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October 6, 2009

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Historian lifts lid on MI5's spies

BRITAIN'S domestic spy service thinks the threat from Islamist terrorism has stopped growing but remains severe, with terrorists eager to acquire weapons of mass destruction, according to the first authorized history of the agency.

"The Defence of the Realm," by Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew, was commissioned by MI5 to mark its 100th anniversary this year, the first time a major intelligence agency has granted an outsider access to its secret files.

The 1,000-page volume, published yesterday, describes an organization that fought Hitler with stunning success but struggled to combat Soviet espionage during the Cold War and initially failed to grasp the threat from Islamic extremism.

Andrew claims MI5 was "slow to see the coming menace of Islamist terrorism." The book says the agency's then-head, Stella Rimington, had never heard the name al-Qaida until a meeting in Washington in 1996, during which MI5 representatives were "taken aback by the interest" in Osama bin Laden shown by the Americans.

That changed with the September 11, 2001 attacks. Since then MI5 has foiled several major terrorist plots against Britain, including a plan to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners using liquid explosives, for which several British Muslims were sentenced to life in prison last month.

It failed to stop the July 7, 2005 London transit bombings, which killed 52 bus and subway passengers, and Andrew said al-Qaida-inspired terrorists remain determined to kill even more people with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

"It is not a question of if, it is a question of when such weapons will be used," he said.

The book says that in 2000, without realizing it at the time, MI5 foiled a plot by al-Qaida to obtain biological weapons when it found samples and equipment in the luggage of a Pakistani microbiologist, Rauf Ahmad, who had attended a conference on pathogens in Britain.

United States intelligence later revealed that Ahmad had been in touch with al-Qaida's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri.


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