BERLIN—British anti-terrorist police are tracking more than 200 groups and more than 1,600 suspects who are thought to be planning attacks in Britain and abroad, the head of Britain's domestic intelligence agency said in a speech released Friday in London.
Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director-general of MI5 since 2002, said networks inspired by the goals of international terrorism and either directed by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida in Pakistan or locally controlled, are plotting about 30 mass-casualty suicide attacks in the United Kingdom.
"Today we see the use of homemade improvised explosive devices; tomorrow's threat may include the use of chemicals, bacteriological agents, radioactive materials and even nuclear technology," she said.
"We are aware of numerous plots to kill people and to damage our economy," she said. "What do I mean by numerous? Five? Ten? No, nearer 30—that we know of. These plots often have links back to al-Qaida in Pakistan, and through those links al-Qaida gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers here on an extensive and growing scale. And it is not just the U.K., of course. Other countries also face a new terrorist threat, from Spain to France to Canada and Germany."
Manningham-Buller rarely makes public comments, so her words are taken seriously in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. She spoke Thursday at Queen Mary's College in London.
Terrorism analysts said her speech was rare and significant, and probably was prompted by the Democratic victories in the United States House of Representatives and Senate.
Robert Ayers, a security expert at Britain's prestigious Chatham House research center, said there appears to be hope in England that al-Qaida will decrease the intensity of its attacks because President Bush has been weakened and British Prime Minister Tony Blair—the other main backer of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq—is on his way out.
"This much detail, this strongly worded; she's telling us the problem is here now, it's not going away and it doesn't matter who's in charge, al-Qaida is not going to be sweetness and light," Ayers said.
Manningham-Buller said that since she took command of the spy organization in 2002, and in her five years as deputy director before that, she's seen "a steady increase in the terror threat to the U.K."
She noted that al-Qaida's first attempted attack in Britain was foiled in Birmingham, an industrial city in the British Midlands, in November 2000.
"Let there be no doubt about this: The international terrorist threat to this country is not new," she said. "It began before Iraq, before Afghanistan and before 9/11."
Manningham-Buller said that according to recent polls, more than 100,000 Britons consider the July 2005 terrorist attacks in London, which killed 52 people, justified. "More and more people are moving from passive sympathy towards active terrorism through being radicalized or indoctrinated by friends, families, in organized training events here and overseas, by images on television, through chat rooms and Web sites on the Internet," she said.
Her warning came days after Dhiren Barot, a 34-year-old convert to Islam, was sentenced to a minimum of 40 years in prison for plotting terror attacks in the United States and Britain, including the use of dirty bombs, attacks on hotels and railway stations in Britain and an attack on Wall Street.
Manningham-Buller said terrorist planning was ongoing when attacks took place in Madrid, Casablanca, Bali and Istanbul, but that domestic plots were disrupted.
"This run of domestic success was interrupted tragically in London in July 2005," she said, referring to the subway and bus bombs. Since then, she said, security forces "have thwarted a further five major conspiracies in the U.K., saving many hundreds, possibly even thousands, of lives."
Blair later agreed with his nation's top security official. "I've been saying, as you know, for several years that this terrorist threat is very real," he said. "This is a threat that has grown up over a generation."
Manningham-Buller said al-Qaida has a "sophisticated" propaganda machine, and she said, "Young teenagers are being groomed to be suicide bombers."
You can read Manningham-Buller's speech at www.mi5.gov.uk/output/Page568.html
The MI5 Web site is at www.mi5.gov.uk/
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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