LONDON (Reuters) - Suspected al Qaeda plots targeting Britain originate increasingly in Somalia and Yemen, partly as a result of counter-terrorism pressure on the group’s leaders in Pakistan, the head of the MI5 security service said.
Somalia resembled 1990s Afghanistan as a “seedbed for terrorism”, and militants there may one day inspire like-minded individuals to carry out attacks in Britain, Director-General Jonathan Evans added in a speech on Thursday evening.
“I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al Shabaab,” he said, referring to an al Qaeda-aligned militant group in Somalia.
“Counter-terrorist capabilities have improved in recent years but there remains a serious risk of a lethal attack taking place. I see no reason to believe that the position will significantly improve in the immediate future.”
Reiterating statements by other officials that a major security operation would be provided for the 2012 Olympics, he said Britain should not underestimate the challenge of mounting the Games securely “in an environment with a high terrorist threat”, which would be the first time this had been attempted.
Evans said the proportion of suspected plots against Britain originating in northwest Pakistan had dropped to about 50 percent from 75 percent two or three years ago, showing a diversification, not a reduction, of the threat.
“The reduction in cases linked to the tribal areas of Pakistan is partly attributable to the pressure exerted on the al Qaeda leadership there. But the reduction is also partly a result of increased activity elsewhere.”
Most terrorist plots in Britain since September 11, 2001 have had links to Pakistan, including suicide bombings in July 2005 which killed 52 people on London’s underground and bus network. Britain has demanded Pakistan do more to combat terrorism.
Evans said Yemen was a concern because of the hardline Islamist al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which claimed it orchestrated a failed attempt by a Nigerian student to bomb an airliner over Detroit on December 25 2009.
Yemen was also a concern because an influential U.S.-born Islamist preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, was hiding out there and publishing propaganda urging attacks on the West, Evans said.
“There is a real risk that one of his adherents will respond to his urging to violence and mount an attack in the UK, possibly acting alone and with little formal training.”
Yemen, next door to oil exporter Saudi Arabia, jumped to the forefront of Western security concerns after the botched bombing of the U.S.-bound plane.
In Somalia, across the Gulf of Aden, al Shabaab has been fighting a weak transitional government for three years and now controls large swathes of the south and centre of the country.
Evans said some of the plots MI5 saw being encouraged or tasked by al Qaeda associates involved people who did not have the skills or character to be “credible terrorists”.
“But...even determined amateurs can cause devastation.”