A smattering of stories in the news today reveal just how deadly serious is the terrorist threat we all face, and why the government is absolutely right to press ahead with 42 days' detention without charge, ID cards, a massive database recording all internet searches ever made by anyone, and all the rest of it.
1) The Old Bailey heard an admission from an English teacher, Saeed Ghafoor, that he plotted to bomb the Bluewater shopping centre. He planned to fill three limousines with gas canisters, and blow them up. Or so he boasted to guards at Haverigg jail in Cumbria, where he was serving 12 months for threats against his sister. He was confident of his ability to destroy the massive shopping complex in Exeter, until it was pointed out to him that Bluewater was in Kent. He "hadn't finalised his plans", he explained.
According to the prosecution counsel, "We do not know if he could have carried it out. It was not a bomb hoax. It appeared on the face of it to be a serious threat by someone who was not happy."
2) Yesterday Nicky Reilly tried to blow himself up in an Essex restaurant and take scores of others with him. Officers suspect that 22-year old Reilly, who has "learning difficulties" and has been treated for mental illness, planned to commit suicide "but do not think he could have constructed the bombs without help." But even with this expert assistance, possibly from the ad hoc radical cell that is suspected of "brainwashing" the vulnerable young convert, he was only able to cause himself minor injuries. Reilly seems to have been loosely associated with this group, one of about 200 the police are monitoring: apparently, he was sent a text message from one of them "which officers believe amounted to a message of encouragement."
3) In Nottingham, a masters student and his supervisor were held for six days under anti-terrorist legislation after an "Al Qaeda training manual" was found on his computer. The student, who was writing a thesis about terrorism, was apparently consulting the material for research. He had downloaded it from a US Government website. According to the two men's lawyer, after they had been detained for 48 hours a warrant for further detention was granted "on the basis that the police had mobile phones and evidence taken from computers to justify this."
Bettina Rentz, a lecturer in international security and Mr Sabir’s personal tutor, is quoted as follows:
This case is very worrying. The student downloaded publicly accessible information and provoked this very harsh reaction. Nobody tried to speak to him or to his tutors before police were sent in. The whole push from the Government is on policy relevance of research, and in this case the student’s research could not be more policy relevant.
I've said it before, and no doubt I'll have occasion to say it again: all these home-grown terrorists and wannabe terrorists are pathetic. They are fantasists, obsessives, dreaming of global jihad and the Islamic world state to distract themselves from the mundanity of their own lives. They have no organisation, no political programme, no caches of high-explosive and sub-machine guns paid for by foreign governments. They aren't the IRA, or even ETA. They are self-created and self-sustaining. Of course, on occasion they can wreak havoc. But such incidents are rare. The police and the security services know who and where most of them are; they are almost all caught before they do any damage, and when they do slip through the net their bombs misfire. While the devastation of 7/7 gets most of the attention, it was the failed attack of two weeks later that was far more representative of the threat we all face.
Of course, there are countries where the terrorist threat is far more serious: Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand. Muslim countries all, or countries with Islamic separatist movements. In other words, the Islamic terrorism that the world faces is not "global jihad" but old-fashioned political violence, aimed at destabilising particular states. For all the posturing by Al Qaeda, all they can do these days is to distribute tapes and thus lay claim to an influence and a control that they do not really possess. And even where the theat is greatest, it is less great than is was.
A recent Human Security Brief report - compiled by a working group funded by various western governments, including Britain's - concluded that there has been a substantial decline in terrorist activities, and terrorist deaths, over the past year. And for a simple reason. Most of the increase in terrorism over the past ten years has been in Iraq - in 2006, almost 80% of all terrorist deaths were in that country. The substantial fall-off in terrorist activity in that country last year (whether or not the credit belongs to the US troop "surge") has produced a reduction of 40% in the global casualty rate.
This is, of course, very good news. But I don't expect to hear government ministers to be boasting about it. Widespread public fear of terrorism, after all, can be quite useful.