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Friday, 14 February, 2003, 18:29 GMT
Q&A: Terror threat to UK

The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner explains the implications of the recent increase in anti-terrorist security across the UK.

How serious is the terrorist threat to the UK?

The people who I've been speaking to, my various sources in security and intelligence, sound more rattled in the last 48 hours than I have ever heard them.

Clearly there is something extremely serious out there that has prompted this.

They will not say what it is because it's an ongoing operation.

The various different branches of government have all got different code names for this operation.

I don't think it's got a finite date.

I think what we're going to see is tanks withdrawn and then popping up again in other parts - possibly Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Post Office Tower.

But they've obviously got hold of intelligence of something very big and very dangerous which they believe is affecting both Britain and the United States.

But how does a tank in the middle of London help to combat this threat?

Well, as you rightly point out - what practical purpose is a tank at Heathrow? Almost none.

But the idea is that if you had a determined cell, let's say four people from al-Qaeda or linked to al-Qaeda, who were planning to try and crash a van packed full of explosives into the terminal, then the sight of a tank is supposed to be a deterrent.

The real work is being done by the police in searching the boots of cars, trying to look for anything - possibly a surface to air missile, although they say they haven't found anything like that yet.

A lot of this is simply disruption - it's trying to tell terrorists, it's not worth attacking Britain, we're on to you, we're too hard a target.

Is the position similar in the US?

Yes, and I can tell you that some of my Arab sources who are very familiar with al-Qaeda have told me that there were plans, they believe, for a major attack, probably on the continental US.

It was set for August and for some reason it was cancelled, or at least postponed.

They say the plans are still in place and they believe that whatever is afoot, it is never going to be discovered, but it's something which is completely original.

I can't confirm this or not. This is speculation by people who are familiar with al-Qaeda. But I would imagine something similar to this.

If America becomes more difficult to hit then do we become more vulnerable?

Yes, we do and that's why, if you remember on September 11th last year - the first anniversary of the 9/ll bombing - the threat was to the US embassies in South East Asia, but Britain felt it ought to close its embassies at that time as well.

Remember that al-Qaeda is in this for the long term.

They've got endless patience - probably more than we have.

They don't mind cancelling or postponing an operation for months, even years - they'll try again.

Remember in 1993 they tried to hit the World Trade Center and they came back nine years later.

Is the threat to the UK going to affect us individually?

Probably not directly. When something major happens, the chances of you or I actually being hurt by it are extremely small.

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13 Feb 03 | Politics
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