British intelligence chief: Terror threat in Britain lessened

MI5 head Jonathan Evans said Wednesday prosecutions have reduced risk. But Europe's siding with Israel on Gaza may incite European Muslims to hostility.

The head of Britain's intelligence organization, MI5, says that the terror threat in Britain has receded after a string of successful prosecutions, reports the BBC, in the first interview ever given by the director of the secretive agency.

In remarks published Wednesday, agency head Jonathan Evans says 86 terror convictions since January 2007 have dampened the enthusiasm of plotters.

"That has had a chilling effect. We have probably seen fewer 'late-stage' attack plans over the last 18 months," he said.

Mr. Evans warned that terror networks still have the capacity to strike within Britain, and that the global financial crisis could create new unforeseen tensions, says The Guardian.

"There is a significant number of individuals in active sympathy. They are doing things like fundraising, helping people to travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. Sometimes they provide equipment, support and propaganda."

Vigilance has been heightened in Britain since the terror attacks of July 7, 2005, when four suicide bombers struck London's public transportation system during morning rush hour, killing 52 people and wounding more than 700. Two weeks later, four bombs improperly detonated on London subway trains and buses. In June 2007, two men tried to drive a jeep loaded with gas canisters and nails into the Glasgow airport terminal. One of the attackers, Bilal Abdulla, was sentenced in December 2008 to at least 32 years in prison.

Evans said the current Israeli offensive on Gaza may prove a particularly potent propaganda tool. Press reports indicate that many European Jews and Muslims agree, with some warning of increased radicalization among Islamic youths and others pointing to a surge in anti-Semitic incidents since the start of the conflict.

On Thursday, the leaders of several prominent British Muslim organizations delivered a letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown warning that "anger within UK Muslim communities has reached acute levels of intensity," reports The Gaurdian.

"The Israeli government's use of disproportionate force ... has revived extremist groups and empowered their message of violence and perennial conflict. For Muslims in the UK and abroad, we run the risk of potentially creating a loss of faith in the political process."

The letter was signed by the imam of London's Al Tawhid mosque, as well as by officials of the UK Islamic Foundation, the British Muslim Forum, and the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank that studies extremism.

They further warned Brown that the war in Gaza, and the American position on the violence, threatened to damage Britain's standing in the Islamic world and contribute to the radicalization of British and European Muslim youths.

Britain's Young Muslim Advocacy Group also sent a letter to Prime Minister Brown this week, says the Guardian, warning that the Israeli offensive on Gaza was "undermining efforts to reduce homegrown radicalization."

"We are in grave danger of sending a message to youth today that the mass murder of civilians can be justified if the right grievances are cited. In the current climate there is a real danger young people who witness the impotence of institutions that are supposed to be protecting innocent life will turn to other organisations in an effort to make their voices heard and the violence stop."

The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this week that much of Europe has sided with Israel on Gaza, a shift incited by the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

European Union leaders this week flanked Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as she told the world's news media, "We are all opposed to terrorism." For many observers in Europe, the moment underscored a little-noted but ongoing convergence between European and US-Israeli thinking – despite the tragedy and challenge that Gaza presents.
For decades, Europe was a Middle East counterbalance – generally sympathetic to Palestinians as the weaker party, critical of an unqualified US backing of Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization had offices in Europe. France's Navy helped Yasser Arafat escape Tripoli in 1983. Europe backed the Oslo Accords, and saw the Palestinian cause as a fight for territory and statehood.
Yet Europe's traditional position on the Arab dispute has been quietly changing: It is gravitating closer to a US-Israeli framing of a war on terror, a "clash of civilizations," with a subtext of concern about the rise of Islam – and away from an emphasis on core grievances of Palestinians, like the ongoing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and "occupation."

The Gaza crisis has already led to an uptick in anti-Jewish incidents in several European countries, such as Britain, Sweden, and France, reports the Associated Press. These have included attempted arson attacks at synagogues in Toulouse, France; Helsingborg, Sweden; and in North London, as well as a rash of vandalism and assaults across the continent.

"In Britain, the Community Security Trust, a Jewish defense group, said it had seen a rise in anti-Semitic incidents since the start of Israel's offensive against Gaza. The group said it recorded 20-25 incidents across the country in the past week — a sizable increase from 2-3 incidents usually reported to the group over the Christmas-New Year period."
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