From The Telegraph U.K.
Hidden threat from al-Qaeda sleeper cells
Al-Qaeda terrorists are exploiting loose visa and immigration rules to enter Britain, the security services fear.
By Duncan Gardham, Security Correspondent
Published: 10:00PM GMT 27 Nov 2009
Counter-terrorism police and Whitehall officials believe dozens of extremists could have arrived here by posing as students or legitimate visitors.
They are concerned both by the relatively lax checks that are made on the visitors before they arrive and by the ease with which they can outstay their visas without anyone noticing.
As many as 13,000 visa applicants may have entered the country from Pakistan in a seven month period since October last year without any checks on their supporting documentation.
The security services fear that because most do not mix with home grown terrorists, they are able to operate under the intelligence radar, acting as sleeper cells until ready to launch attacks in Britain.
Every year around 100,000 visitors arrive in Britain from Pakistan alone, which has been described by the Prime Minister as being part of a “crucible of terror” along with Afghanistan.
They are supposed to be checked by Home Office visa staff working in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
But according to an official watchdog, the Independent Monitor for Entry Clearance, many visa officers do not have “enough time to go through applications carefully”.
The security services are also worried about arrivals from Somalia, Yemen and North Africa.
MI5 have got 2,000 domestic extremists under surveillance across the country but is becoming increasingly concerned about the threat from abroad.
Similar concerns are felt in the police and one senior counter-terrorism officer told the Daily Telegraph: “There is a lack of control and supervision at our borders in the broadest sense.
“The problem is not confined to Pakistan, terrorists could arrive from anywhere, and we simply have no idea how many extremists may be here.”
Police have discovered that the leader of an alleged plot to blow up shopping centres in Manchester last Easter ran a visa advice service in Peshawar, Pakistan.
He is thought to have helped other alleged members of his terrorist cell to arrive from Pakistan under the cover of student visas.
At least one arrived to attend a course at a “bogus college” that had already had its accreditation withdrawn.
The discovery of the group based in Manchester and Liverpool earlier this year set off alarm bells among counter-terrorism officials who believed the threat was coming under control.
One source said: “Borders have always been an issue because they are a vulnerability but the Manchester group brought that home because they had a different profile from what we had been dealing with.”
A police source added: “The arrests in Manchester were a good example of the problem and afterwards we had a lot of discussions within government. We are now relying on the UK Border Agency to sort the problem out.
“Part of the problem seems to be that foreign students generate a huge amount of money and there is not a lot of incentive to do proper checks.”
Providing courses for foreign students has become a multimillion pound business but the Home Affairs Select Committee said in July that “tens of thousands” of illegal immigrants could have entered Britain using visas obtained through bogus colleges.
It said there could be up to 2,200 colleges that were not legitimate but were accredited by the Government under a system operating until March this year.
It noted there was “no adequate provision” for tracking down those that had arrived illegally and overstayed their visas.
One of the bodies responsible for checking the colleges, the Accreditation Service for International Colleges, based at a semi-detached house in a village near Middlesbrough, has itself been criticised by a body representing British universities, Universities UK.
Lord Carlile, the Government’s terrorism watchdog, called this week for “severe penalties” against those running bogus colleges with non-existent courses and “fresh strategic attention” for what he said was a major issue.
In a report earlier in the year he said it would take “at least another two years” for the aspirations of the UK Border Agency to be met on issues such as visa checks.
He said yesterday: “Being able to identify who is entering and leaving the country is a very important issue because travel patterns are absolutely key to deterring and disrupting terrorism.”
The Home Office has been criticised for moving its visa operation from Islamabad in Pakistan to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, last year.
Figures released in a series of parliamentary questions show that in the seven month period from the end of October until May this year, just 29 of 66,000 applicants from Pakistan were interviewed and in 20 per cent of cases there were no checks at all on documents giving qualifications, references or travel plans.
A leaked report for the Border Agency warned that immigrants were arriving with false bank accounts, letters of introduction from non-existent British companies and pretending to be tourists when they had left their wives and children at home.
In a raid in Southall, West London earlier this year police found at least 90,000 documents including 980 visa application files, false university certificates, academic records, bank statements and pay slips, and officers believe at least 1,000 people had entered the country illegally, around 150 from Pakistan.
Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, said yesterday the visa system was in desperate need of an overhaul.
He added: “The big concern in all of this is just how do we provide proper checks on applications without the ability to judge them in country.
“We know that there’s an industry in Pakistan in particular to try and help obtain visas for people to come to the UK, we also know the visa system has been extensively abused in the past and the average process time for each application is just eleven minutes long.
“I don’t see how this gives us the safeguards we need.”
The Home Office said they had introduced mandatory fingerprinting for all visitors from Pakistan and the number of visas rejected had risen from 41 per cent in 2006-2007 to 46 per cent in 2008-2009, while for student visas the figure had risen from 64 per cent to 74 per cent.
Last night, the Border and Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said: “The UK’s borders are stronger than ever before. Visa applicants are required to attend in person so fingerprints can be taken and their details checked against a range of police and immigration databases. If there is still any doubt, we can conduct face-to-face interviews.
“Our new electronic border system will count everyone in and out of the UK, by the end of next year 95 per cent of all passengers will be covered. It has already screened 130 million passenger movements leading to over 4,600 arrests.”