U.K.: Terrorists Could Launch 'Dirty Bomb' Attack

It is becoming "more realistic" that terrorists could get hold of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons to attack the United Kingdom, the British Home Office said today. The warning was included in an updated counter-terrorism strategy designed to tackle what Home Office officials called an evolving terrorist threat.

Rather than acquiring a nuclear warhead, British officials worry more that terrorists could gather radioactive material to build a so-called "dirty-bomb." That risk has existed for some time, but it's increased due to the security situation in several failed states as well as a growing market in radioactive materials.

In an off-camera press briefing this morning for a handful of journalists, British officials said they continue to track a large number of British nationals of Pakistani origin who are traveling to Pakistan for terror training, and to fight in the insurgency, or both. However, they said there are some hopeful signs from Pakistan's new government.

"The new civilian government has given a higher priority to anti-terror measures than the military government that preceded it," officials said.

In assessing terror risks around the world, British officials are paying particular attention to failed states where terror groups are increasing their activity and training. These include Somalia, Yemen, the sub-Saharan states of Mali and Niger, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

'We Can't Arrest or Kill Our Way Out of the Problem'

At home, a senior British official said the U.K.'s anti-terror strategy must be balanced. "We can't arrest or kill our way out of the problem," the official said. One new priority is challenging extremist voices in British Muslim communities. In the past, foreign intelligence services have criticized the U.K. for being lax. For instance, the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir espouses the armed overthrow of several Muslim governments but remains legal in Great Britain.

Officials said Muslim leaders who urged separation or supported radical positions would be isolated and publicly challenged, even if such speech is allowed under British law. "We have to be defined not just by what we oppose but by what we stand for," the official said.

With London hosting the G-20 conference next week, there is no specific terror threat, although U.K. authorities will be on alert. The U.K. terror threat level remains t "severe" (which means an attack is highly likely), one step below the highest level. "critical" (which means an attack is expected imminently). That said, officials raised the possibility that the threat level may actually be lowered in the coming months.

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