Heathrow arrests: are Islamists training in Syria for attacks in UK?
Terror arrests reflect a new mood of apprehension over the fallout from the Arab Spring
THE ARREST at Heathrow airport last night of a man and woman off a flight from Egypt has underscored fears that militant Islamists are going to fight in Syria, only to return to put their training there into practice in the UK.
The police say the pair, both aged 26, are now being questioned at a central London station – where most terrorist suspects are interrogated initially. The two were arrested on suspicion of "the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism". Two homes in east London are being searched.
Fears have been growing that new groups, or small cells, of 'salafist' or 'jihadi' extremists have been moving from the UK to Syria and joining in the fight there, along with affiliates from the Gulf region and local Syrian insurgents.
This week the New York Times reported the discovery of supplies of weaponry and other military equipment to the Syrian rebels emanating from the Gulf, principally Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Despite initial support for the insurgency in Syria, and calling for the Assad clan to step down from power, the British government is becoming increasingly leery of supporting the rebels as they spot growing signs of al-Qaeda footprints.
An al-Qaeda group has claimed responsibility for blowing up the intelligence headquarters of the Syrian Air Force, a principal interrogation centre, while many of the bombings have the same signature as al-Qaeda attacks in Iraq.
The Heathrow pair are likely to have been tracked as part of ongoing surveillance operations that reached a peak during the London Games – the fear being that salafist groups would infiltrate the huge movement of people into the Olympic sites.
The new mood of apprehension reflects increasing concern of some effects of the Arab Spring. It is now believed that the popular uprisings have opened opportunities for extremist groups to use the eastern and southern countries of the Mediterranean - Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and even Algeria and Morocco - as operational mounting bases (as they are known in security jargon) for attacks and operations in Europe and the UK.
The fear is that Muslims from the UK, many not of Arab or Syrian origin, are now travelling to Syria to fight for the jihadi cause. A British photographer, John Cantlie, recounted how he was recently abducted by an extremist group inside Syria, and held for more than ten hours by a gang, several of whom spoke with British accents.
The Sunday Telegraph journalist Andrew Gilligan wrote at the weekend that at least two groups of British citizens, of Somali and Sudanese and non-Arab ethnic origin, had been identified as travelling to Syria to fight.
The insurgency in Syria throws an interesting light, yet again, on the Saudi Arabian support for jihadi extremists there. The majority of the 9/11 hijackers originated from Saudi Arabia, and most from the Arabian peninsula.
The problem now is that in its new mutation into the latest crop of salafist and jihadist groups, the al-Qaeda spirit is largely virtual – transmitted in cyberspace — and not tied to one or even a cluster of physical bases.
Instead, they are loose bunches of like-minded groups and individuals, who combine for a particular cause and then very often quarrel and fall apart. And they thrive in the endemic anarchy of today's Iraq, Libya, eastern and mountain Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, Syria, parts of Egypt and the wilder shores of Somalia and North Africa.
But somewhere at the heart of it all is Saudi Arabia and the countries and peoples of the Arabian peninsula – because that is where the money comes from.
The police have yet to say whether the Heathrow pair were travelling to Syria, via London, or on their way back.
The irony is that much of this year's surveillance for the Olympics was to track support for the al-Shabab Islamists in Somalia, both in recruits and money, particularly from the Somali community of east London. But for the al-Shabab and their cause the target is Somalia and not London, which they need to keep secure for their main money supply.
The difference with the new jihadis travelling to Syria, one suspects, is that London is their ultimate target capital, and not Damascus.