BRIAN BRADY WESTMINSTER EDITOR
November 22, 2003
MINISTERS are preparing to place the UK on bred alertb in an unprecedented peacetime move that would see the streets of Britain flooded with armed police.
The plan to step up to the highest possible security state follows last weekbs devastating terrorist attacks on British targets in Turkey and growing fears that a direct assault on the UK is inevitable.
The nationwide alert would result in tougher security checks across the country and give intelligence agencies and police emergency powers to increase surveillance, phone-tapping and the detention of terror suspects on the basis of intelligence reports.
Fears of "martyrdom operations" by terrorists against targets in Britain were heightened last night after it emerged that a possible poison attack in London was thwarted last year. A terror group attempted to buy half a tonne of toxic chemicals from a UK firm which was suspicious about the quantities needed and reported the matter to police.
It was also claimed last night that security services are hunting two al-Qaeda cells they believe are preparing to carry out "spectacular" terrorist attacks on Britain.
Up to 10 terrorists from north Africa and Saudi Arabia have reportedly mounted surveillance operations on vulnerable commercial targets such as big banks and shopping centres, and even made "dummy runs" to practise suicide car-bombings against the premises.
MI5 director-general Eliza Manningham-Buller was last night reported to have warned ministers of the potential for attack, and told senior MPs of the threat posed by al-Qaeda "sleepers" based in Britain.
Barely a week ago, on the eve of President George Bushbs visit to Britain, the country was placed on its second highest state of alert, bsevere generalb, after intelligence emerged suggesting al-Qaeda was planning an attack.
Now, as British embassies around the world scramble to improve their defences, Home Secretary David Blunkett has concluded the threat facing Britain within its own borders is more serious than ever before.
Blunkett, who yesterday said he was "sick and tired" of people pretending there was not a threat from terrorists, has held talks with senior intelligence and security advisers about the likelihood of cranking up defences still further.
Britainbs top policeman, Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir John Stevens, has warned an attack in London is both imminent and inevitable.
A Home Office source last night stressed the escalated alert would only be triggered by the most specific intelligence about imminent attacks, but added there was growing "resignation" within the department that the move would be necessary sooner rather than later.
"These are not things we make up as we go along," he said. "There is a plan for what happens when the emergency is seen as imminent, an off-the-shelf strategy. We have to keep this under review. It is being looked at in the light of events."
Security experts last night confirmed that the move to the highest state of alert would see more police on the streets issued with guns and tougher security checks at ports and airports.
There would also be increased armed protection of possible targets, including barriers at government offices, courts and other sensitive buildings.
The emergency legislation rushed through following the September 11 attacks gave Blunkett a series of powers, including the right to detain indefinitely suspected terrorists, and monitor accounts, phone calls and e-mails.
In an unreported statement last week, he announced that 16 foreign terror suspects have been detained without trial under the powers during the past two years, with the latest internee picked up in October.
Admiral Sir Alan West, the First Sea Lord, warned yesterday: "It is not a question of if, it is a question of when. I cannot imagine there will not be an event in the UK."
Andrew Garfield, director of the International Centre for Security Analysis at Kingbs College, London, said: "To even think of cranking up the alert above what it was already would mean they are probably working on very high intelligence of a specific threat.
"If they go ahead with it, it will mean very active measures are introduced. Sometimes they will publicise the alert to encourage the public to be vigilant, but mainly they are just trying to make it obvious to the terrorists that they know what they are up to and they wonbt succeed."
Details of the governmentbs dramatic next steps in the defence against terrorism were disclosed as ministers were accused of not doing enough to protect British interests at home and abroad from attacks.
The Conservativesb homeland security spokesman, Patrick Mercer, said the United States was taking terrorism warnings far more seriously, and major targets in Britain were not being given the same protection as the US embassy in London.
He added: "I do wonder why the government canbt see the value of making people alert, training people in what to look for, and therefore creating in almost everybody who has got a set of eyes and ears a set of intelligence nodes, if you like, that can be aware of whatbs coming and may be able to prevent this type of activity."
Blunkett said he would announce any specific high-level warnings if it would help people protect themselves, but he maintained that they could be worried by general warnings.
"It is very good intelligence that actually saves you in the end, not massive concrete blocks around every piece of British territory abroad or, for that matter, all our iconic buildings," he said.
Blunkett backed Stevensb claim that Met officers had already foiled planned terror attacks on London, although he refused to confirm the reports about the would-be plot to kill thousands of people with toxic chemicals.
The group attempted to buy 500kg of saponin, which could be mixed with ricin or another toxin to cause widespread poisoning if the concoction was smeared on surfaces in public places. But the supplier they were dealing with, Amersham Biosciences, alerted police after becoming suspicious. Company spokesman Lennart Arlinger said the organisation making the order was funded by "the Islamic community".
As security is tightened at UK embassies, it also emerged that Tony Blair and Bush are planning a fresh attempt to urge allies around the world to join in their crackdown on terror suspects.
The two leaders are understood to have agreed to step up the international effort to rein in al-Qaeda and the terror groups affiliated to it, particularly in states such as Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of being too complacent in tackling terrorists in its backyard.