U.K. terror attack called 'highly likely'

Posted in Terrorism | 02-Aug-06 | Author: Alan Cowell| Source: International Herald Tribune

Home Secretary John Reid enters his office at the Home Office in London.
LONDON The security services issued their assessment of the probability of a terror attack for the first time Tuesday, telling Britons that they faced a "severe" threat, meaning that an attack was "highly likely."

In a separate development, the British authorities suffered what they took as a significant setback in their counterterrorism strategy when three appeal judges upheld a previous ruling that so-called control orders - a form of house arrest - used to detain six Iraqi suspects constituted a breach of their human rights and should be quashed.

John Reid, the home secretary, said the terms of the control orders would be eased. But, he said, he would appeal to the House of Lords - Britain's highest court - to overturn the judges' conclusion that the orders, confining the men indoors for 18 hours a day and subjecting them to other restrictions, were illegal under European laws forbidding indefinite detention without trial. The developments focused attention anew on the problems British authorities have faced in dealing with terrorist suspects they do not wish to bring to court and in enlisting public support for counterterrorism measures criticized by civil rights organizations.

Under a new system introduced as part of an effort to make the intelligence services seem more open, the threat level appeared on several official security and intelligence Web sites, including www.intelligence.gov.uk and www.mi5.gov.uk.

The level of peril facing Britons has been a point of contention since last year, when the security services lowered the threat-level assessment two months before the July 7 bombings, in which four bombers killed 52 travelers on the London transport system.

"Threat levels are designed to give a broad indication of the likelihood of a terrorist attack," said the Web site of the British intelligence community, intelligence.gov.uk. "They are based on the assessment of a range of factors including current intelligence, recent events and what is known about terrorist intentions and capabilities. This information may well be incomplete and decisions about the appropriate security response are made with this in mind."

Unlike the previous grading system, which was secret and offered seven levels of threat, the new system has been simplified to five, starting with "low," meaning an attack is unlikely, to "critical," meaning an attack is expected imminently.

"Severe" is the second-highest threat level, but the Web site did not say what kind of attack was likely. The assessment is roughly the same as it has been for a year.

Britain's apparent vulnerability relates to assumptions among intelligence experts that its military presence in Iraq as America's most resolute ally has helped to make it a target.

"In recent years, Iraq has become a dominant issue for a range of extremist groups and individuals in the U.K. and Europe," the Web site of MI5, the agency responsible for threats to national security, said on Tuesday.

Assessing the threat from Al Qaeda, the Web site said: "British and foreign nationals linked to or sympathetic with Al Qaeda are known to be present within the U.K."

It added: "Some British residents have traveled to Iraq to join the insurgency against the country's government and multinational coalition forces. In the longer term, it is possible that they may later return to the U.K. and consider mounting attacks here."

The relative openness follows other efforts by the intelligence community to shed its traditional cloak-and-dagger image: in October, MI6, the secret intelligence-gathering service that once denied its own existence, started its own Web site to advertise for recruits.