This Friday the head of Britain’s domestic spy agency warned that the U.K. faces potent threats from terrorism incubated in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and North Africa.
Jonathan Evans, director-general of MI5, the country’s domestic intelligence service, said in a rare public speech that attacks on the U.K. are increasingly likely to emanate from Somalia, Yemen or Belfast, as al Qaeda-linked groups flee strongholds in Pakistan.
The spy chief said the 2012 London Olympic Games will likely be a major target for terrorist attacks, and warned that dissidents who reject Northern Ireland’s peace process could strike mainland British cities for the first time since 2001.
Mr. Evans said Irish republican splinter groups have access to weapons, including Semtex explosives, and funds from smuggling and drug trafficking.
“We cannot exclude the possibility that they might seek to extend their attacks to Great Britain, as violent republican groups have traditionally done,” Mr. Evans said, making a speech late Thursday to security industry professionals in central London. Details of the speech were made public Friday.
While security officials have improved defenses against the threat from Islamic extremism, Mr. Evans said al Qaeda plots against Britain are “uncovered on a fairly regular basis,” with officers dealing with a handful of different cases at any one time.
But he said the number of plots against Britain with links to Pakistan’s tribal areas had dropped from three-quarters to about a half, mainly as a result of drone strikes against al Qaeda leaders—but also because of a sharp increase in activity in the Middle East and North Africa.
Would-be terrorists from around the world, including dozens of people either born or living in Britain, are training in camps in Somalia run by the al Qaeda aligned terrorist group al-Shabaab, Mr. Evans said. He warned that Somalia shares “many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism.”
“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.
This isn’t too surprising given that the US has seen an increase of Somali Americans going to Somali to join militant insurgents fighting alongside Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab. The same activity is happening in the UK.
UK residents training and fighting in Somalia are thought to number more than 100. They are believed to be of various origins, including Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and west African. MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence service, is also increasingly concerned about the spread of al-Qaida inspired jihadists across Africa, according to counter-terrorist officials.
“Al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia in Somalia, is closely aligned with al-Qaida, and Somalia shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taliban,” Evans said.
British officials believe Somalia is now a more serious base for potential attacks on the UK than Yemen where an al-Qaida affiliate developed the “underpants bomb” that failed to blow up an aircraft.
Since both the US and Britain face similar security threats, I wouldn’t be surprised if both countries were working together to reduce and eliminate this threat spectrum.