Spy chiefs struggle to counter threat
By James Blitz in London
Published: December 28 2009 02:00 | Last updated: December 28 2009 02:00
The revelation that a 23-year-old Nigerian accused of trying to destroy an aircraft in the US was placed on a watchlist and yet still was able to board a flight to the US is a stark reminder of the challenge facing intelligence agencies in combating terrorism.
In recent years, intelligence chiefs in the US and Britain had appeared increasingly confident they had a better grip on the Islamist terrorist threat - and a far better oversight than they did a decade ago of potential jihadist attackers. Yet the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is a reminder of how easily potential terrorists can still slip under the radar.
Sitting in his office in a western capital ahead of the Christmas day incident, a senior intelligence operative ref-lected on how his profession has changed in the years since September 11 2001. "If I think about what it was like to be working in this building 10 years ago, it is like life in a different era," he says.
"Frankly, it is hard to think of any area of government that has changed as much in the last 10 years as our own business."
Before the September 11 attacks, most of the main western intelligence agencies were hugely secretive, and wary of close relationships either with each other or with the media.
Many service chiefs were still trying to come to terms with the fact that their traditional lines of business - battling the Soviet Union's KGB or the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland - were drying up. Some were even wondering at the start of the 21st century whether there was a real job for them to do.
But September 11 changed all that. The emergence of global jihadism put huge pressure on intelligence agencies to come up with new counter-terrorism strategies. The revelation that Mr Abdulmutallab was placed on the lowest-risk alert list of US authorities in November, shows that challenge endures.
In the years since the September 11 attacks, while the public reputation of intelligence agencies has plunged following their failure to evaluate the nature of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein in the countdown to the Iraq war, intelligence chiefs believe they have had considerable success against al-Qaeda. Some argue one of the main reasons for this is that US drone attacks on Osama bin Laden's core group in the Pakistani tribal areas have decimated al-Qaeda's core.
Many agencies have become bigger and better funded. The annual budget for Britain's MI5 has more than tripled since 2001.
There is also better international co-operation than a decade ago. British officials frequently talk of the close relationship that has been built between MI6 and Pakistan's directorate for inter-services intelligence, or ISI. "Nobody wants to be the spook who failed to spot a terror attack because he wasn't getting the right information from somewhere else," says a UK diplomat.
A third and in some ways most dramatic change has been in the relations between the various intelligence agencies inside each country. Governments have appreciated the need for better collaboration between spy chiefs. In 2004, President George W. Bush created the office of director of national intelligence to co-ordinate all US agencies.
In Britain, MI5, MI6 and the Metropolitan police have forged an unprecedented relationship in the pursuit of British jihadists.
"In the past, MI5 and MI6 just did their own thing," says Sir Paul Lever, former head of Britain's joint intelligence committee. "Today some 30 per cent of all MI5 and MI6 officers work in joint teams with officers from another service. People realise there is no distinction any more between the internal and external threat."
And yet despite this, it appears the intelligence agencies are still struggling to counter the threat.