Getting to the bottom of the beheading plot.
For those who might have forgotten, the very day after the first arrests, the Daily Mail screamed "AL QAEDA WAS BEHIND PLOT TO BEHEAD SOLDIER". The Sun and Times, as per usual, were at the forefront of the speculation, with the Times claiming that the men arrested may have had a list of up to 25 possible targets, and that two of the men had attended a camp "directly linked to al-Qaida". One newspaper even claimed that two Muslim soldiers had been used as "bait", something that the police later made clear was completely untrue. Indeed, West Midlands police were so angered by the leaks to the press that they made it clear they had hampered their investigation, although it took another two months for Peter Clarke to make a speech saying the leaks might have put "lives at risk" for the Tories and Lib Dems to ask any questions whatsoever.
Although it's still very early days, none of the evidence disclosed today has even suggested that the men had found a target. Rather, Parviz Khan, the apparent ringleader, whose house had been bugged by MI5, was recorded talking of using drug dealers to target a soldier by getting them to approach him and offer cocaine, then grab him off the street once they'd piqued his interest. Why drug dealers would have cooperated with Khan isn't explained, or indeed how they would have managed to so successfully follow their target so as to get close enough to grab him also isn't identified. Basiru Gassama, who pleaded guilty to knowing about the plot but not informing the authorities, was according to the prosecution to have provided the details of the target, but never did. The only solid thing appears to be that they planned to behead a soldier, record it, and most likely distribute it through jihadist forums.
As for links to al-Qaida, Khan has also admitted to supplying equipment such as night-vision goggles, sleeping bags, walkie-talkies and waterproof map holders to his "terrorist contacts" in Pakistan. Whether this was intended for use in Afghanistan by the remnants of the Taliban and the others still fighting there is uncertain, although what use some of the material would have for use in the part of Pakistan affected by the earthquake there is certainly unclear.
Rather, what the opening of the trial appears to show is the continuation of a theme: that instead of having cast-iron links with terrorist groups overseas that are controlling the cells, the groups that have had their plots foiled up to now have almost all been acting entirely alone, coming up with their own ideas, often either overblown and too difficult to pull off, or incompetent, in the case of last year's failed attacks on the London nightclub and Glasgow airport. While it's reassuring somewhat that they're either pretentious or immature, what is more troubling is that they're home-grown, autonomous and fully acquainted with classic terror tactics. The beheading plot was nothing more in reality than a murder plot, but its political subtext would have been overwhelming.
Again, it shows the terror threat is real, but that it continues to be exaggerated for short-term political gain. Refusing to give in to demands for extending either the detention limit further or for a return to Musharraf's supposed plan for tackling radicalisation continue to be justified by the failures and weaknesses of the plots foiled, not to mention the civil liberties implications or the chilling effects on the Muslim community itself.