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Net closing on bin Laden - UK security expert

Written by: Staff

LONDON, Feb 23 (Reuters) There will be at least one terrorist attack on a European target this year and either Osama bin Laden or his right hand man will be killed or captured in 2006, British security experts predicted today.

Furthermore, there will be no civil war in Iraq as insurgents lose the support of the mainstream population, and Iran will back down in its nuclear dispute with the West without sanctions or military action, Aegis Defence Services said.

In its annual terrorism report, Aegis, which assesses global risks for governments and international companies, said the net was closing on the leaders of bin Laden's al Qaeda group.

It called bin Laden a ''spent force'', whose only role was as a talisman, and predicted he or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would be out of circulation in the next 12 months.

At the same time, it said, al Qaeda was showing signs of moving away from destruction towards more ''earthly'' political aims, meaning talks might be possible with their successors.

''Al Qaeda is striving to cast themselves in a political role,'' Aegis managing director of research and intelligence Dominic Armstrong told Reuters.

''There is going to be more practical engagement.'' But Aegis, which correctly predicted there would be a large-scale bombing in the UK last year, said growing radicalisation of Islamist youths in Europe, combined with social and economic alienation, would mean further attacks.

BRITAIN AND ITALY TOP TARGETS Britain and Italy remained the most likely targets but France, Spain and the Benelux countries were also at risk.

''We are not going to see a 9/11 level of attack or that sort of destructive spectacular,'' Armstrong said.

''It is more likely to be a number of smaller attacks against softer targets with an economic knock-on effect.'' Weapons of mass destruction would not be used, he said.

''They do not own and will not own nuclear weapons or lethal pathogens,'' he said. ''The successful attacks that take place this year will be conventional.'' Aegis, which has a 293 million dollar US contract to coordinate security for contractors in Iraq and has 1,000 staff on the ground, said the situation there was not as bad as the media portrayed and the country was not on the verge of civil war.

''The insurgency will continue but it will increasingly be down to criminals and foreign fighters as mainstream Iraqis become involved in the political process,'' Armstrong said.

He said 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces were trouble-free.

''Foreign fighters will be made to feel less welcome and that will be a turning point for Iraq. For all the insurgency, the political process has not been delayed by a single day.'' The report also predicted Iran would back down in its dispute with the West over its nuclear ambitions with an agreement to allow it to use foreign-supplied enriched uranium for reactors, thus avoiding sanctions or any military action.

''They are going to take it as far as they can but they will step back,'' Armstrong said. ''It's only aggressive brinkmanship.'' Reuters PDS VP0527

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