MI5 conducts secret inquiry into 8,000 al-Qa'ida 'sympathisers'

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The Independent Online

Up to 8,000 suspected al-Qa'ida sympathisers are being investigated by MI5 and the police in an operation to identify future terrorists, The Independent has learned.

The huge covert inquiry, known as project Rich Picture, is aimed at finding people who are being groomed for terrorism, and at identifying the Islamist extremists carrying out the recruitment.

The nationwide investigation follows intelligence suggesting there is a very small, but significant number of British-born and Britain-based Muslims, who are prepared to carry out bombings and other terrorist attacks in this country.

Undercover officers are gathering information from all over the country, including at colleges, mosques and internet websites where extremists may try to "groom" or radicalise those sympathetic to the aims of al-Qa'ida. Of the estimated 1.6 million Muslims living in Britain, counter-terrorist sources have disclosed that they believe up to 0.5 per cent - about 8,000 - support al-Qa'ida's aims, and have links to Islamist extremists. These are the people being investigated.

Despite assurances by police and intelligence chiefs that they are not spying on the Muslim community, the huge scale of project Rich Picture is certain to provoke anger among some Muslims who believe they are being unfairly stigmatised and targeted. Relations with some sections of the Muslim community have already been damaged following the shooting of a suspect in Forest Gate, east London, who was later released with his brother without charge.

Project Rich Picture was set up shortly after the suicide bombings in London in July last year after it became clear that British-born citizens were becoming radicalised.

Following the London attacks, in which 56 people died Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, director general of MI5, told the Intelligence and Security Committee that the main lesson learned from the attacks was the need to get into "the unknown" - to "find ways of broadening coverage to pick up currently unknown terrorist activities or plots".

The committee, which oversees the running of the intelligence services, said of the police and agencies: "Their goal is to become more proactive at identifying those who may be being groomed for terrorism and those doing the grooming, and so to spot where terrorism may next occur."

The resulting operation is aimed at up to 8,000 potential terror supporters.

A security source said: "What we have been doing up to now is fire-fighting. There has been a huge volume of plots to investigate.

"Rather than just firefighting we are finding out the causes, why it's happening, why are people radicalised, and how they are radicalised, and then deal with some of these issues."

Until recently, the intelligence services have been concentrating on uncovering and disrupting active terrorist plots in the UK. By July 2005, the number of "primary investigative targets'' known to security services had risen from about 250 in 2001 to 800.

But a big expansion of MI5 and police counter-terrorism resources has allowed the agencies to start looking at the recruitment and grooming of future bombers. MI5 has grown from just under 2,000 staff in 2001 to about 2,500 today, rising to 3,500 in 2008.

A security source said: "It is trying to drill down and identify those who may be coming into contact with radical sources. It is finding out these people at an early stage. You only have to look at the background of the 7 July London terrorists to see the speed to which radicalisation can take place.

"Some of those who blew themselves up were spotted, recruited and radicalised within a year."

The security service and police chiefs believe that Islamist extremists are targeting people in Britain who are sympathetic towards the aims of al-Qa'ida and who believe the London suicide bombings were justified. They point to surveys in the past year, by Populus, YouGov, and ICM, which found between five and seven per cent of British Muslims believe the London bombings were justified.

Much of the work of Project Rich Picture is being done by MI5 officers based at new regional stations with the help of GCHQ, the government's eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham. Four centres: Scotland, the north-west, north-east and midlands are up and running. A further four, in the south-west, Wales, the east and the south-east will be operational by year's end. A security source said: "The whole Rich Picture business is an investigation to get information on the ground which we would not have looked at before. It is not an attempt by agencies to spy on the Muslim population. It's looking at those people directly attached or linked to terrorist activities."