MI5 looking for a Needle in the Haystack

The Xmas Day “Al Qaeda” ter­ror attack on a transat­lantic flight bound for Detroit is an inter­est­ing one.  Awful for those on the flight, of course, and my heart goes out to them for the fear they must have experienced.

But which are the gov­ern­ments most staunch in their pro­sec­u­tion of the war on ter­ror?  Let’s call them the “Axis of Good”.….

The USA, the UK, and the Netherlands.

So it must be just nuts to them that the imme­di­ately iden­ti­fi­able Al Qaeda ter­ror­ist is repor­ted to be a Nigeri­an-born UK engin­eer­ing stu­dent who is fly­ing via Schiphol air­port in NL to the USA.  Even bet­ter, he acquired his “bomb” in Yemen — inter­est­ingly, a coun­try that is under increas­ing assault by the US mil­it­ary at the moment. 

This ticks a num­ber of use­ful nation­al secur­ity boxes, remind­ing us what a threat our nations face. 

The alleged ter­ror­ist is repor­ted to have been on the watch list of the US secur­ity appar­at­us, but not on the “no fly” list — which is unveri­fi­able any­way, but reportedly con­tains the names of over a mil­lion people. So yet anoth­er break-down in this unwieldy secur­ity system.

Airport-securityWe already have a situ­ation where all cit­izens of the US, UK and NL are effect­ively treated like crim­in­als every time they take a plane, as well as every­one else attempt­ing to fly into these coun­tries.  How­ever, this incid­ent has demon­strated that the secur­ity around fly­ing is not just a slow irrit­ant — a “Big Broth­er Lite” with its stu­pid restric­tions around liquids, maquil­lage, shoes, belts and laptops — it has been dra­mat­ic­ally shown not to work.

Identi­fy­ing poten­tial ter­ror­ists is like look­ing for a needle in a hay­stack.  This has become an estab­lish­ment cliché these days: the ter­ror­ists have to be lucky only once, and the secur­ity ser­vices have to be con­stantly lucky to stop an attack.  The odds are acknow­ledged to be impossible. 

What used to be agreed with­in Brit­ish and oth­er European spook circles is the view that the best intel­li­gence comes from tricky-to-run human sources.  They may have their flaws, but they can occa­sion­ally provide pre­cise and lifesav­ing intel­li­gence. The US approach has long been dia­met­ric­ally opposed to this approach — instead they sit back and hoover up every scrap of inform­a­tion via data min­ing and hope to sieve some­thing out of it.  They then tend to respond with whizz-bang, hands-off gad­getry, much like a deadly video game.

So, that said, let’s make two guesses how this new attack will be inter­preted and used by our gov­ern­ments and secur­ity forces:

1) They admit that they need to reas­sess their approach to the “war on terror”.

2) Focus on ever more dra­coni­an data min­ing meas­ures at the point of travel — wheth­er they work or not, wheth­er they slide us ever near­er a police-state or not — until we are effect­ively pris­on­ers in our own countries. 

A dif­fi­cult pre­dic­tion for 2010. 

The final annoy­ance will, at least from a per­son­al per­spect­ive, be that they now ban the car­ry­ing of powders as well as liquids on board a flight.  If they stop me trav­el­ling with my Max Factor, that’s it.  Trains only in the future.

Happy New Year!

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