Article published in The Times, Tuesday 1 August 2017. © Richard Kemp
The sentencing of the Royal Marine-turned-terrorist Ciaran Maxwell exposes a key challenge facing the armed forces and police.
How did Maxwell get through the net? All recruits to the forces are subject to basic security vetting but it is far from foolproof. In the years before the Good Friday agreement vetting of recruits from Northern Ireland was much stricter, yet some extremists from both sides got in.
After the agreement, in the era of equal opportunities at any price, obsessive political correctness and a determination to increase recruitment among Northern Irish Catholics, vetting parameters and monitoring procedures changed. This made Maxwell’s entry and service in the Royal Marines far easier.
There is no doubt that the threat from dissidents will rise significantly in the coming years, partly in reaction to the increased influence of the DUP, so the potential for future infiltration remains. But that is the least of our problems. The understandable drive by the armed forces and police to recruit more Muslims, and a less understandable concern for ticking the politically correct box over operational effectiveness, combine into an unprecedented danger.
Most Muslims who join the armed forces and police undoubtedly do so for good patriotic reasons. But Islamic State is determined to infiltrate the forces and police, and has produced a manual that includes instructions on doing so.
The jihadists’ strategy of infiltration goes back years and despite the authorities rejecting hundreds on security grounds it is inconceivable that some have not succeeded in joining and are now ‘sleepers’, awaiting orders to strike.
We have seen the dangers of the enemy within. In Afghanistan 152 coalition troops were killed in 99 ‘green on blue’ attacks when trusted Afghan police and soldiers turned their guns on their comrades.
Armed forces members have access to sensitive intelligence, secure locations, members of the royal family, high-ranking officers and politicians, aircraft, tanks and nuclear submarines. Those with such potentially devastating opportunities have increased security vetting but what security vetting can be sure to detect an individual who is radicalised while serving, or pressurised to act by extremists who perhaps threaten his family?
The problem is exacerbated by a culture of political thought control under which soldiers and police officers are frightened to report suspicious behaviour for fear of being branded racist.