MI5 knows of 30 terror plots threatening the UK and is keeping 1,600 individuals under surveillance, the security service’s head has said.
Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller warned the threat was “serious” and “growing”.
She warned future terrorists could mount chemical or nuclear attacks and that many of the plots in question “linked back to al-Qaeda“.
A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said Muslims would work with security services to thwart such plots.
MI5 has increased in size by nearly 50% since 9/11 and now stands at roughly 2,800 staff.
But according to Dame Eliza the concern is that even with this rapid growth it will not be able to investigate nearly enough of the activity that is currently under way in the UK. She said hard choices would have to be made about resources.
“I wish life were like Spooks [the TV series] where everything is, a, knowable, and, b, soluble by six people,” she explained.
Dame Eliza’s warning comes days after a UK man was sentenced to at least 40 years in jail for planning a series of attacks.
Attacks planned by Dhiren Barot, 34, from London, included using a so-called “dirty bomb” using radioactive material.
In response to Dame Eliza’s warning, Massoud Shadjareh, of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said he accepted there was a terrorist threat but said it had to be put into perspective.
“Over 1,000 arrests have been made under anti-terrorism since 9/11 and out of those, 27 have been found guilty. Out of those 27, only nine have been Muslims,” he said.
Dame Eliza, who rarely speaks in public, gave a speech to a small audience on Thursday, detailing what she believes her organisation and the UK is facing.
She said that, since the 7 July bombings, five further major conspiracies in the UK had been thwarted.
“Today, my officers and the police are working to contend with some 200 groupings or networks, totalling over 1,600 identified individuals – and there will be many we don’t know – who are actively engaged in plotting, or facilitating, terrorist acts here and overseas,” she said.
“Today we see the use of home-made improvised explosive devices.
“Tomorrow’s threat may – I suggest will – include the use of chemicals, bacteriological agents, radioactive materials and even nuclear technology.”
Out of the 200 or so groups being watched by MI5, a smaller subset are of the highest priority because it is feared that they are plotting actual attacks.
“We are aware of numerous plots to kill people and to damage our economy. What do I mean by numerous? Five? Ten?
“No, nearer 30 that we currently know of.
“These plots often have linked 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.”
She added that of the 30 plots some may turn out to be less credible or advanced but it would be hard to be sure until they are fully investigated.
Tory security spokesman Patrick Mercer echoed her call for more resources.
He said: “I think that the things that 7/7 made very clear to us – and also the aircraft plot this August – was that we just don’t have enough spooks and secret agents to make sure that our country is as safe as it could be.”
Dame Pauline Neville-Jones worked for MI5 and chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee which is responsible for briefing ministers on security issues.
She said: “If I were in her shoes I think that I would want the citizenry of this country to have some understanding of the security situation that we face.
“I think the days are long gone, when it was right for government to say: ‘You can rest secure, government knows what it’s doing, we will keep you safe and don’t bother your little heads’.
“We can’t rest secured. We are sufficiently vulnerable, she knows that she can’t necessarily guarantee always to intercept, and therefore I think the right thing is to let us know what she considers the situation to be.”
Professor Anthony Glees is director of Brunel University’s Centre for Intelligence and Security Service.
He said: “What I read her as saying is that we would be completely crazy to continue with a policy of segregated, faith based education.
“Not because the Muslim faith in itself is dangerous or harmful – absolutely not – but because there are people out there who are using the faith of Islam to radicalise young people and to turn them to terror.”
Anaya Banglawala, assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, said British Muslims should work to halt the terrorist threat.
He said: “Of the 30 plots that Dame Eliza mentioned, just how serious these are we will not know until of course these people are picked up and brought before courts of law.
“As far as we’re concerned, at the Muslim Council of Britain, we have always stated that British Muslims have a responsibility as well as others to co-operate fully with the security services to thwart such plots.
“She did make a good point in that whereas the security services have a responsibility to try and thwart terror plots it cannot be expected that the security services deal with why young people are being radicalised.
“That is a wider societal issue.”