The claim

“Every year since 2005 there has been at least one, sometimes two or even more, terrorist plots which were disrupted and prevented from killing British citizens.”
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, 28 May 2013

The background

Parliament’s intelligence and security committee is poised to begin an investigation into MI5’s handling of the Woolwich murder suspects.

The committee has been tasked with finding out whether mistakes were made by the security service, following revelations that two men arrested over the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby – Michael Adebolajo and Michael Oluwatobi Adebowale – were known to intelligence officers.

Committee chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind has promised to get to the bottom of the matter, but said MI5 operatives were not “in the dock”.

He told the BBC: “I think that would be very unfair.

“The fact we have not had anyone killed until these tragic events in Woolwich since the 7/7 bombings in 2005 is not because there hasn’t been terrorist plots.

“Every year since 2005 there has been at least one, sometimes two or even more, terrorist plots which were disrupted and prevented from killing British citizens, partly because of the work of MI5… and other intelligence agencies.”

The analysis

Of course there is a huge amount we don’t know about what Britain’s anti-terrorist agencies get up to, but we can measure the number of terrorist plotters who have been convicted after failing to carry out attacks, thanks to the efforts of the police or MI5 or both.

FactCheck has been trawling through archives, and we reckon that at least 15 jihadist plots that could have ended in loss of life have been disrupted by the authorities since 11 September 2001.

These range chronologically from the conviction of Moinul Abedin in 2002 for turning his Birmingham home into a bomb-making factory to the jailing last month of six men who wanted to blow up an English Defence League (EDL) rally with shrapnel bombs.

As Sir Malcolm says, there has not been a single year since 2005 when some kind of live plot was not in progress.

In 2006 police arrested a ring planning to set off liquid explosives on transatlantic airliners – the reason large bottles are still banned on many flights.

In 2007 five Birmingham men were arrested for plotting to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier.

Rajib Karim got a job at British Airways in 2007 and by 2009 was having discussions with al-Qaeda kingpin Anwar al-Awlaki on how to use his insider knowledge to stage an attack.

In 2010 husband and wife Mohammed and Shasta Khan began to gather material for homemade bombs destined to be used against Jewish targets in Manchester.

In 2011 four Luton men were preparing to use a remote-controlled car to blow up a Territorial Army base, and last year former BBC security guard Richard Dart was discussing plans to target mourners at Royal Wootton Bassett with fellow militant Imran Mahmood.

These are a few examples, not an exhaustive list. In fact, we’ve counted at least 70 Islamist terrorists who were stopped before they could carry out their plans since 2001.

This is based on court cases where juries were convinced that a realistic plot was in progress. The tally for all terrorism-related convictions is much bigger, and we’re only counting Islamist plots here.

In some cases it is possible to argue that the arrests were made more from luck than judgment: the arsenal of weapons to be used against EDL supporters in Dewsbury was only discovered after a routine insurance check on the would-be terrorists’ car.

But in the majority of cases the convictions came after lengthy surveillance operations involving electronic bugs, undercover agents, informants and intercepted mobile phone and computer messages.

The list of targets mentioned in evidence includes: London nightclub Ministry of Sound; underground trains; passenger planes; the London Stock Exchange; football matches; the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent; Jewish areas of Manchester; British Army and Territorial Army personnel and bases.

Clearly, the potential for casualties is enormous.

Against these successes, we have to weigh up the plots that were carried out, with varying degrees of success for the jihadists. The killing of Drummer Rigby last week is the first time the intended target of a terror attack has died since 7 July 2005, when four suicide bombers murdered 52 civilians.

Two weeks later Muktar Ibrahim, Yassin Omar, Ramzi Mohammed, and Hussain Osman, tried  a copycat attack but only the detonators of their backpack bombs exploded and there were no deaths.

NHS doctor Bilal Abdullah and co-conspirator Kafeel Ahmed rammed a Jeep loaded with gas canisters into the terminal at Glasgow International Airport in 2007, but Ahmed was the only casualty.

In 2008 Muslim convert Nicky Reilly succeeded only in injuring himself when he accidentally set off a home-made nail bomb in a toilet cubicle in a Giraffe restaurant in Exeter.

And student Roshonara Choudhry stabbed MP Stephen Timms at a constituency surgery in east London in 2010, but he survived the attack.

Government statistics on terror arrests and convictions are out of date, ranging from 11 September 2001 to September last year. For what it’s worth, there were 2,291 terrorism-related arrests during that period.

Some 834 people were charged with a criminal offence, 512 for terror offences specifically, and there were 312 terrorism convictions.

The verdict

Details of plots that have been foiled by the authorities usually enter the public domain through reports of criminal trials.

We don’t know how many other potential terror attacks may have been disrupted earlier in the planning stages by the police and security services, but there wasn’t enough evidence for a court case.

It’s also very difficult to say how much of the work, and therefore the credit, is shared between MI5 and police counter-terrorism officers.

What we can say is that since 9/11, about three times as many plots have been foiled than have actually been carried out.

Just six people have been jailed for actually carrying out plots to bomb targets in the UK, while the number of terrorists caught before they put their plans into action was more than ten times higher.

By Patrick Worrall