Though they still retain safe havens in Pakistan and Afghanistan, jihadists are now heading to the Middle East to seek terrorist training as parts of the Arab world have “once more become a permissive environment for al Qaeda”, British intelligence chief has warned. Terming this a “new
and worrying development” that “could get worse as events unfold,” MI5’s Director General Jonathan Evans said in a rare public speech here as his agency braces for an array of threats ahead of next month’s summer Olympics.
The MI chief said Iran was another source of potential concern, as the west and Israel put pressure on Tehran to abandon any nuclear weapon ambitions it may secretly harbour, The Guardian reported.
He said there had been a series of attempted plots against Israeli interests in India and Azerbaijan, as well as a plan by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to attack the Saudi ambassador in the US.
Instability in the Arab region had created “a permissive environment for al-Qaeda”, Evans said adding that there was evidence that Britain’s “would be jihadis” were travelling in search of training and opportunities for terror activity.
Al Qaeda, he said, was shifting away from Pakistan and Afghanistan towards Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel, the MI chief said. “We appear to be moving from a period of deep and focused threat to one where the threat is less monolithic but wider,” he added.
Though Evans did not say how many people from the UK had gone to the region, it is believed the agency has monitored more than 100 who have attempted to link up with extremists in countries such as Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Libya.
Evans said one byproduct of the Arab spring was giving al-Qaeda a chance to re-emerge in the countries where the network first won popular support.
In the long-term, more democracy should “ease some of the pressures that have spawned extremism in the region”, he said, but in the short-term, with the Arab world in radical transition, this “more immediate problem has emerged”.
“This is the completion of a cycle,” said Evans. “Al Qaeda first moved to Afghanistan in the 1990s due to pressure in their Arab countries of origin. They moved on to Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban. And now some are heading home to the Arab world again. And a small number of British would-be jihadis are also making their way to Arab countries to seek training and opportunities for militant activity.”