MI5 (the UK's domestic intelligence service) has identified 30 major terrorist plots being planned in the UK and is targeting more than 1,600 individuals actively engaged in promoting attacks here and abroad, agency head Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller warned yesterday.
The 30 plots are the most serious of many more planned by some 200 British-based "networks" involved in terrorism, she said in a closed-door speech to academics in east London on Thursday, but which was made public on MI5's Web site yesterday.
In a gloomy assessment of the home-grown terrorist threat, MI5 says most of those involved are British-born, and most are connected with al-Qaeda.
Manningham-Buller is known for her sober assessments about the extent of the terrorist threat and has distanced herself in the past from ministers' more dramatic speeches on the subject, so her public intervention will be taken seriously.
However, skeptics will question why MI5 and the police have not acted to arrest or charge those said to pose such a direct threat to Britain's security.
Security sources argue that the alleged plotters are still being tracked because there is either insufficient evidence to apprehend and charge them or because their plans have not reached the stage when they pose an imminent threat to the public.
However, Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters at his Downing Street office yesterday that the MI5 chief was "absolutely right that it will last a generation."
"We need to combat the poisonous propaganda of those people that warps and perverts the minds of younger people," he said.
Manningham-Buller said it was clear from "martyrdom" videos that suicide bombers are motivated in part by "their interpretation as anti-Muslim of UK foreign policy, in particular the UK's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan."
"We are aware of numerous plots to kill people and to damage our economy," sher said. "What do I mean by numerous? Five? 10? No, nearer 30 ... that we know of."
These plots, she said, "often have links back to al-Qaeda in Pakistan and through those links al-Qaeda gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers here on an extensive and growing scale."
If opinion polls were broadly accurate, more than 100,000 British citizens considered the attacks on London in July last year were justified, Manningham-Buller said.
She said that at the extreme end were "resilient networks, some directed from al-Qaeda in Pakistan, some more loosely inspired by it, planning attacks including mass casualty suicide attacks in the UK."
Tomorrow's threat "may include the use of chemicals, bacteriological agents, radioactive materials and even nuclear technology," she said.
"More and more people are moving from passive sympathy towards active terrorism through being radicalized or indoctrinated by friends, families, in organized training events here and overseas, by images on television, through chatrooms and Web sites on the Internet," she said.