Confusion over UK terror warning

BBC 11/08/02

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A stark warning that Britain is facing a possible chemical or nuclear terrorist attack was released but then withdrawn by the Home Office.

The first warning on Thursday said the al-Qaeda could strike Britain with traditional terror tactics or new, "surprising" methods.

"Maybe they will try to develop a so-called dirty bomb, or some kind of poison gas; maybe they will try to use boats or trains rather than planes," it said.

However, an hour after the document was released it was withdrawn and replaced by a much more general warning.

The replacement warned of "ever more dramatic and devastating" terror attacks but avoided mention of the specific threats.

"If al-Qaeda could mount an attack upon key economic targets, or upon our transport infrastructure, they would," it said.

The warnings came in the foreword to a summary of anti-terrorist measures taken by Britain in recent months.

The Home Office said journalists had been given an early draft version that was yet to be authorised.

Both versions urged people to remain vigilant to the continuing threat of Irish and international terrorism.

Wider threat

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said there had been an "administrative slip-up".

He said the original advice was not withdrawn because it was damaging but because the government did not want people to be diverted by a specific type of threat.

Threats came in different forms, he said, and the public needed to be aware "across the range".

When asked how, if the government did not know what the specific threat was, the public were required to be vigilant, the spokesman advised people to read the document.

His comments echoed an earlier statement from the Home Office, which urged people to remain focused on the wider threat.

"We did not want to close people's minds to other forms of risk or threat - we didn't want to have something where the public thought 'that is what we are looking for'," a spokeswoman said.

We wanted a general reminder for a general threat."

BBC correspondent Frank Gardner said the truth was that Britain's security services faced the dilemma of believing the threat of an attack was high, but not knowing where it might come from.

"They want to warn the public to be vigilant but at the same time not panic them," he said.

'Not inaccurate'

Professor Paul Wilkinson of the Centre for Terrorism Studies at St Andrews University said it was a "possibility" that there was a threat from a "dirty bomb" attack in the UK.

So-called "dirty bombs" scatter deadly radioactive material using conventional explosive devices.

While not as immediately destructive as traditional explosives, they could ultimately prove far more devastating in terms of casualties, as they have the potential to spread radioactive material over a wide area, possibly leading to cancer and radiation poisoning.

Professor Wilkinson told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the original home office warning was "not inaccurate".

Text of revised statement
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"I suspect that really the reason for its withdrawal was that they did not want to highlight specific threats.
"They wanted to point out that the threat was from a whole variety of tactics," he added.

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, called on Home Secretary David Blunkett to clear up the "confusion".


The summary was published as Mr Blunkett and British intelligence heads met US homeland security chief Tom Ridge, to discuss anti-terror measures taken by both countries.

In a speech at King's College in London on Thursday evening, Mr Ridge said the threat from al-Qaeda and other groups was "unlike any other we have faced".

He said the recent bombing in Bali, the attack on the French oil tanker, the killing of Europeans in Pakistan and the death of a US Marine in Kuwait indicated al-Qaeda could both orchestrate attacks and inspire sympathisers.

And he warned of "tens of thousands" of casualties if transportation networks, power generating plants or health infrastructures were overwhelmed by an attack.