Al-Qaida in Syria is most serious terrorist threat to UK, says report
Intelligence and security committee report warns of catastrophic
consequences should militants get hold of chemical weapons
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 10 July 2013 10.36 EDT
Al-Qaida elements fighting with rebels in Syria constitute the most serious
terrorist threat to Britain, and if they were to get their hands on Syria's
chemical weapons the consequences could be catastrophic, according to
The warnings, in the latest annual report of the parliamentary intelligence
and security committee (ISC) published on Wednesday, come amid growing
reports that Syrian rebels are trying to acquire chemical weapons.
Russia said on Wednesday it had proof Syrian rebels used the nerve agent
sarin in a missile attack on a government-controlled suburb of Aleppo in
March. The British prime minister, David Cameron, said last month that
al-Qaida-linked elements in the rebel movement had tried to capture chemical
weapons for probable use in Syria.
Britain's security and intelligence chiefs "assess that al-Qaida elements
and individual jihadists in Syria currently represent the most worrying
emerging terrorist threat to the UK and the west," says the ISC.
It adds: "There is a risk of extremist elements in Syria taking advantage of
the permissive environment to develop external attack plans, including
against western targets. Large numbers of radicalised individuals have been
attracted to the country, including significant numbers from the UK and
They are likely to acquire "expertise and experience which could
significantly increase the threat posed when they return home," says the ISC
report. Intelligence officials believe about 100 British Muslims have gone
to Syria to join rebel groups.
The ISC reports serious concern about the security of what it calls the
"vast stockpiles" of chemical weapons held by the Assad regime.
They are believed to include sarin, a clear liquid which attacks the nervous
system, ricin, mustard gas and VX - described as "the deadliest nerve agent
The MI6 chief, Sir John Sawers, told the committee there was the risk of "a
highly worrying proliferation around the time of the regime fall".
The committee adds: "There has to be a significant risk that some of the
country's chemical weapons stockpile could fall into the hands of those with
links to terrorism, in Syria or elsewhere in the region. If this happens,
the consequences could be catastrophic."
The shape of the terrorist threat is "potentially changing from tightly
organised cells under the control of structured hierarchies to looser
networks of small groups and individuals who operate more independently,"
says the ISC.
It points to a growing threat of attacks by "lone actors", such as the
stabbing of Labour MP Stephen Timms while holding a surgery in his east
London constituency in 2010.
Lone actors are much harder to detect - something al-Qaida appears
determined to exploit. The ISC refers to evidence from an unidentified Home
Office official who told the committee: "There is no doubt that the more
sophisticated people in al-Qaida recognise that groups are, in some ways, a
thing of the past; and that encouraging lone acts of terror is exactly the
In a passage studded with asterisks marking redactions from the full report,
it says the foreign secretary, William Hague, told the ISC: "We don't
believe that while we are engaged in this process of sanctions and
negotiations and a twin-track policy it would be right to launch a military
strike on Iran and we've said that very clearly to the Israelis."
It refers, intriguingly, to how British spies have "become more creative in
how they maintain and develop accesses to supply the government's
intelligence requirements" targeting Iran.
The ISC report does not include the evidence it has been given recently by
GCHQ officials on the massive British and US eavesdropping programmes leaked
to the Guardian.
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