COMMENTS by the head of Britain's MI5, the country's domestic security and intelligence service, were both unusual and sobering, as she laid out the full extent of the terror threat facing Britain and, by extension, the United States.
The remarks by Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, made in a speech to academics that then was posted on the MI5 Web site, were unusual in that it is rare for the head of the British security service to speak publicly, preferring to work behind the scenes and virtually incognito. Dame Eliza recognized as much herself, saying, "I prefer to avoid the limelight and get on with my job."
But getting on with her job may in these times include making the nation aware of the extent of the threats posed by extremists, and perhaps making it plain to lawmakers that her service needs the funds and manpower required to fight those threats.
The number of threats is alarming. According to Dame Eliza, MI5 is aware of about 30 plots involving some 1,600 people, and that the service is tracking about 200 terrorist cells.
Presumably those plots will be thwarted by the security forces because they are being monitored. The British showed their skill at tracking such plots, and their willingness to move in at a moment's notice to prevent attacks, in August when they broke up a plan to blow up planes between the United Kingdom and this country.
Dame Eliza said that five major conspiracies have been broken up since the 2005 attacks on London buses and subway trains. If those are the plots they are aware of, how many others go undetected?
That's one question that gives Britons and Americans alike sleepless nights. Another is an issue also alluded to by Dame Eliza - the day that terrorists gain the expertise to build and the opportunity to use chemical, bacteriological, or radiological weapons that could kill thousands.
The fact that there have been no attacks in the last year is no reason for complacency, and no doubt it was part of Dame Eliza's message to ensure that Britons and Americans remain alert and aware of the threat.
She also acknowledged the increasing radicalization of young British Muslims. Three of the four terrorists who attacked the London transport system a year ago were British-born, a fact that underscores her point and adds urgency to the security services building better ties with, and, where necessary, infiltrating the Muslim community.
As expected, her words brought warnings from Muslim leaders not to paint that entire community with the broad brush of terrorism. But neither she nor Prime Minister Tony Blair, who echoed Dame Eliza's remarks and warned that the Islamic terror threat would last a generation, is suggesting that.
Rather, they and other government officials want the British Muslim community to stand up against terrorists in their midst and to assist authorities in thwarting attacks.
By emerging from the shadows and having her comments made public, Dame Eliza, presumably with the approval of government leaders, raised awareness of the extent of the terror threat, and implicitly, perhaps, laid the groundwork for greater resources to be put at her disposal to fight it.
Her warnings were timely, and they resonate both in Britain and here.
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