This week’s main security and defence news has been the reported foiling of an Islamic State-inspired bomb plot in London. The Times reports that the strike was described as the most significant terror plot against the capital for two years.
Counterterrorism detectives arrested two brothers, aged 19 and 20, over fears that they were trying to get hold of chemicals to construct an explosive device in west London. Their alleged targets were unclear, but were thought to be random members of the public rather than the military or police.
The alleged plot was said to be in the very early stages, but sources told the newspaper that it was more sophisticated than a knife attack carried out at a Tube station in east London last year by a mentally ill man who had been downloading Islamic State material. It is possible that the brothers were also trying to get hold of guns and other weapons, raising fears of a Paris-style attack on several targets.
Security sources indicated that the latest suspected plot could be the most serious in the capital since two Islamic State supporters, Tarik Hassane and Suhaib Majeed, were held for planning a drive-by shooting of a west London police station in October 2014. They said it was “highly significant” but warned that the nature and scale of the plot would remain unclear until searches in London and the Thames Valley were complete. The suspected bomb plot is not thought to have been directed by Islamic State jihadists in Syria or Iraq, but inspired by the terror group’s online propaganda. However, sources emphasised that it was impossible to tell until searches of properties in the capital and Thames Valley had been completed.
This case provides a further reminder that London remains the target of choice for potential terrorists based in the UK, and that a strong security presence at all levels is required to deter, detect and defeat planned attacks.
Leaked files raise questions over UK involvement in drone strikes
The Northern Echo reports that fresh questions about the extent of British complicity in US drone strikes and other so-called targeted killing missions have been raised following the leaking of documents about a top secret North Yorkshire spy base by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Campaigners who have spent decades pressing for the closure of RAF Menwith Hill, between the Yorkshire Dales and Harrogate, said the details contained in the US National Security Agency (NSA) papers had given an unprecedented overview of the base’s activities.
A US-based investigation has claimed the files reveal how the NSA has used the eavesdropping technology at the British base – where more than 2,000 personnel are based, most of whom are American – to assist in “a significant number of capture-kill operations” across the Middle East and North Africa.
Menwith Hill campaigner Lindis Percy said while the RAF and the MDP did not appear to know what was going on at Menwith Hill, the files appeared to show they were protecting illegal activities. She said: “It is horrific. We knew something of what they do at Menwith Hill, but didn’t know the extent. A case needs to be brought to court.” An MoD spokesman said: “The MoD can confirm that RAF Memwith Hill is part of a worldwide US Defence communications network, with the base supporting a variety of communications activity.”
RAF Menwith Hill – a facility protected by an MDP compliment – has long been the target of protestors, and it seems likely that these latest revelations will only increase the attention the facility receives.
Theresa May considers signing Europol pact
The Times reports that Theresa May is considering signing up to the EU’s joint security measures months after the Brexit vote in a move that risks recriminations within the Conservative Party. The Prime Minister is under pressure to agree to a new EU directive to remain in Europol, the continent’s law enforcement agency, amid warnings by senior police officers that to opt out would put the country in danger. The UK must sign up to a new Europol regulation, which comes into effect in May 2017, if it is to have continued access to the agency’s intelligence databases.
In the longer term, once Article 50 is invoked, the Government intends to embark on lengthy negotiations about how the UK would carry out law enforcement co-operation after Brexit. It may involve a third party agreement allowing access to Europol. Such a scheme is enjoyed by countries including the US.
MoD to use private company to store confidential data
The Daily Telegraph reports that the MoD is moving its computing from the secure military network it has used for the last decade to data centres owned by Microsoft. From this week the MoD will use Microsoft's Office 365 and Azure for its computing rather than the legacy internal servers and Microsoft software that it has used since 2005.
The announcement comes as Microsoft opens its first UK-based data centres in London, Cardiff and Durham. “Right from the start I've felt that for defence the only appropriate place to have our data was here in the UK,” said Mike Stone, the MoD's chief digital and information officer. He added “Technically our data could be held anywhere in the European Economic Area, but I wouldn't ever want to be in a position where we had data being held elsewhere and this coming under scrutiny.” However, the move could spark fears for security, as the MoD moves away from the secure military computer network that is currently used by all of the UK's Armed Forces.
MoD announces new assets sale
The Times reports that military facilities including barracks, airfields, ranges and two golf courses will be put up for sale to raise £225 million for the Armed Forces and free up land to build 17,000 homes. Thirteen facilities are being put on the market as part of a plan announced last year to sell just under a third of the MoD’s estate. Consultations will begin within the next few weeks between the MoD and civilians and military personnel who used the facilities.
The military sites, which cover nearly 3,000 acres, include RAF Henlow, an airbase in Bedfordshire that has a ten-hole golf course. Other facilities that will be put up for sale include the headquarters of the Royal Marines’ 3 Commando Brigade at Stonehouse; Colerne Airfield in Wiltshire, a former fighter command and bomber command for the RAF during the Second World War; and Amport House, in Hampshire, which houses the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre. The MoD intends to reduce the size of the defence estate, which stands at just under 1.2 million acres, by 30 per cent over the next 25 years.
The sale of MDP Wethersfield, also part of the effort to reduce the size of the defence estate, was announced in March this year.
MPs discuss introducing first and second degree murder categories
The Times reports that MPs are to reopen the debate over whether introduce American-style distinctions between first and second-degree murder. The Justice Select Committee is holding an evidence session next week because of concern among MPs that the present law can lead to injustice. They are to examine the case for scrapping the mandatory life sentence for all murders and instead giving judges sentencing discretion in “lesser” murders. This could lead to lower penalties in cases of murder where the killer reasonably believed that their actions would not lead to another’s death.
The sentence of mandatory life for murder was enacted in the Homicide Act of 1957 as part of a pact to ensure the abolition of hanging went through parliament. Alex Chalk, Conservative MP for Cheltenham, a member of the committee who is also a barrister, raised the issue recently in a debate in Westminster Hall. “We need an offence of first-degree murder that would encompass intentional killing only,” he said. The present law on homicide “creates injustice — to defendants and to society”, he said. He added that the present law on homicide was “a mess”. The Law Commission had already urged reform of the law to introduce first and second degrees of murder.
Met police pause plan to introduce spit hoods
The Guardian reports that the Metropolitan police have said they will pause plans to introduce spit hoods after a torrent of criticism from human rights groups. The newspaper understands that the Met failed to tell the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, about the controversial scheme that was due to start within weeks. A spokesperson for the Mayor’s office for policing and crime – which oversees the Met – said: “The Mayor has not been consulted about this decision, and we will be looking into the details of the scheme before the pilot starts.”
The Met says the restraint devices are necessary to protect officers from prisoners who try to spit at or bite them, exposing them to the risk of serious infection. It said it had taken the decision in February to pilot the spit hoods, and claimed to have held consultations. But in a statement the Met said: “However, with a new administration coming into City Hall since then, the MPS [Metropolitan police service] has listened to concerns and will consult further before starting any pilot.”
‘Hillsborough Law’ drive launched
The Guardian reports that a draft bill to ensure public officials act with “candour” and do not fall prey to “institutional defensiveness” has been launched this week by relatives of the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium tragedy. The proposed legislation, supported by their lawyers and many MPs, draws on lessons learnt by the families during the protracted second inquest into those 96 deaths. If enacted, the bill would criminalise officials who mislead the general public or media “intentionally or recklessly”. Those who mislead court proceedings or inquiries or fail to provide witness statements could also be prosecuted.
The proposed law draws on developments in other inquiries and international legal advances. The Mid-Staffs NHS Foundation Inquiry, known as the Francis Inquiry, in 2013 also recommended a statutory duty of candour with criminal sanctions for professionals and managers who mislead the public.
The draft Hillsborough Law will be considered by Bishop James' Review, which was commissioned by the then Home Secretary Theresa May following the jurors' conclusions on 26 April, to consider what lessons could be learned from the disaster. Two separate criminal investigations are ongoing.
Privately drafted bills virtually never make it into law. However, they can act as inspiration for Government-generated legislation.