On May 26, four days after the major terrorist attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, British intelligence officials stated that they had identified 23,000 jihadist extremists living in the UK, all of them considered potential terrorist attackers. According to The Times,
About 3,000 people from the total group are judged to pose a threat and are under investigation or active monitoring in 500 operations being run by police and intelligence services. The 20,000 others have featured in previous inquiries and are categorised as posing a "residual risk".
The two terrorists who have struck in Britain this year — Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, and Khalid Masood, the Westminster killer — were in the pool of "former subjects of interest" and no longer subject to any surveillance.
A police officer stands guard near the Manchester Arena on May 23, 2017, following a suicide bombing by an Islamic terrorist who murdered 22 concert-goers. (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)
The report adds that the two men who beheaded British soldier Lee Rigby in London, in 2013, had been known to the security services, just as Abedi and Masood were, but had been dropped to low priority.
David Anderson, QC, the former reviewer of anti-terrorism laws, noted concerns in his 2015 report about the "speed with which things can change" around suspects and "the difficulties in knowing how best to prioritise limited surveillance resources". Senior police have also spoken of the difficulty in identifying the triggers that might "reactivate" extremist behaviour.
Others had expressed similar concerns about how the jihadi ideology, based in radical religious belief, is so intensely ingrained that it never leaves individuals and may easily reactivate a desire to commit atrocities.
Ben Wallace, Minister of State for Security at the Home Office, told The Times that the existence of a database of thousands of potential attackers clearly indicates just how serious the threat has become: "This reveals the scale of the challenge from terrorism in the 21st century," he said. "Never has it been more important to invest in intelligence-led policing."
One problem is that the police and MI5 lack enough resources to investigate any more than 3,000 suspects at a time, leaving the other 20,00 free to pass without surveillance and under the radar. According to a report issued this year by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), and detailed in The Guardian, budget cuts to the police forces in England and Wales have left law enforcement inadequately prepared:
In a stark message about the current state of policing, Zoë Billingham, Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary, said the "disturbing" practices did not apply to the majority of forces but the watchdog could see the problems spreading if action was not taken.
"We're leading to a very serious conclusion regarding the potentially perilous state of policing," she said. "It's a red flag that we're raising at this stage. A large red flag."
Ironically, this austerity-produced situation stands in stark contradiction to comments by one of the country's leading security experts:
Anthony Glees, head of security and intelligence studies at the University of Buckingham, said: "To have 23,000 potential killers in our midst is horrifying. We should double the size of MI5, as we did in World War Two, and expand the number of intelligence-led police by thousands. We can't go on as if this wasn't happening."
In April, as Islamic State was facing defeat in Mosul and Raqqa, a small national study found that many young British Muslims believed that jihadists returning from Syria to the UK should be given a "second chance" and should "reintegrate" within society. This is estimated to be around 800 or 850 individuals. One person interviewed argued that:
When people feel isolated and angry because they are not being treated with respect and if they go out and fight in Syria and when they come back there is no help, then I promise you, you will see more terrorism because these young people will think why should I do anything when my own Government don't care about me.
That appears to be a threat that ignores completely what sorts of crimes returnees may have committed abroad. As such individuals do return, they may well add significantly to the list of potential terrorists living in a country they had already found occasion to hate. In 2016, "the Government admitted [that] just 14 of nearly 400 returnee fighters have been jailed, raising fears the rest are living off the radar and may be vulnerable to radicalisation."
Adam Deen of London's anti-radical Quilliam Foundation stated that:
What is important here is that the more Isis are under siege and the more territory they're losing, the more they're going to channel their efforts and energies into terrorism," he said in an interview with The Independent.
Those individuals that have managed to get back into the country will be activated or will be conspiring to commit some kind of terrorist act. That's a major concern.
Britain is not alone in facing such potential threats, but it may have the largest population of potential terrorists. There is confusion in Germany, for example, as to how many such individuals there are. According to a report from the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt), the number of suspects is on the rise, but they list only 657 people as capable of carrying out an attack, alongside another 388 "relevant persons" who might lend assistance to perpetrators. Separate information, however, from the country's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz), stated that the number of radical Salafists in Germany had risen from 8,350 in 2015 to 10,100 in 2016 (with 680 classified as "dangerous"), and that hundreds of jihadis entered among the more than one million migrants welcomed into the country during the two previous years. Overall, however, the same agency estimates that 24,400 Islamists are active in Germany, a figure
s similar to that of the UK.
Things are little better in France, which, according to Gatestone author Yves Mamou, has a large but never-quantified Muslim population of at least six million. In April 2017, the French Senate published its "Prevention of Radicalism and Regional Authorities" report, showing that since the beginning of March, 17,393 people had been listed as terror suspects. As in Britain, French authorities said that not all suspects are being constantly monitored; smaller numbers are investigated at regular intervals.
In May, the general secretariat of the international police organization, Interpol, published a list of Islamic State fighters who were thought to have already returned to Europe and may be planning suicide attacks in different countries:
Interpol has circulated a list of 173 Islamic State fighters it believes could have been trained to mount suicide attacks in Europe in revenge for the group's military defeats in the Middle East.
The global crime fighting agency's list was drawn up by US intelligence from information captured during the assault on Isis territories in Syria and Iraq
European counter-terror networks are concerned that as the Isis "caliphate" collapses, there is an increasing risk of determined suicide bombers seeking to come to Europe, probably operating alone.
The situation in the UK is, in some ways, the most alarming, not only because of cuts to the police budget. Cuts have also been made to the security and intelligence services, even more sharply since the June general election. Prior to that, on June 4, Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a speech the day after the London Bridge attack. Her speech included strong promises to tackle terrorism by introducing fresh measures to strengthen existing legislation.
While we have made significant progress in recent years, there is – to be frank – far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations.
Since the emergence of the threat from Islamist-inspired terrorism, our country has made significant progress in disrupting plots and protecting the public. But it is time to say "Enough is enough".
She even named the ideological basis for the attacks:
while the recent attacks are not connected by common networks, they are connected in one important sense. They are bound together by the single evil ideology of Islamist extremism that preaches hatred, sows division and promotes sectarianism.
This was progress. Three days after that, May presented proposals for fresh legislation to clamp down hard on Islamic extremism. They included amendments to Britain's 1998 Human Rights Act, which protects potential terrorists; tougher Terrorism Prevention Investigation Measures based on a 2011 Act, but in 2016 only used for six individuals; more deportations of suspects, and longer prison sentences, even though much radicalization takes place in prisons.
That was one day before the June 8 general election. May, overly confident that she would win handily and increase her majority in parliament, led a disastrous campaign that left her with a much reduced majority, forcing her to make an alliance with Northern Ireland's controversial Democratic Unionist Party. Tim Worstall, writing for Forbes magazine, wrote:
"It would be both reasonable and fair to say that Theresa May has just run the worst British election campaign of modern times... Theresa May has in fact achieved something that no one in modern times has managed, to start a general election campaign 20 percentage points up and then arrive without even a parliamentary majority for her party. There simply isn't anything to compare with this in the annals".
To make matters worse, the Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, came close to winning the election and performed considerately better than anyone might have thought a month earlier. Corbyn and his increasingly far-left party had been considered unelectable. Now, they were a force to contend with in the House of Commons.
Corbyn is the last person to be entrusted with Britain's security. Addressing a Stop The War Coalition conference in 2011, he told the crowd: "I've been involved in opposing anti-terror legislation ever since I first went into Parliament in 1983". He has also opposed the UK's involvement in all foreign wars: Sir Gerald Howarth, the former Tory defence minister, said: "Jeremy Corbyn has opposed every British military intervention and represents complete capitulation and weakness". He refused for many years to condemn IRA terrorism, preferring to condemn the British army posted there. He called terrorist groups Hamas and Hizbullah his "friends"; refused to denounce them as late as 2016, and only said he regretted his support for them after heavy pressure was put on him.
Since the election, Labour has made it clear that it opposes any changes in current human rights legislation, and claims that terrorism can be tackled through the laws presently in force. Given the strains the British government is now under, especially with weak negotiations for Brexit and May's increasing unpopularity even within her party, the strong opposition within parliament is certain to weaken further attempts to block radicalism and terrorism, particularly where action against both involves (as it inevitably will) Muslims from various ethnic minority groups.
There has already been vehement opposition to the government's core anti-radicalization program, Prevent, with schoolteachers, students, and others claiming it snoops on Muslim communities. Within the Labour party, Corbyn's radical followers in the Momentum Movement are already planning to force the deselection of members of parliament who oppose Corbyn, unless the such MPs "get on board" by wholeheartedly supporting the leader and his far-left policies. As this takes place, the hard left will strengthen its grip on parliament and make it even more difficult for strong new legislation to be passed.
Theresa May herself is also not entirely to be trusted in this area. Despite her calls for no tolerance for extremism, she has recently been widely criticized for blocking publication of a major report into foreign funding of extremist Muslim groups. Following an enquiry commissioned by May's predecessor David Cameron, the report was due for publication in 2016, but is unlikely now to be revealed for public scrutiny because it is deemed too "sensitive". The sensitivity derives from Saudi Arabia being exposed as a major financier of Islamic extremism worldwide, yet May and the UK government depend heavily on selling arms and other things to the Wahhabi kingdom.
According to the London-based Henry Jackson Society, in its short report on foreign funding of extremism,
The foreign funding for Islamist extremism in Britain primarily comes from governments and government linked foundations based in the Gulf, as well as Iran. Foremost among these has been Saudi Arabia, which since the 1960s has sponsored a multimillion dollar effort to export Wahhabi Islam across the Islamic world, including to Muslim communities in the West.
In the UK this funding has primarily taken the form of endowments to mosques and Islamic educational institutions, which have in turn played host to extremist preachers and the distribution of extremist literature. Influence has also been exerted through the training of British Muslim religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, as well as the use of Saudi textbooks in a number of the UK's independent Islamic schools.
A number of Britain's most serious Islamist hate preachers sit within the Salafi-Wahhabi ideology and are linked to extremism sponsored from overseas, either by having studied in Saudi Arabia as part of scholarship programmes, or by having been provided with extreme literature and material within the UK itself.
If the British government itself prefers to cover up such ties, opting to rescue its trade balance at the cost of endangering the lives of its own citizens, our concern for the future security of the country deepens immeasurably. The UK, like much of Western Europe and Scandinavia, stands at a crossroads. For years now, radical preachers, terrorist recruiters, and fundamentalists who openly hate this country, its democratic values, and its tolerance for all faiths, have walked British streets, campaigned on university campuses, and converted and radicalized young men and women. Sometimes they have been watched, but almost none has been deported, almost none has been imprisoned, and almost none has been singled out, due to the pretense that "Islam is a religion of peace". In Islam, the whole world is divided into two parts" the Dar al-Islam [Abode of Islam] and the Dar al-Harb [Abode of War]. What seems not to be understood about "the religion of peace" is that "peace" comes only after the entire world has been converted to Islam so that a "Dar al-Harb", the "Abode of War," will no longer even exist.
Theresa May's promise of tightened legislation to protect the British public was the right response to three major recent terror attacks. Yet fall-out from the election and May's own wish to protect Saudi Arabia from scrutiny are likely to guarantee that the serious measures we so much need may never be implemented. When there are further attacks and more people die, who will step forward to give us the protection we need? Or by then will it be too late?
Dr. Denis MacEoin taught Arabic and Islamic Studies at a British university and now specializes in Islamic radicalism, and the Middle East. He has just completed a major book on concerns about Islam in the UK. He also serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at New York's Gatestone Institute.