WE'RE IN BIN LADEN'S SIGHTS; THE AL-QAEDA TERROR BOSS NOW SEES THE UK AS A LEGITIMATE TARGET IN HIS WAR ON THE WEST, ACCORDING TO TERRORISM EXPERT Dr ROHAN GUNARATNA. HE LAYS THE BLAME SQUARELY AT TONY BLAIR'S DOOR FOR HIS UNSTINTING SUPPORT OF THE USA

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Byline: ROBERT FAIRBURN

A SCOTS academic has warned Britain is just as likely to suffer a terrorist attack from al-Qaeda as the U.S.

Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a research fellow at St Andrews University's centre for the study of terrorism, reckons Tony Blair's unstinting support for George Bush's war on terror puts Britain on the group's hitlist.

As the anniversary of September 11 arrives, Dr Gunaratna has warned that al-Qaeda is still flourishing and that the Allies' military action in Afghanistan was a failure.

He said they should have found and eliminated Osama bin Laden and other leaders which would have severely curtailed the terrorist organisation.

And Dr Gunaratna - who published a book, Inside al-Qaeda - believes bin Laden is still alive and plotting more atrocities against the West.

He also reckons the organisation has more followers than ever despite the Allies' invasion of Afghanistan and the destruction of its training camps.

Dr Gunaratna, who has interviewed more than 200 members of al-Qaeda as part of his research, said: "Despite suffering gravely in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda is very much intact, especially its global terrorist network.

"However, al-Qaeda is unable to conduct large scale terrorist operations on the scale of 9/11 because such operations involve long-term, deliberate planning over two to three years and across three to five countries.

"Therefore, since then al-Qaeda is resolved to attacking medium and small scale targets as we have seen both in the Middle East and Asia.

"Many al-Qaeda operations launched against United States targets in Europe have been disrupted. As long as there is a high state of alert on the part of the public and unprecedented law enforcement security and intelligence operations, it will be difficult for al-Qaeda to maintain large scale operations.

"The biggest failure of the American anti-terrorist campaign has been its failure to neutralise the core leadership of al-Qaeda especially bin Laden and Dr Zawahirr, the military party leader and successor of Osama."

He added: "It is most likely bin Laden is alive somewhere along the Pakistan- Afghanistan border.

"While it is true that the Allies hurt al-Qaeda in Afghanistan with the loss of its training infrastructure, they are certainly a lot bigger in terms of new members.

"But they could probably rebuild their training camps."

Dr Gunaratna explained that Tony Blair's determination to follow George Bush made Britain a prime target for al-Qaeda. He said: "Britain is today just as vulnerable as the United States because the government of the UK has been very closely identified with the US in the fight against terrorism, not only by al-Qaeda but by several other groups."

But he does not believe any major atrocity is being planned to mark the anniversary of September 11.

Dr Gunaratna said: "It would be difficult for any terrorist operation to mount a large scale operation on the anniversary of 9/11.

"The heightened scale of alert would make their movements very hard to conceal, particularly as intelligence services will be closely watching.

"Lessons have clearly been learned from 9/11."

It has emerged that al-Qaeda terrorists have already attempted to target Britain.

They planned suicide bomb attacks on the British warship HMS Sheffield.

Three men from Saudi Arabia plotted to strike the frigate as it patrolled in the Mediterranean.

Their plan was to approach the ship in dinghies loaded with high explosives and blow them up.

A similar attack on the warship USS Cole near Yemen two years ago killed 19 sailors.

But the intelligence services got wind of the plot and the three men were arrested in May by police in Morocco.

It has also been claimed that al-Qaeda members had planned to hijack a plane at Heathrow Airport and fly it into Big Ben on September 11. …