LONDON - British security officials suspect that at least 4,000 people are involved in terrorism-related activities in Britain and that Al Qaeda's "deliberate campaign" against Britain poses the "most immediate and acute peacetime threat" to the nation in a century, the head of Britain's domestic spy agency said yesterday.
"Terrorist attacks we have seen against the UK are not simply random plots by disparate and fragmented groups," said Jonathan Evans, director general of Britain's Security Service, commonly known as MI5. "The majority of these attacks, successful or otherwise, have taken place because Al Qaeda has a clear determination to mount terrorist attacks against the United Kingdom."
Addressing the Society of Editors in Manchester, England, Evans said that security agents are watching about 2,000 suspected terrorists in Britain and that they suspect "there are as many again that we don't yet know of." The remarks by Evans, who took over as head of MI5 in April, amplified the threat described a year ago by his predecessor, Eliza Manningham-Buller, who said agents were tracking 1,600 people in at least 200 cells.
Manningham-Buller's public speech was a rarity for the secretive agency, but Evans has been slightly more public and has defended his agency against criticism in unprecedented postings on its website. Noting that his speech yesterday, to a media group, was still "fairly unusual," Evans said he was speaking because MI5 has "a responsibility to keep the public informed about the threats they face and what we are doing to counter them."
The rise in the number of identified terrorism suspects in Britain is partly attributable to increased efforts by security services to track plotters, Evans said. British agencies have refocused on potential domestic terrorists since suicide bomb attacks on the London public transit system in July 2005 killed 52 passengers. In the past 18 months, British officials have broken up alleged plots to bomb trans-Atlantic jetliners and detonate car bombs outside a crowded central London nightclub.
Echoing Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who recently described the fight against radical Islamic terrorism as a "generation-long challenge," Evans said that Al Qaeda's campaign against Britain is expanding and that "there remains a steady flow of new recruits to the extremist cause." He said youths as young as 15 have been involved in terrorist plots in Britain.
Evans also noted that the plots against Britain are being increasingly organized overseas.
He said that in the past five years, much of the "command, control and inspiration" for attack planning in Britain has come from Al Qaeda's core leadership in tribal areas of Pakistan, while British citizens have mounted the actual attacks. In several recent cases, police said some of the suspects had visited Pakistan and trained in terrorist camps there.