BRITAIN'S controversial military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have left Europe at risk of attack from Islamic terrorists, the continent's leading police chief has warned.
Max-Peter Ratzel, director of Europol, the European Union's police agency, claims the continuing involvement in the war zones has boosted the threat of reprisals from al-Qaeda and represents the biggest single threat to the security of the EU.
The startling conclusion from one of Europe's most respected police chiefs represents a massive embarrassment for Tony Blair, who has repeatedly insisted that Britain's foreign policy has not contributed to the threat of Islamic terror attacks in the UK.
A new Europol publication, the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2007, is a chilling update on the rapid growth of a terror threat that Ratzel warns is "more serious than ever".
An extensive investigation of developments across the EU by Ratzel's staff uncovered a series of disturbing developments, including evidence that EU nations were hit by almost 500 terror attacks in 2006. In addition, more than 700 individuals suspected of terrorism were arrested in 15 member states.
Half of these were related to Islamic terrorism.
However, it is Ratzel's deep concerns about the fallout from members' contentious overseas expeditions that will cause the most alarm in Downing Street.
He said that "the perceived oppression of Islam or the presence of 'foreign' troops in Islamic lands is often invoked as justification for the execution of terrorist acts in several parts of the world, such as Chechnya, Kashmir, Iraq or Afghanistan".
"Currently, due to the presence there of member-state military forces, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have the largest impact upon the security environment of the EU," Ratzel said. "Aside from the risk of terrorist attacks within member states aiming to apply pressure to withdraw their troops, suicide attacks and bomb attacks with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] have been perpetrated against officials, contractors, journalists and aid workers in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Denmark, Italy and Poland have troops in Iraq, but Britain, with more than 7,000 on the ground, has by far the largest contingent - and Blair was the most resolute supporter of the US-led invasion in 2003. The policy put the Prime Minister at odds with many of his EU allies, while critics say it made the UK a target for al-Qaeda fanatics.
The fight against the Taleban in Afghanistan is a Nato-led operation backed by a United Nations resolution, but again Britain has provided the bulk of the European military contingent, as a number of EU colleagues resist an increased commitment to the campaign.
Amid the escalating opposition to Britain's growing involvement in Afghanistan, Ratzel has warned that the conflict is being used as a tool to recruit disaffected Muslim youngsters throughout Europe to the extremist cause.
He said: "Volunteers are recruited in the EU to support Islamist terrorist activities in Iraq, which has been promoted as the key scene of global jihad by Islamist propagandists. It seems likely that, should other regional conflicts - such as those in Somalia and Afghanistan - become 'marketed' as global jihad, more volunteers may be recruited in the EU to support them."
Opponents of the war in Iraq last night used the Europol conclusions to ratchet up the pressure on the Prime Minister over the most explosive element of his 10 years in office. Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said:"This runs entirely counter to the Prime Minister's determination not to concede that his adventure in Iraq had any effect on the terrorist threat."
But a Foreign Office official last night dismissed any suggestion that British foreign policy had contributed to the terrorist threat back home.
"The terrorist influence had been there long before the operations in Afghanistan or Iraq," the official added. "You can go back to the early 1990s to find evidence of al-Qaeda attacks."