- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

LONDON — Al Qaeda has established a foothold in most countries across North Africa and the Middle East and poses a far graver threat to Britain than previously thought, according to a report being circulated among British security departments.

Titled “Extremist Threat Assessment,” the document, which was drawn up this month, also predicts that Afghanistan will supersede Iraq as the main location for terrorists planning violent acts against the West.

The secret intelligence document says that the number of locally based Islamist terrorists involved in plotting suicide attacks against “soft” targets in Britain could number more than 2,000.

The document, which has been circulated to the MI5 counterintelligence service, Scotland Yard, the interior ministry, Cabinet officials and the Ministry of Defense, says al Qaeda has grown into a worldwide organization with a foothold in virtually every Muslim country in North Africa, the Middle East and central Asia.

It says the terrorist group’s influence extends from North Africa, including Egypt, through to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, and into Somalia and Sudan. Al Qaeda is “resilient and effective” in Iraq, its “operating environment and financial position” in Pakistan has improved and a new group had emerged in Yemen.

“With violence in Afghanistan intensifying, and therefore receiving greater media attention, the country may well become more attractive as a venue for foreigners wishing to fulfill their jihad ambitions,” the document says.

Using the term “UK” or “United Kingdom” to refer to Britain, the document states: “The scale of al Qaeda’s ambitions toward attacking the UK and the number of UK extremists prepared to participate in attacks are even greater than we had previously judged.”

It warns that terrorist “attack planning” against Britain will increase this year, and adds: “We still believe that [al Qaeda] will continue to seek opportunities for mass casualty attacks against soft targets and key infrastructure. These attacks are likely to involve the use of suicide operatives.”

Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director general of MI5, warned recently that more than 1,600 “identified individuals” were actively engaged in plotting terrorist attacks in Britain. There were 200 known networks involved in at least 30 terrorist plots. It is thought the number of British citizens involved in plots could be well in excess of 2,000.

MI5 thinks that soft targets, such as the transportation system and economic targets such as the city of London and Canary Wharf, are most at risk.

A senior political source said the picture painted by the document was “particularly bleak and unlikely to improve for several years.”

“The Security Services have constantly warned that the task of countering Islamist terrorism is a daunting one. There will be more attacks in Britain,” he said.

Two years ago, Western intelligence said that al Qaeda was virtually a spent force, disrupted by counterterrorist operations around the world.

In July 2005, the Pentagon obtained a letter written by Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda’s deputy leader, saying the organization had lost many of its leaders and that it had virtually resigned itself to defeat in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s lines of communication, funding and structure had been severely damaged.

Jonathan Eyal, the director of international security at the Royal United Services Institute, attributed the al Qaeda revival to the West’s inability to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, and said the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made matters worse.

“This document clearly demonstrates a marked shift from the mood of Western governments only a year or two ago,” he said. “It is a clear admission that the organization is re-emerging and the reasons are that none of al Qaeda’s top leaders have been killed or captured.”

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