I would have loved to have been in the room when David Cameron’s advisers were thinking of an acronym for the new anti-terror committee. Something that sounded scary enough, but not too Monty Python. They eventually went for TERFOR, according to the Mail on Sunday, although it’s still unclear what the T will stand for. But there’s still time. It reminds me of an old New Statesman competition where readers were invited to invent a committee whose acronym mocked its existence. The great Robert Conquest won, teasing the mag for its sympathetic approach to the Soviets: his proposal was Institute for New Statesman Editors and Contributors for Underwriting the Russian Experiment – INSECURE.
But insecure is something that the Prime Minister ought not to be after last week. The Woolwich murder, for all its savagery, has not exposed scandalous failings in our national security apparatus. After 9/11 and 7/7 there was, quite rightly, focus on our unpreparedness and lack of understanding. But this time, things developed precisely along the lines that Douglas Murray and others have been describing for years. The knifemen were black British-born Muslim converts and one had been off to Nigeria to sign up to another country’s jihad. It’s textbook behaviour: the book in question being Olivier Roy’s 2004 Globalized Islam which identified the ‘jihadi jet-set’. The journey from Christian schoolboy to jihadi nutjob conforms perfectly to what Matthew d’Ancona described seven years ago. His words are worth repeating:
You have young Muslim youth growing up in the club scene, the drug scene, in British inner-city life but also exposed to the most militant form of Islam… The clash of civilisations is not between civilisations but within people themselves.
The fact that the knifemen were known to MI5 is more cause for reassurance than alarm. You’d hope that all Islamist psychos were on their radar, and it’s unclear that they had a chance to swoop earlier. There are some 2,000 suspects who creep in and out of MI5 terror investigations, and only round-the-clock surveillance could stop two of them conspiring to murder with kitchen knives.
Reports that MI5 tried to turn one of the knifemen are encouraging (if true) – it’s precisely what you’d want to happen. The RUSI terrorism database records every Jihadi plot/incident carried out in the UK since the year 2000. It has identified 41 failed, aborted or foiled attacks in the UK since 9/11 – a pretty good record, which hardly suggests MI5 hamstrung by lack of powers. Instead, it seems we have a whole bunch of people doing a very good job for us, being in possession of the tools they need to do that job. As The Spectator said in our leader after the Boston bombing:
Some of the interceptions, such as the thwarting of the Heathrow airport plot, have been nothing short of spectacular, but they never seem that way, because the end result is that nothing happens.
I wonder if this explains why the knifemen did not make a video. They knew the spooks were on to them, and knew that a 2007 Birmingham plot to
behead a solider was busted by MI5 with five imprisoned. Perhaps they thought that, if they so much nipped to Dixons to buy a camcorder, they’d probably be lifted on the way home. So the improvised, and the world saw their mess of Islamist clichés, rap patois and non-sequiteurs. What kind of Islamist quotes Exodus 21:24 (‘an eye for an eye’) rather than the Koran? It reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s book, The Banality of Evil, which (spookily enough) was published 50 years ago this month. The Woolwich murder makes her point anew.
Crucially, we have seen nothing in the last few days to suggest we need a Snooping Act. And although power-hungry ministers never admit it, MI5 and MI6 already have full legal powers to intercept anything that can be described as a ‘communication’- from smoke signals to SMS. The Snooping Bill was more about granting espionage powers to the taxman and other nosy government agencies.
Nor is there a glaring need for yet another committee reporting to the Prime Minister (there must be about 20 of them by now – is anyone in Whitehall keeping count?). On Friday, I was thinking how lucky we are not to have Tony Blair anymore. Had he been still in power, there would be about 12 new laws being rammed through parliament by now. So we can forgive Cameron the creation of Terrahawks, or whatever he’s calling his new committee. He’s a politician, they feel the need to do something in a crisis, a new committee is something, therefore it must be done.
Last week reminded us that there are still jihadis, intent on murder, roaming our streets. What we have learned in the days after the murder reminds us that we have brave men and women keeping us safe, using powers to good effect, foiling one major plot a year since 9/11.
Nothing we have learned since the murder suggests that the government, the police or the spies need more powers. And I rather hope that David Cameron does not feel the need to claim otherwise.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.