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Spy chief says British authorities tracking nearly 30 terrorist plots

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LONDON — British authorities are tracking almost 30 terrorist plots involving 1,600 individuals, the head of the country's MI5 spy agency said, warning that young British Muslims are at risk of being radicalized by extremists.

More than a year after the suicide attacks on London's transit system, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller predicted the fight against terrorism would last a generation.

"It is a sustained campaign, not a series of isolated incidents," she said in a speech to a small audience of academics Thursday, according to a transcript released by the spy agency on Friday. "Radicalizing elements within communities are trying to exploit grievances for terrorist purposes."

"It is the youth who are being actively targeted, groomed, radicalized and set on a path that frighteningly quickly could end in their involvement in mass murder of their fellow U.K. citizens, or their early death in a suicide attack or on a foreign battlefield," she said.

Manningham-Buller said MI5 had foiled five major plots since the July 2005 transit bomb attacks in London, which killed 52 commuters and the four suicide bombers.

Officials are also "aware of numerous plots to kill people and to damage our economy," she said. "What do I mean by numerous? Five? Ten? No, nearer 30 that we currently know of."

MI5 and the police are tackling 200 cells involving more than 1,600 people actively engaged in plotting or aiding attacks in Britain and abroad, Manningham-Buller said.

It was the first public estimate of the threat by the head of Britain's domestic spy agency, though senior anti-terrorist officials have said before that they have foiled several plots since July 2005.

While current plots use homemade bombs, Manningham-Buller warned future threats would come from "chemicals, bacteriological agents, radioactive materials and even nuclear technology."

Prime Minister Tony Blair said he agreed with the spy chief's assessment that the threat from international terrorism "is serious, is growing, and will, I believe, be with us for a generation."

"It's a very long and deep struggle but we have to stand up and be counted for what we believe in and take the fight to those people who want to entice young people into something wicked and violent but utterly futile," Blair told journalists at his 10 Downing St. office.

Manningham-Buller said the threat includes some networks directed by al-Qaida in Pakistan and others more loosely inspired by the group, and that their plans include mass-casualty suicide attacks in Britain.

The plots "often have linked back to al-Qaida in Pakistan, and through those links al-Qaida gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers here on an extensive and growing scale," she said.

Manningham-Buller, who has headed MI5 since 2002, warned that radicalization, especially of young people, was one of the biggest problems facing anti-terror investigators. Three of the four men who attacked three London subways and a red double-decker bus on July 7, 2005, were British-born.

"More and more people are moving from passive sympathy towards active terrorism through being radicalized or indoctrinated by friends, families, in organized training events here and overseas, by images on television, through chat rooms and Web sites on the internet," she said.

In August, police said they had foiled a plot by a British terrorist cell to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners. More than a dozen people, all British, are awaiting trial in the case.

On Tuesday, a British Muslim convert, Dhiren Barot, was sentenced to life in prison for plotting to attack U.S. financial landmarks and blow up London targets with limousines packed with gas tanks, napalm and nails.

Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said Manningham-Buller had given "a very sobering warning." He said, however, it was essential that "British Muslims are seen as a partner in the fight against terrorism and not some sort of community in need of mass medication."

"Holding a community responsible for the actions of a few would be counterproductive," Bunglawala said.

Bill Durodie, senior lecturer in risk and security at the U.K. Defense Academy, said high-profile speeches and headline-grabbing numbers risked exaggerating the scale of the threat facing Britain.

"It's easy to pull out alarmist headlines," he said. "What we're seeing here on the whole are lone individuals (and) small groups."