At least 100 terrorists trained by Osama bin Laden are at large in Britain, the recently retired head of London’s police force said in a newspaper article published Sunday.
Sir John Stevens also said the threat justified tough anti-terror proposals, including placing suspects under house arrest without charge, that the government is struggling to get through Parliament.
“As you read this, there are at least 100 Osama bin Laden-trained terrorists walking Britain’s streets,” Stevens wrote in the News of the World weekly. “The number is probably nearer 200 … the cunning of al-Qaida means we can’t be exact.
“But they would all commit devastating terror attacks against us if they could, even those born and brought up here.”
Stevens retired as head of the Metropolitan Police last month.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government wants the new Prevention of Terrorism Bill to include the power to order sweeping controls on terror suspects, including house arrest, electronic tagging and bans on using the Internet and telephones.
Critics say the bill would undermine civil rights.
But Stevens said it was “vital” that lawmakers approve the new legislation, which is being rushed through Parliament to replace anti-terror laws that Britain’s highest court denounced on human rights grounds.
“For the safety of the vast majority, occasionally we will have to accept the infringement of the human rights of high-risk individuals,” Stevens wrote.
He said opponents of the bill underestimate the terrorist threat, and he rejected comparisons between al-Qaida terrorists and the IRA, which waged a bombing campaign in Britain from the 1970s through the early 1990s.
“I’ve heard opposing politicians say: ‘We didn’t need these new measures to fight the IRA when they were bombing our cities.’ …
“The difference is that no (IRA member) ever strapped a bomb to their body, walked into somewhere like Trafalgar Square and blew themselves and 100 innocent passers-by to smithereens,” Stevens wrote.
He added that large numbers of British “undercover agents, moles and special deep-cover surveillance teams risk their lives daily to track and monitor the evil in our midst. So far, they’ve managed to frustrate bin Laden’s followers and many are awaiting trial as a result.”
Last week, a British man accused of plotting with shoe-bomber Richard Reid pleaded guilty to conspiring to blow up a U.S.-bound aircraft in 2001. Saajid Badat’s guilty plea represented the first major conviction for a terrorist plot in Britain since the Sept. 11 attacks.
A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police on Sunday refused to comment on Stevens’ article. No one was available for comment at the Home Office, the government department responsible for law enforcement and home security.
But the civil liberties group Liberty said it was “shocked at the tone and some of the content of Sir John’s piece.”
“The only way to achieve public confidence is by charging suspects and bringing them to trial,” Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said.