A recent spike in the number of British jihadists fighting with Sunni militant groups in Syria and Iraq is fuelling a heated debate over how much government surveillance is necessary to keep the United Kingdom safe from domestic terrorism.
The British government is asking for additional surveillance powers to monitor British jihadists who might be planning attacks in the UK after their return from the fighting in the Middle East.
But privacy groups counter that the British state has already amassed massive surveillance powers, and that what the government really wants is a free rein to monitor all of the communications of every man, woman and child in Britain.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that the greatest threat to national security is from British citizens and other Europeans fighting with the Sunni militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]. At a press conference on June 17, he said:
"No-one should be in any doubt that what we see in Syria and now in Iraq in terms of ISIS is the most serious threat to Britain's security that there is today. The number of foreign fighters in that area, the number of foreign fighters including those from the UK who could try to return to the UK is a real threat to our country."
Cameron's view has been echoed by dozens of recent articles warning about the jihadist threat to Britain. Some titles include: "Are the British Jihadists Going to Turn Their Guns on Us?," "Get Ready for an ISIS Backlash in the UK," "The West Will Pay for Losing Its Backbone," "The Threat to Britain that Cannot be Ignored," "British Jihadists are the Most Bloodthirsty in Syria," and "UK Police: British Jihadists Provoked by Syria, Iraq War Images."
An ISIS recruitment video released in June 2014, titled "There is no life without Jihad", features British and Australian Muslims fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The British government now believes that some 500 British jihadists have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, according to Britain's top counter-terrorism officer, Cressida Dick.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend on June 22, Dick warned that European jihadists represent a "long-term" terrorist threat that will persist for "many years." She said:
"We are really alert to the fact that people may come back and they may have military training. They may seek—although it's very difficult—to smuggle weaponry here and they may seek to cause violence or to encourage others to cause violence.
"So a huge part of our effort is about trying to work out who is coming back and intercept them at the port, and of course if we discover that there are plots being planned either from abroad, for example from Syria, or within the UK, we will do everything we can to disrupt that plot."
Some British jihadists have faked their deaths on the battlefield in order to sneak back into Britain undetected, the Sunday Times reported on June 22. In one instance, the martyrdom of a fighter in Syria was announced by his colleagues on social media, only for police to arrest the "dead" individual at Dover.
In an interview with the Independent on June 22, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, Richard Barrett, said that as many as 300 radicalized young men had already returned to the UK, and that the scale of the threat is placing an impossible burden on British intelligence. He added:
"If you imagine what it would cost to really look at 300 people in depth, clearly it would be completely impossible to do that, probably impossible even at a third of that number.
"With this whole business in Syria, although there is no linear projection from foreign fighters to domestic terrorists, it's inevitable that a number will fall into this category."
Barrett has also authored a new report entitled "Foreign Fighters in Syria," in which he predicts that the Syrian war "is likely to be an incubator for a new generation of terrorists." He estimates that more than 12,000 foreign fighters have gone to Syria since the war began in March 2011. This is more than the estimated 10,000 foreign fighters who went to Afghanistan during the decade-long jihad against Russian occupation.
According to Barrett, around 2,500 jihadists are from Western countries, including most members of the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
There are also several hundred from Russia. Many are young, often teenagers, and a "fair percentage" of those arriving from non-Muslim majority countries are converts to Islam. Barrett adds:
"The progression from foreign fighter to terrorist is not a linear one, nor is it inevitable, and the majority of people who return from the fighting in Syria may pose no terrorist threat. But the difficulty remains how to distinguish those who will from those who won't."
Barrett told the Independent that he estimates that one in nine foreign fighters could become domestic terrorists. If this ratio is applied to the current estimates of fighters in Syria, the conflict there will have already spawned more than 1,300 terrorists, dozens of whom are British.
In an interview with BBC1's Andrew Marr Show on June 22, former British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said that the UK is facing an "ideological battle" with Muslim extremists and it is a "problem that is going to be with us for a very long time."
Given the increased threat to national security, Fox said, the British state should be given more power to intercept the communications of Islamic extremists.
"The whole area of intercept needs to be looked at. We have got a real debate, and it is a genuine debate in a democracy, between the libertarians who say the state must not get too powerful and pretty much the rest of us who say the state must protect itself."
Speaking at the annual Lord Mayor's Defense and Security Lecture in London on June 24, Home Secretary Theresa May called for a change to British law that would hand the security services more powers to scrutinize online communication, a bid that has previously been blocked by the Liberal Democrats. She said:
"The terrorist threats to this country and our interests are changing faster than at any time since 9/11. This is quite simply a question of life and death, a matter of national security. We must keep on making the case until we get the changes we need."
Defending the government's use of surveillance powers, May said:
"There is no program of mass surveillance and there is no surveillance state. The real problem is not that we have built an over-mighty state but that the state is finding it harder to fulfil its most basic duty, which is to protect the public."
May is behind the so-called Communications Data Bill (also known as the Snooper's Charter), draft legislation that would require Internet service providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records (but not the content) of each user's Internet browsing activity (including social media), email correspondence, voice calls, Internet gaming, and mobile phone messaging services and store those records for 12 months.
The bill, which some say represents a radical expansion of state power, has been stalled since April 2013, when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg withdrew his support for the law. Some believe May is now seeking to revive the bill by leveraging the threat posed by British jihadists.
In any event, May's claim that there is no such thing as a British surveillance state has been contradicted, privacy advocates say, by a senior official from her very own office.
A London-based group called Privacy International on June 17 published a 50-page document in which Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (a directorate within the Home Office which leads work on counter-terrorism in the UK), explains how the British government justifies mass surveillance of UK residents.
The document involves Farr's testimony in a lawsuit filed by several British and American privacy-advocacy groups, which argue that the mass spying described by former US National Security Agency [NSA] contractor Edward Snowden is illegal.
In his testimony, Farr was obliged to reveal a secret government policy justifying mass surveillance. He details how the Government Communications Headquarters [GCHQ], a British intelligence agency that works closely with the NSA, justifies the indiscriminate intercepting all online searches and electronic communications over Internet services such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Farr makes the distinction between two different types of communication, internal and external, each of which has different legal criteria for surveillance.
Internal communication is classified as any electronic communication between two British residents inside the UK. The GCHQ is legally required to obtain a warrant that names a specific person or place as a target in order to monitor internal communications.
External communication involves any electronic communication sent or received outside the UK, including those that pass through the UK during transit. Although surveillance of external communications also requires a warrant, the evidence bar is far lower because such a warrant does not have to name a specific person or place as a target.
According to Farr, the GCHQ considers the communications of British residents via "platforms" such as Google, Facebook and Twitter to be external, not internal. GCQH justifies this based on the argument that such platforms are based outside the UK. When someone in the UK performs a Google search, it is an external communication because he or she communicates with a server that is based in the United States or another European country.
Under current law, external communications can be searched, read and listened to indiscriminately, regardless of whether there are grounds to suspect wrongdoing.
Privacy International explains the significance of the distinction between "internal" and "external" communication this way:
"Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which regulates the surveillance powers of public bodies, 'internal' communications may only be intercepted under a warrant which relates to a specific individual or address. These warrants should only be granted where there is some suspicion of unlawful activity. However, an individual's 'external' communications may be intercepted indiscriminately, even where there are no grounds to suspect any wrongdoing."
In his testimony, Farr defends the practice because Britain has for "many years faced a serious threat from terrorism," especially the threat derived from "militant Islamist terrorists." He says the practice has prevented terrorist attacks and saved lives.
The Deputy Director of Privacy International, Eric King, counters: "Intelligence agencies cannot be considered accountable to Parliament and to the public they serve when their actions are obfuscated through secret interpretations of byzantine laws."
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg agrees. He believes that the oversight structure of the intelligence agencies needs to be overhauled because the current legal framework, enshrined in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, was written before the Internet revolution took hold.
Clegg says he is not in principle opposed to the state's gathering of bulk data, but he argues that surveillance activities must be governed by the principle that the government should intrude as little as possible into private affairs.
But Clegg has been unable to persuade his coalition partner, David Cameron, of the need for reform. Cameron has repeatedly stated that his job is to do "everything that is necessary" to keep the country safe.
Clegg has as a result opted for an independent review, which he formally commissioned in March. The review will assess the legality, effectiveness and privacy implications of UK surveillance programs, examine potential reforms to current surveillance practices, and propose how law-enforcement and intelligence capabilities can be maintained in the Internet era, while respecting principles of proportionality, necessity and privacy.
The review will be led by the Royal United Services Institute [RUSI], a military and intelligence think tank, and the review panel will consist of around twelve experts representing the security agencies, government, civil-liberties interests and the communications industry. The report will be presented after the 2015 general elections.
"I would like the next government to draw on an independent assessment of the issues at stake," Clegg said. "I hope that as it progresses, the review that RUSI will lead will be able to garner support across the political spectrum."
Meanwhile, the Intelligence and Security Committee [ISC] of the British parliament is conducting its own review into how British intelligence gathering can reconcile security and privacy.
The ISC chairman, the former Conservative foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, recently delivered a lecture entitled "Intelligence Agencies in the Internet Age: Public Servants or Public Threat?" in which he deftly lays out both sides of the argument. He concludes:
"We all live in a world in which there are occasional paradoxes. When a terrorist atrocity occurs, the majority of the public tends to ask why the Agencies knew so little about those who were responsible. When, however the surveillance activities of the Agencies are revealed, a smaller but vocal minority tends to ask why they need to know so much. We need to do a better job of recognizing the competing demands we place upon the Agencies, and do more to establish a consensus as to how these demands can be reconciled."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.