Two words for those who think that NI is immune to Islamist terror: Abbas Boutrab
The PSNI Chief Constable is on a cleft stick when he says he doesn't need Army reinforcements but complains about staff shortages, writes Henry McDonald
Seven days after the slaughter of innocents in Manchester it is worth casting your mind back to the case of Abbas Boutrab. In December 2005 the 27-year-old was sentenced at Belfast Crown Court, having been found guilty of possessing and collecting information connected with terrorism.
He was arrested during a raid on his flat at Whiteabbey, on the outskirts of Belfast, in April 2003.
In the apartment PSNI officers discovered 25 computer discs containing instructions downloaded from the internet in Belfast Central Library three months earlier.
The files the police found detailed how to construct a bomb and smuggle it on board a passenger jet, the trial heard. They also included information on how to make a silencer for an assault rifle using household items.
Boutrab was the first Islamist extremist to go on trial in Northern Ireland under the non-jury Diplock court system normally used in cases involving loyalist and republican paramilitaries.
During the trial there was horrifying footage from an American explosives expert who told the court he built three bombs based on the designs Boutrab had constructed. The witness showed a video of how these devices destroyed a mock-up version of a plane's interior.
Although following his release from Maghaberry Prison in 2008 Boutrab was deported from Northern Ireland, his presence here underlined the fact that nowhere in the UK is safe anymore from an Islamist terror threat. Of course, cities like Belfast are far further down the preferred target list of Islamic extremists compared to, say London, or, as of last week, Manchester.
Nonetheless, the presence of someone described as a dedicated al-Qaida operative should shake everyone out of their smug assumptions about this place being immune from the religious inspired neo-terrorism of the 21st century.
None of the above, however, is an argument for justifying troops being deployed back on the streets of Northern Ireland.
While Theresa May ordered the Army to put boots on the ground in cities like London following the Manchester massacre, there was no move to include Belfast, Derry or anywhere else in Northern Ireland in that deployment operation. And while Chief Constable George Hamilton can argue that he has no operational need for soldiers to back up the PSNI in countering this new terror threat, the truth is that the decision to keep this region out of the Army operation was as much political as strategic.
Everyone knows that Sinn Fein and the SDLP would howl to the heavens if British soldiers were back on the streets patrolling alongside police officers here. Nationalists would view the Army presence as the British Government pressing the rewind button towards the pre-ceasefire days, reminding them that this society was once one of the most militarised places in the advanced industrial world in the late 20th century.
The problem for the Chief Constable is that he is on somewhat of a cleft stick when it comes to security personnel and the need for something to be seen to be done about the Islamist terror challenge. This is not going to be an easy week for the boss of the PSNI. On Wednesday he faces the rank-and-file when the Police Federation of Northern Ireland holds its annual conference. Hamilton will undoubtedly be questioned robustly about his announcement last week, just after the Manchester bomb, that pressure on the policing budget means another 238 officer jobs going in the region. It also puts him in something of a contradictory position.
On the one hand the Chief Constable says he does not need military back-up to cope with any potential Isis-inspired terror plot that might emerge in Northern Ireland. Yet, on the other hand, in the same week as the Manchester atrocity, the head of the PSNI has admitted he is going to have to axe more than 200 policing posts.
Of course, as Ulster Unionist Assembly man and former solider Doug Beattie pointed out last week, putting squaddies in uniform on streets is never as effective as having solid intelligence on those who would do us all harm.
The Military Cross winner also reminded those who were shouting the loudest about why no soldiers were being sent to Northern Ireland thoroughfares that, in fact, there are troops who do turn up on streets, avenues and cul-de-sacs across Northern Ireland. They are called the Army bomb disposal squad and they are deployed every time one of the dissident republican groups leaves or fires an improvised explosive device here.
Speaking of the republican dissidents, the likes of Republican Sinn Fein often complain of the presence of back-up officers to PSNI patrols in places like Lurgan and Craigavon whom, they allege, speak in English accents and look suspiciously like squaddies in cop uniforms.
Whatever the veracity of those claims, there is surely one vital lesson the PSNI high command can learn from the contradictory messages being transmitted out of the service last week. A start would be to admit openly that, yes, the PSNI is answerable to political and community direction, namely the Policing Board, and that this body would be gridlocked in ferocious arguments if the Chief Constable asked for troop support on the ground.
What would help him and the rest of the PSNI brass would be to point out (as Beattie did last week) that Army boots on the ground are merely a very temporary measure; that they are there just to reassure the people that public places and installations of strategic interest are being protected. Moreover, that in the real war against Isis and the next generation of Abbas Boutrabs, it is the secret struggle in the shadows, the intelligence game, that really counts.
Having said all of that, it is still worth stressing that it would be incredibly dangerous to believe the next Isis-inspired sortie could not take place here. Abbas Boutrab originally settled in Dublin before fleeing that city because of a stabbing incident he was involved in. Given the threat on either side of the border, the excellent relations between the Garda and the PSNI should cover intelligence-sharing in regard to the presence of Isis 'sleepers' who may be under cover in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. It is that kind of joined-up, cross-border smart policing that will prevent murder plots and save lives, just as it did before and during the Troubles.