The terrorist threat facing Britain from home-grown al-Qaeda agents is higher than at any time since the September 11 attacks in 2001, secret intelligence documents reveal.
The number of British-based Islamic terrorists plotting suicide attacks against “soft” targets in this country is far greater than the Security Services had previously believed, the government paperwork discloses. It is thought the plotters could number more than 2,000.
Under the heading “International Terrorism in the UK”, the document – seen by The Sunday Telegraph – states: “The scale of al-Qaeda’s ambitions towards attacking the UK and the number of UK extremists prepared to participate in attacks are even greater than we had previously judged.”
It warns that terrorist “attack planning” against Britain will increase in 2007, and adds: “We still believe that AQ [al-Qaeda] will continue to seek opportunities for mass casualty attacks against soft targets and key infrastructure. These attacks are likely to involve the use of suicide operatives.”
The document, which has been circulated across Whitehall to MI5, Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorist Command, the Home Office, the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence, also reveals that al-Qaeda has grown into a world-wide organisation with a foothold in virtually every Muslim country in North Africa, the Middle East and central Asia.
Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director general of MI5, warned recently that there were more than 1,600 “identified individuals” actively engaged in plotting terrorist attacks. There were 200 known networks involved in at least 30 terrorist plots. It is thought that the number of British citizens involved in plots could be well in excess of 2,000.
MI5 believes that soft targets, such as the transport system and economic targets such as the City of London and Canary Wharf, are most at risk.
A senior political source said the picture painted by the document was “particularly bleak and unlikely to improve for several years”.
He said: “The Security Services have constantly warned that the task of countering Islamist terrorism is a daunting one. There will be more attacks in Britain.”
Patrick Mercer, the Tory spokesman for homeland security, said: “This document absolutely underlines the threat and makes me wonder why the Government still has a counter-terrorist strategy that has been officially declared obsolete. It does make the Government’s response look hugely complacent.”
Entitled Extremist Threat Assessment, the document, which was drawn up this month, also discloses that Afghanistan, where more than 7,000 British troops will be based by the end of May, is expected to supersede Iraq as the location for terrorists planning Jihad against the West.
It says that al-Qaeda’s influence extends from North Africa, including Egypt, through to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, and into Somalia and Sudan. Al-Qaeda is “resilient and effective” in Iraq, its “operating environment and financial position” in Pakistan has improved and a new group had emerged in Yemen.
“With violence in Afghanistan intensifying, and therefore receiving greater media attention, the country may well become more attractive as a venue for foreigners wishing to fulfil their Jihad ambitions”, the document states.
Two years ago, western intelligence said that al-Qaeda was virtually a spent force, disrupted by counter-terrorist operations around the world.
In July 2005 the Pentagon obtained a letter written by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, stating that the organisation had lost many of its leaders and that it had virtually resigned itself to defeat in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s lines of communication, funding and structure had been severely damaged.
Dr Jonathan Eyal, the director of international security at the Royal United Services Institute, said that the al-Qaeda revival was down to the West’s inability to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and that wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made matters worse.
“This document clearly demonstrates a marked shift from the mood of western government only a year or two ago,” he said. “It is a clear admission that the organisation is re-emerging and the reasons are that none of al-Qaeda’s top leaders have been killed or captured.”