The news that Abid Naseer had been convicted of a plot to set off bombs in Manchester City Centre in 2009 brought back memories of how it felt dealing with the case at the time. I was still fairly new as chief constable of GMP and not had huge experience of this sort of decision. The officers from the Counter Terrorist Unit and the Security Services were sure that a major attack was under preparation but at that stage could not be sure that we had identified everyone involved and all the potential targets. We were faced with a very difficult decision whether to make arrests to ensure that we disrupted the plot or let their planning and preparation continue until we had more evidence of what they were up to but with the risk that an attack could take place.
In the end I had to put the safety of the people Manchester first and have the arrests made. This involved 11 students of Pakistani origin and of course arresting this number in the context of such a plot caused enormous press interest and some public concern. I could not reveal to the public the nature of our investigation or the means by which we had obtained the intelligence because this would have betrayed our methods to Al Qaeda and caused problems for the security services overseas. Our officers did a great job pulling together all the evidence but there are time limits in legislation on how long we can keep terrorism suspects in custody and they have to be brought back before a court at regular intervals.We got to the point where the Crown Prosecution Service would not support a further application to the court for detention and decided there was not enough evidence to support a charge. We challenged that decision but they are the prosecuting authority and so reluctantly we had to release the suspects into the custody of the Immigration Service so that they could be deported. The American authorities made a request for extradition in respect of Abid Naseer and that is how he he ended appearing in a New York court after a prolonged legal process.
The CPS are there to do a job and to be independent of the police and I accepted the decision they made at the time. The New York court had access to evidence from a co-conspirator and also evidence from the raid on Bin Laden’s house. It is a different legal system. The conviction does show that there was a real threat to Manchester and indeed to New York and our staff did an magnificent job in disrupting the plot.
There was a lot of criticism of our action at the time. I had to try to explain that it is actually when you are not sure of the nature of the attack being planned but you know it would have catastrophic consequences that you have to act sooner. I also had to explain that there is a difference between intelligence which justifies the arrest and evidence which justifies a charge. When we have intelligence that someone is planning a terrorist act we have to intervene we cant wait to see what happens.
The case raises some important issues. The terrorists want to undermine out basic freedoms and so it is important that in fighting terrorism and violent extremism we do not undermine those freedoms. This becomes a balance between security and liberty but when you have an extreme threat then the balance has to swing a bit more to security. What do you do when you have people you suspect are planning terrorist acts or encouraging others to do so but you do not have enough evidence to prosecute them? There are measures to put restrictions on such people but how stringent should those measures be? There is an active debate on how far the Police and Security Services should have access to such e mails and to social media. The trouble is that this is how those planning attacks or trying to brainwash people communicate and indeed it has got far harder to access this material since 2009. Where does the balance between security and liberty lie here?
At the end of the day this is a matter for politicians and the public not the police. Beyond all this debate I just want to recognise the staff of the Counter Terrorist Unit and the Security Services for their dedication and professionalism in this investigation. There are people alive today because they foiled this plot and ensured that a dangerous man was eventually brought to justice.
Sir Peter Fahy