More than 100 suspects are awaiting trial in British courts for terrorist offences – a figure unprecedented in modern criminal history – Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former spy chief, has revealed.
Britain is a centre of intense plotting and faces a terrorist threat of “unprecedented scale, ambition and ruthlessness”.
In a stark warning for the future, Dame Eliza added: “It remains a very real possibility that they may, sometime, somewhere attempt a chemical biological, radiological or even nuclear attack”.
The more than 40 separate terror court cases due to be heard include Operation Gamble, an alleged plot to kidnap and video the beheading of a British soldier and Operation Overt, an alleged plan to blow up 10 US airliners.
Only last week, Omar Altimimi, from Bolton, was jailed for nine years for terrorist-related offences. A further three men were sentenced to a total of 24 years in jail after they admitted inciting terrorist murder over the internet.
Dame Eliza, the former director-general of MI5, said the radicalisation of teenage Muslims “from first exposure, to extremism, to active participation in terrorist plotting” was now worryingly rapid.
It was vital that the Government rose to the challenge of trying to change the attitudes that “lead some of our young people to become terrorists”.
Dame Eliza, writing in the periodical Policing: A Journal of Policing and Practice, said that 1,700 terrorists in 200 networks, “scattered across the country” are thought to be plotting 30 attacks at any one time.
She warned of the “pressing demand” for the police to create a secret network of Muslim spies capable of improving intelligence gathering.
In the article, drafted shortly before she left the service in April but published only last week, she went on: “In addition to these 200-plus networks and groupings now identified, there are sure to be others at large, which we have yet to uncover.”
The former spy chief also warned that “it is inevitable that some terrorist plots will escape our combined attention,” adding: “Even if we have the numbers of personnel engaged in looking at our own citizens as, say, the KGB or the Stasi did during the Cold War, and with the same authoritarian powers, some things would slip under the radar.”
Dame Eliza, 59, now retired in the West Country after her 33 years with MI5, said it was almost inevitable that the search for terrorists within the Muslim community would lead to social tensions. But she said this “must not be allowed to deflect the police, nor the Security Services, from continuing the intelligence work which is necessary and proportionate to match the terrorist threat”.
She warned of the difficulties of converting intelligence into evidence that would stand up in court. “This is rarely a straightforward endeavour,” she writes. “There will continue to be occasions when we will have to act on credible threat intelligence but no charges will follow, and we will need to accept, and educate the public to accept, that this is an unavoidable consequence of the current threat.”
Concluding the article, she called on both the police and MI5 to develop their relationship, which she said had created a counter-terrorist organisation “unmatched anywhere in the world”.
“¢ A backlog of 20,000 travellers’ bags has built up following terrorist alerts at Heathrow Airport, writes Jasper Copping.
Heavy rain, which delayed some flights, has also added to the luggage mountain and thousands have been forced to travel without their belongings.
British Airways said volunteers had been drafted in to help, but admitted that it could take several days to sort out.