Al Qaeda’s leaders in Pakistan have shown “startling resilience” and their affiliates have both the intent and the capability to strike the West, British Minister of Security Pauline Neville-Jones said.
Overall, Britain’s new national security strategy is evolving “against the background of a global context that we do not assess as especially favourable to Western interests,” Neville-Jones said in remarks prepared for delivery at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research group.
She voiced concern about permitting websites used by extremists such as the preacher Anwar al Awlaqi to recruit anti-Western forces.
“The websites in which feature his terrorist message would categorically not be allowed in the UK,” she said. “If they were hosted in the UK they would be taken down.”
But Neville-Jones said many such sites were hosted in the United States. She said Britain wanted to work closely to find ways of thwarting them despite freedom-of-speech issues.
President Barack Obama’s administration defended its approach as reflecting the right balance between competing interests, including using such sites as a source of intelligence and as an example of Internet freedom that can ultimately reduce violent political extremism.
“Where activities on the Internet pose a clear threat to the public, the U.S. government has significant legal authorities to act as needed to protect the public,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Neville-Jones said in July that the West was facing what amounted to a technology arms race with “terrorists.”
Last month, Ronald Noble, secretary general of international police agency Interpol, said the number of extremist sites was skyrocketing, expanding from 12 in 1998 to 4,500 in 2006.
Neville-Jones defended a downsizing of British military forces recently recommended by a government review.
Hard power is expensive and should be used only when soft power fails, she said.
“We do not think it is sustainable in terms of the demands made on our armed forces or the commitment demanded from the public to allow military intervention, of which there has been much in the last decade, to be anything other than an exceptional act in circumstances where no other method of protecting vital interests is available.”
Strikes by remotely piloted U.S. drones and Pakistani forces have put pressure on al Qaeda leadership in tribal areas of Pakistan, Neville-Jones said. Experts say this is likely the refuge of Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks on Washington and New York.
“But they have shown startling resilience before and we continue to see threats emanating directly from the region, even under such intense pressure,” she said.
In addition, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen “has both the intent and the capability to attack us,” she said, citing the case of a Nigerian man accused of trying to destroy a Northwest Airlines jumbo jet with explosives sewn in his underwear as it approached Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day last year.
Somalia is another “current and growing concern,” she said. likening it to Afghanistan before the Taliban were overthrown by U.S.-led forces in 2002. “We need to focus now on preventive strategies.”
A new national security strategy that accompanied the review puts conflict prevention at the core of Britain’s strategy, including a stepped-up push to defend cyberspace.
Neville-Jones told Reuters in an interview that the United States and Britain were putting together a “cyber operations” memorandum of understanding that could lead to more joint programs to protect critical infrastructure.