Britain facing a new wave of terrorist attacks, MI5 warns
Britain is facing a wave of terrorist attacks on two fronts from a new generation of al-Qaeda extremists and Irish Republican militants who could strike on the mainland, the head of MI5 Jonathan Evans warns.
By Duncan Gardham, Security Correspondent
Published: 11:59PM BST 16 Sep 2010
Britiain facing wave of terrorist attacks, MI5 warns
jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, has briefed David Cameron and Nick Clegg on the threats Photo: AP
In his first public speech on the national security threat for three years, Mr Evans will say on Friday that his officers are engaged in an "intense struggle" against Muslim radicals and Irish nationalists.
It is only "a matter of time" before Britain is the victim of an attack from extremists based in Somalia, the director-general of the security service adds.
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There has been a "persistent rise in terrorist activity and ambition" in Northern Ireland over the past three years, says Mr Evans. Terrorists in Ulster are using increasingly sophisticated weaponry to launch "reckless" attacks that could kill civilians.
"While at present the dissidents' campaign is focused on Northern Ireland, we cannot exclude the possibility that they might seek to extend their attacks to Great Britain as violent Republican groups have traditionally done," he says.
Mr Evans, who has briefed David Cameron and Nick Clegg on the threats, says there remains "a serious risk of a lethal attack taking place".
"I see no reason to believe that the position will significantly improve in the immediate future," he adds.
He uses his speech to appeal to the Government not to abandon control orders, the measure under which terrorist suspects are electronically tagged and put under house arrest. There are nine suspects who are subject to the orders.
The Liberal Democrats had promised to scrap the measure and it is now being considered under a wider review of counter-terrorism legislation.
Whitehall sources have told The Daily Telegraph that control orders are likely to be retained in some form.
Mr Evans says MI5 is "committed to prosecutions wherever possible”, but adds: “It is a sad fact that for all sorts of good reasons terrorist threats can still exist which the criminal justice system cannot reach. The Government cannot absolve itself of the responsibility to protect its citizens just because the criminal law cannot, in the particular circumstances, serve the purpose.”
Mr Evans tells the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals in the City of London that every day, hundreds of officers were fighting an “intense struggle” to identify and investigate terrorists.
“The secret nature of this struggle makes it hard for those not directly involved to understand some of the skirmishes,” he adds. At any one time, MI5 had a “handful” of investigations that involved the “real possibility of a terrorist attack being planned against the UK”, he says. “Most turn out to be the real thing.”
The percentage of “priority” plots linked to al-Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan had dropped from 75 per cent two years ago to 50 per cent now. The threat had increased from Somalia and Yemen.
Mr Evans says a “significant number” of British residents are training in camps run by the al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabaab. As many as 100 Britons of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and West African backgrounds had travelled to Somalia.
The country “shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taliban,” he says. “I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those fighting alongside al-Shabaab.”
Mr Evans says there has been a “surge in casework” related to Yemen and adds: “There is a real risk that one of [preacher Anwar al-Awlaki’s] adherents will respond to his urging to violence and mount an attack in the UK.”
In Northern Ireland, there were now thought to be about 600 hardline Republicans involved in terrorist activity, around half the number during the peak of IRA activity in the 1980s, sources said.
The director-general says there are “increasing signs of co-ordination and co-operation between groups”, resulting in 30 attacks or attempted attacks this year. The terrorists were using a greater variety of techniques from shootings to large vehicle bombs. They had improved their capability in the use of explosives.
The vast majority of attacks had been directed at the security forces but Mr Evans says the terrorists have been “reckless, often putting members of the public at risk” with vague warnings of the type that resulted in the deaths of 29 civilians in Omagh in 1998.
MI5 is likely to face a budget cut of 10 per cent but sources said the agency believed it could cope with that level.
Mr Evans says the idea that every attack is preventable is a “nonsensical way to consider terrorist risk”. “Risk can be managed and reduced but it cannot realistically be abolished and if we delude ourselves that it can, we are setting ourselves up for a nasty disappointment,” he says.