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March 26, 2013 10:31 am
Britain’s security services have stepped up preparations to deal with a possible terrorist attack in the UK using biological weapons, increasing stocks of medical supplies and boosting emergency planning to deal with such an eventuality.
In a wide-ranging survey of the terror threats facing the UK published on Tuesday, the Home Office does not suggest any new terrorist threat to use biological weapons has suddenly emerged.
However, senior Home Office officials say they believe that biological weapons could be easier for terrorists to use than other weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical or radiological devices – and that increased planning in this area is therefore needed.
In its annual report on “The UK Strategy for Countering Terrorism”, the government says that over the last year it “has put in place better plans to improve the speed and coverage of the health response to a large-scale terrorist attack using biological agents.”
It also says that lessons learnt from preparations for last year’s Olympic Games have “informed the wider programme of planning for high impact biological attacks”.
Biological terror attacks anywhere in the world have been very rare in recent decades. In 1994, a religious group attempted an attack in Tokyo using anthrax but failed. In 2001, there were several anthrax attacks in the US following the events of September 11.
However, Charles Farr, director-general of the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism, said the threat of a biological attack still needed to be taken seriously. “Biological attacks are easier than those involving other forms of weapons of mass destruction,” he said. He said there is a greater availability over the internet of advice on how to use biological materials than other forms of WMD.
Mr Farr said university science departments hold materials that are essential for academic research but could also be used in such mass impact attacks. He added that there has been routine “chatter” by jihadist groups on internet sites relating to such attacks for many years.
In its survey of potential terrorist threats, the Home Office throws new light on a range of other concerns. These include:
• The civil war in Syria. The report says that there now “hundreds” of foreign fighters in Syria. Home Office officials say some 70 of these are UK nationals. “As and when UK residents return here, there is a risk that they may carry out attacks using the skills that they have developed overseas.”
• Firearms: The report says that the government remains concerned “at the trend for terrorists to use firearms as part of an attack.” This is a concern that goes back to the 2008 Mumbai outrage. A cross-government programme has looked at how police, fire and ambulance services can respond to such an eventuality.
• The risk of terrorist attacks on aircraft. “We are aware that some terrorist groups have acquired surface-to-air missiles as a result of the breakdown of law and order in parts of North Africa,” the report says. It also notes that the government has accelerated the deployment of new airport security scanners to detect non-metallic improvised explosives.
• Exploitation of charities by jihadist groups. “We remain concerned about the potential abuse of charities by extremist organisations, both to raise funds and to distribute propaganda,” the report says.
The report also sets out a new ambition to try and boost the profile of Britain’s private sector security companies, to help them win them a global market share which approaches that of the more successful UK defence sector.
The Home Office says Britain’s security sector exports were valued at £2.6bn in 2011, a global market share of 4 per cent. However, it notes that UK defence exports tend to average around 20 per cent of global market share.
The Home Office has now been given he task of co-ordinating a cross-government effort to boost the profile of security companies.
“We want these companies to be bigger players and the more we can get involved in helping promote them, the better,” said Mr Farr. “We are trying to play the sort of role with security that the MoD plays in the defence sector.”
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