history of intelligence cooperation. Because up to this point, nations have tended to regard it - regard the debriefing of suspects as an important expression of their own national sovereignty. To share on this level, as Pakistan is doing - if that is what is happening - is a very important step forward.

ELLIOTT: One of those arrested this week is reported to be head of the Islamist Society at London Metropolitan University. Are university students being monitored by MI5?

Mr. GLEES: Well, the truth is that prior to the London bombings of last year, the security service did not work against subversive groups. It worked only on the basis of specific pieces of intelligence against specific individuals. And when you ask the security authorities why this was the case, they said it would be politically difficult and unpleasant if groups of people were to be monitored by the security service, without there being any specific intelligence against any individual members of them. After the London bombings, both MI5 and Special Branch are changing their tune on this.

ELLIOTT: Now, we've seen some reports in the British media that there are skeptics. Are people there questioning whether to trust MI5's account of this alleged plot?

Mr. GLEES: Yes, indeed. Indeed, it's become a very serious problem for the security services. Obviously, they have to operate in secret and you look at the mistakes that British intelligence has undoubtedly made, over weapons of mass destruction, over the shooting of the innocent man, Mr. De Menezes, a year ago, it's kind of understandable that people should say, well, you know, can we really be sure that this is happening?

All I can say is that on the whole, MI5's track record has been very good. Furthermore, if the evidence in this case does not stand up in court, then many British spooks are going to be out of a job.

ELLIOTT: Anthony Glees is the director of the Brunel University Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies in London.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GLEES: Okay.

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