Insider View: Responding to the terrorist threat

 ROME -- The arrest of three asylum seekers suspected of plotting terrorist attacks in Italy and the UK has highlighted the differing approaches to the threat in the two countries.

 British security officials initially reacted with scepticism. They are accustomed to spectacular Italian police operations against Islamist terrorist suspects, highly publicised at the time but quietly dropped later for lack of evidence.

 Italian officials tend to be forthcoming with information about their inquiries, while their British counterparts are as quiet as clams, reinforcing the national propensity for secrecy whenever the word terrorism pops up.

 People familiar with the case against the Bari suspects, Hakim Nasiri and Gulistan Ahmadzai of Afghanistan and Pakistani Zulfiqar Amjad, say there is ample evidence of their involvement in people trafficking but the proof that they had terrorist intentions is weak.

 Some of the men had images of tourist sites on their mobile phones, but they also had videos and photos of locations of no particular cultural or aesthetic significance. There were pictures of the Colosseum and London’s Shard skyscraper, but also of hotels and restaurants of no particular touristic merit, some of them filmed at night.

 They had also saved violent jihadist propaganda and gruesome images of mutilated American servicemen. Nasiri had a photo of himself making an obscene gesture towards a poster of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban for wanting to go to school, and another showing him cradling an M16 rifle.

 Does one wait for such people to commit murder before arresting them? And having made a preventive arrest how can you punish them for a suspected intention? And how do you protect society from them in the longer term?

 As in the case of an Islamist massacre in California last year, police seized an iPhone belonging to one of the suspects but have not been able to break through Apple’s encryption.

 In the United States the FBI solved the problem by turning to a professional hacker, possibly from Israel.

 Roberto Rossi, one of the Bari prosecutors coordinating the inquiry, commented: “The balance between the protection of privacy and the protection of people needs to be discussed at an international level.”

 It is just one of many questions that need to be urgently addressed.