Bomb suspect recruited in Britain

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Audio Transcript:

A top Yemen official said today that the failed Christmas Day bomber Abdul Mutallab was first recruited by al Qaeda in London. Anchor Jeb Sharp speaks with British security analyst Charles Shoebridge about whether the United Kingdom is a fertile breeding ground for radical Islam.

JEB SHARP: We're finding out more about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The would-be plane bomber was reportedly trained by militants in Yemen. And today, a government official there said Abdulmutallab probably joined al Qaeda in London, where he lived for a time. Charles Shoebridge is a former British counter-terrorism official. He says Britain has become a recruiting ground for militants.

CHARLES SHOEBRIDGE: There are a number of factors. First of all, of course, Britain has a population of around 2 million Muslims, of whom a small proportion are inevitably going to be drawn towards some form of extremist politics. But that's in a way encouraged by the policy, if you like, that Britain has had for some three decades of multiculturalism, which hasn't really encouraged integration into the mainstream community to some degree. Thirdly, Britain has a very powerful and very free media, which means that Muslims in Britain are able to see issues from what might be called a Muslim perspective. A good example is this time last year with the Israeli attack on Gaza, where, if you like, Muslims suffering was seen to a much greater extent here than it might have been in other countries, on the internet and of course, on available TV channels.

SHARP: And if indeed it's partly media driven, the radicalization, but even aside from that, what can British intelligence and counterterrorism officials do to control this kind of activity and this kind of radicalization?

SHOEBRIDGE: Well, first of all, I don't think it's possible in a democracy to stifle dissent or freedom of media and information to the extent that no radicalization will occur. Let's say, for example, in Britain's case, you have around 2 million Muslims. If only a very small proportion of those, that tiny fraction of 1 percent, react to the reporting of world events in a certain extreme way, then you've still got a relatively large actual number of would-be terrorists or extremists. I think it's an inevitable consequence of a free media. We need to accept that some radicalization is likely to occur in reaction to world events. But having said that it's happening, it is then of course incumbent on the intelligence services to develop effectively a network of informants, not just electronic eavesdropping and surveillance, but also actual hard information coming from human sources on the ground who can tip of an alert, when this kind of radicalization is reaching a certain extent. And to some extent, that process has been successful, which is why we've had some-- and I repeat, some-- successful counterterrorism operations.

SHARP: Britain has been relatively successful in dealing with terrorism for a long time. But in the wake of 9/11 and indeed, the 7/7 bombings on the London subway system in 2005, has there actually been a change in the way intelligence is gathered in the UK?

SHOEBRIDGE: I don't think there is necessarily a need to change tried and tested methods from the past. The problem is in the UK, the threat if you like-- indeed, the US is very much in this situation as well. Much of the western world is in a situation where we were late in the game in assessing the threat that came from certain sections of the Muslim community in terms of Islamic extremism. We're still playing a game of catching up. I'm not convinced that we have the right people in every situation who are involved in the recruitment of agents and so on. For example, you talk about the experience of the United Kingdom and that's very well founded, in terms of combating, for example, Irish Republican terrorism. The IRA and other terrorist groups were infiltrated from top to bottom by the British security services and police. That hasn't really happened yet to the same degree with Islamic extremism. Largely, of course, one can say that's because it's far more fractured as an organization, even if an organization exists. But really, once people start to get into the situation where they're acquiring actual training, contacts, or perhaps organizing finance and materials, certainly at that point, there really shouldn't be any reason why they're not coming to the attention of the security services.

SHARP: And what about cooperation between British intelligence and US intelligence regarding people of concern, for instance, in the Muslim community in London? Is there a lot of cooperation, or is it an uneasy relationship?

SHOEBRIDGE: I think the relationship between US and UK is probably as good as it's ever been. That doesn't mean to say there can't be an awful lot more work done, but certainly, whatever the situation is between the US and Britain, it's much better than it has been in the past, and it's certainly much better than the relationship that exists between Britain and indeed America, and some other crucial countries, for example, Pakistan.

SHARP: Security analyst, Charles Shoebridge, in London, thanks very much.

SHOEBRIDGE: My pleasure.

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