Britain's MI5 Warns Of Rising Terror Threat

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 11, 2006

LONDON, Nov. 10 -- British spies are watching 1,600 people in 200 cells believed to be plotting terrorist acts in Britain or overseas, according to the head of Britain's domestic spy agency.

"More and more people are moving from passive sympathy towards active terrorism," said Eliza Manningham-Buller, director general of the MI5 intelligence agency. The spy chief, who rarely speaks publicly, delivered her stark assessment Thursday in a speech at the University of London's Queen Mary College. A transcript of her remarks was posted on MI5's Web site Friday.

Manningham-Buller said a growing number of people are plotting to kill others and damage the British economy. The conspirators, she said, are motivated "by a sense of grievance and injustice driven by their interpretation of the history between the West and the Muslim world."

She also described the terrorists' "propaganda machine" as "sophisticated," noting that footage of attacks in Iraq is posted on the Internet within 30 minutes, facilitated by teams that edit the video, translate the audio into many languages and package the material for a global audience. "And, chillingly, we see the results here," she said. "Young teenagers being groomed to be suicide bombers."

Responding to her remarks, Prime Minister Tony Blair said, "It's a very long and deep struggle, but we have to stand up and be counted for what we believe in and take the fight to those people who want to entice young people into something wicked and violent but utterly futile." He said he agreed with Manningham-Buller's assessment that this terrorist threat would last a generation.

The spy chief said her agency was currently aware of about 30 plots, which "often have links back to al-Qaeda in Pakistan." It is through those links, she said, that al-Qaeda gives "guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers here on an extensive and growing scale."

Earlier this week, a British court sentenced to life in prison an al-Qaeda operative who had made a detailed proposal to financiers in Pakistan, according to prosecutors. The operative, Dhiren Barot, 34, had plotted synchronized bomb attacks on U.S. financial institutions, along with London hotels and other sites in Britain.

U.S. intelligence officials have not publicly estimated the number of terrorist cells they are watching. In September, however, President Bush delivered a speech in which he detailed eight plots that had been thwarted as a result of intelligence gleaned from detainees in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Manningham-Buller's motivation for publicly airing her assessment was unclear. Some analysts suggested the move could be seen as a plea for more funding or for intelligence tips; others saw the speech as a way to recruit more agents.

Staffing at MI5 has increased 50 percent to 2,800 since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and it will continue to grow, Manningham-Buller said. More than 6 percent of MI5 personnel are ethnic minorities, she added. The agency has actively recruited Muslims and other minorities.

But Manningham-Buller also painted a picture of an overstretched agency that has to make daily decisions about "whom to follow, whose telephone lines need listening to," and what seized evidence needs to be analyzed first.

She emphasized that the first al-Qaeda-related plot against Britain was discovered and disrupted in November 2000, long before the Iraq war started. But she also said that videotaped statements of British suicide bombers made it clear that they are motivated by "perceived worldwide and long-standing injustices against Muslims," including their interpretation of British foreign policy as "anti-Muslim," particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

She also warned that many countries are facing a new terrorist threat and specifically mentioned Spain, France, Canada and Germany. While terrorists were currently using homemade improvised explosive devices, she said, "tomorrow's threat may include the use of chemicals, bacteriological agents, radioactive materials and even nuclear technology."

Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

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