Waleed Aly: Too tough for our own good


November 17, 2007

EARLIER this month, Jonathon Evans gave his first public speech as the new director-general of Britain's MI5 secret service. It is fair to say he had no intention of easing himself gently into public discourse. Rather, he crashed into it with a sensational portrait of the challenging counter-terrorism landscape confronting Britain, making two quite shocking claims in the process: 1) that there are at least 2000 — and perhaps up to 4000 — individuals in Britain who pose "a direct threat to national security and public safety, because of their support for terrorism"; and 2) that "terrorists are methodically and intentionally … radicalising, indoctrinating and grooming" people "as young as 15 and 16" for terrorist activity. Moreover, he noted, the scope of the threat was only growing.

Viewed from Australia, these sorts of comments appear almost surreal. Contemplating the British terrain makes plain to us how comparatively limited the problem of terrorism is here. Estimates of the number of potential Australian terrorists are inevitably watery, but the most informed of them suggests a figure in the tens, not the thousands. Since September 11, Britain has seen more than 200 convictions on terrorism-related charges. We've had barely a handful. Fewer than two dozen others are currently facing charges. Meanwhile, British police say they are monitoring 500 people involved in at least 80 terror plots. The difference in magnitude is staggeringly vast.

But now consider the British response to Evans' revelations ...