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By Peter Griffiths
LONDON (Reuters) - A British counterspy who helped to thwart an al Qaeda plot to blow up planes with explosives hidden in soft drink bottles and led the response to the 2005 London transport bombings will be the new head of MI5, the government said on Thursday.
Andrew Parker has three decades' experience at MI5, countering Islamist militants, violent Irish republicans and organised criminals. He has been deputy chief since 2007, and once served as a British security liaison in the United States.
The 50-year-old, a keen birdwatcher and wildlife photographer, will be in charge of 3,800 staff investigating threats ranging from bomb plots and the spread of weapons of mass destruction to espionage and cyber attacks.
One of his first tasks will be to protect U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other world leaders at the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland in June.
As Britain hosted the annual G8 meeting in 2005 in Gleneagles, Scotland, four suicide bombers killed 52 underground and bus commuters in London in coordinated attacks. Parker was in charge of the agency's response to the bombings and oversaw a significant expansion of its role.
Parker, who led MI5 teams that disrupted a 2006 conspiracy to attack several passenger jets with bombs hidden in soft drink bottles, said it was a "great honour" to be made head of the agency, also known as the Security Service.
"I look forward to leading the Service through its next chapter," he said in a statement.
The bespectacled father-of-two will replace the current head, Jonathan Evans, when he steps down in April after six years in the job during which Britain suffered no significant attacks.
Once so publicity-shy it officially did not exist and its director's identity was kept secret, MI5 now has a website which discusses its responsibilities and activities. On Thursday, the website posted an official biography of its new chief.
Counter-terrorism operations will remain at or near the top of MI5's priority assignments from the moment Parker takes the agency's helm.
European counter-terrorism officials have for years been concerned about British citizens and residents who travel to hot spots in the Middle East or South Asia, either to be indoctrinated and trained in militant ideology and guerrilla tactics before returning home, or to fight with local militants.
British authorities estimate that every year, 400,000 people travel from the U.K. to Pakistan. While only a tiny proportion of these travellers have any interest in militant activities, even a small number of recruits can cause disproportionate chaos, as occurred in London on July 7, 2005.
Among the hot spots which currently concern British and other European authorities most are Syria and Somalia. While travel by would-be militants to Somalia from Britain is relatively easy to trace, tracking movements of would-be recruits to anti-Assad forces in Syria is more difficult, since much such travel can be completed unobtrusively and over land.
European counter-terrorism officials have estimated that as many as 60 to 70 English-speaking militants with British citizenship or residence are currently fighting with rebel forces in Syria. There is concern that many of them may have joined up with al-Nusrah, an Islamist faction which U.S. officials describe as a front for Al Qaeda in Iraq.
While the signals intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is Britain's main cyber-security unit, under Parker's leadership MI5 will be responsible for investigating specific cases of state-sponsored cyber-espionage directed against such critical targets as gas and power grids and defence and pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Based on what it learns from such cases and in consultation with other agencies, MI5 also advises potential targets on how to protect themselves against cyber attacks. MI5 does not have responsibility for cyber crime or dealing with hackers.
As part of its role in cyber security, Parker's agency will have to anticipate how to keep security measures ahead of technological innovation. And it will have to do so in an environment where greater productivity will have to be extracted from shrinking resources, including budgets.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Pravin Char and Todd Eastham)