Britain is facing an "unprecedented" threat from hundreds of battle-hardened jihadists who have been trained in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, according to MI5, the domestic counter-intelligence and security agency. It warns that are now more Britons trained in terrorism than at any point in recent memory.
More than 700 Britons are believed to have travelled to Syria and Iraq, according to British authorities. Over half of these Britons are thought to have since returned home, where they pose a significant threat to national security.
Britain's terrorism threat alert is at the second-highest level of "severe," meaning an attack is "highly likely."
MI5's warnings are included in a major new report on the regulation of surveillance powers. Also known as the Anderson Report, the 380-page document was written by the UK's Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC. The report states:
"MI5 has pointed out some of the recent factors which reinforce their concerns about the terrorist threat. Terrorist related arrests are up 35% compared to 2010. The number who have travelled to Syria and undertaken terrorist training since 2012 is already higher than has been seen in other 21st century theatres, such as Pakistan/Afghanistan, East Africa and Yemen.
"The threat posed on their return comprises not just attack planning but radicalization of associates, facilitation and fundraising, all of which further exacerbate the threat. The number of UK-linked individuals who are involved in or been exposed to terrorist training and fighting is higher than it has been at any point since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. MI5 regard this aspect of the threat as unprecedented. Some travelers were previously unknown to MI5.
"The volume and accessibility of extremist propaganda has increased. UK-based extremists are able to talk directly to ISIL fighters and their wives in web forums and on social media. The key risk is that this propaganda is able to inspire individuals to undertake attacks without ever traveling to Syria or Iraq. Through these media outputs, ISIL have driven the increase in unsophisticated attack methodology seen in recent months in Australia, France and Canada.
Nasser Muthana (center) is one of over 700 British Muslims who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad. He is pictured speaking in an English-language ISIS recruitment video.
The report reveals that MI5 has successfully disrupted two attack plots by lone wolves in the past nine months, both in the late stages of preparation. According to MI5, "identifying such individuals is increasingly challenging, exacerbated by the current limitations in their technical capabilities."
Separately, the UK's lead police officer on counter-terrorism, Mark Rowley, announced the latest arrest figures — nearly one every day — which underline the scale of the challenge British police are facing to tackle the jihadist threat.
According to Rowley, there were a record 338 arrests for terrorism-related offenses in the last financial year (April 2014 to March 2015), a 33% increase on the 254 arrests in the previous year. He said that 157 (46%) of the arrests were linked to Syria, and 56 were under 20 years of age, an "emerging trend."
Rowley said that 79% of those arrested were British nationals and 11% were female. He added that 50% of the arrests were made in London and that roughly 50% of those arrested were later charged (up from around 40% in previous years). The arrests ranged from fundraising for jihadist groups to facilitation, preparation and execution of terrorist attack plans.
Rowley also said that each week the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU), which assesses terrorist and violent extremist material on the Internet, removes on average over 1,000 pieces of content that breaches the Terrorism Act 2006. Approximately 800 of these items are related to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and are posted on multiple platforms. According to Rowley:
"ISIL and other terrorist groups are trying to direct attacks in the UK; encouraging British citizens to travel to Syria to fight and train; and are seeking, through propaganda, to provoke individuals in the UK to carry out violent attacks here."
"There is no doubt of the horrific nature of the offenses being committed overseas. The influence of those who wish to bring similar violence to the streets of the UK has been an increasing threat here. The rise in level of activity is matched by increased action by police and security services, who are currently working on hundreds of active investigations. We cannot be complacent."
Meanwhile, Britain's most senior Muslim police officer, Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty, has warned that Islamist propaganda is so potent that it is influencing children as young as five, and that many more British Muslims are likely to end up being lured into becoming jihadists either at home or abroad.
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Chishty said there was an urgent need to "move into the private space" of Muslims to prevent youth from becoming radicalized. He called on friends and family to intervene much earlier, and to watch for subtle changes in behavior, including expressions of anti-Western sentiment. He said:
"We need to now be less precious about the private space. This is not about us invading private thoughts, but acknowledging that it is in these private spaces where this [extremism] first germinates. The purpose of private-space intervention is to engage, explore, explain, educate or eradicate. Hate and extremism is not acceptable in our society, and if people cannot be educated, then hate and harmful extremism must be eradicated through all lawful means."
Chishty defined "private space" as "anything from walking down the road, looking at a mobile, to someone in a bedroom surfing the net, to someone in a shisha cafe talking about things."
Chishty said that jihadist propaganda is so powerful that he fears his own children might be vulnerable. He said his message to fellow Muslim parents was: "I am not immunized. If I feel the need to be extra vigilant, then I think you need to feel the need to be extra vigilant."
Referring to three teenage girls from a school in Bethnal Green, east London, who slipped away from their families in February to join the Islamic State in Syria, he said he found it impossible to believe the claims by their families that there had been no clues that the girls were becoming radicalized. "My view as a parent is there must have been signs," he said.
According to Chishty, current counter-radicalization strategies are not working. "We are in unchartered water.... We are facing a risk, a threat which is global, which is powerfully driven by social media, reaching you on your own through your mobile phone."
Some of Chishty's ideas highlight the challenge of finding a balance between confronting jihadist propaganda and criminalizing free speech.
A new Counter-Extremism Bill — which the government says is needed to combat groups and individuals who "undermine British values" — is facing mounting criticism that it is too draconian.
The new legislation would introduce so-called Banning Orders for extremist groups that seek to "undermine democracy or use hate speech in public places." It would also give the government new powers to restrict individuals who seek to radicalize youth, and powers to close premises where extremists seek to influence others.
The bill would strengthen the powers of the Charity Commission to root out charities that misappropriate funds towards extremism and terrorism. It would also place immigration restrictions on extremists, and strengthen the ability of Ofcom, the communications regulator, to take action against channels that broadcast extremist content.
The legislation is partly aimed at providing the government with the tools needed to silence Islamic extremists such as Anjem Choudary, who has long called for the implementation of Islamic Sharia law in Britain. Although Choudary is believed to have inspired dozens of young British Muslims to carry out violence in the name of Islam, his training as a lawyer has helped him to stay one step ahead of the law and out of prison.
But the new bill is facing stiff opposition from a variety of individuals who fear the bill will give too much power to the state.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Haras Rafiq, the director of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think tank, said the new bill would "do the very things the extremists want us to. With these Orwellian, totalitarian powers, we are playing into their hands." He added:
"It is very noticeable that the main Islamist groups are not really up in arms about this. They want it, because it will feed the narrative of grievance and victimhood they love. They will be able to use it to say, look, we told you so."
Rafiq described the proposed powers as "ridiculous" and "unworkable" and said that even if they survived the passage through Parliament, they would be struck down by the courts. "That will be embarrassing and a victory for the extremists," he said.
The Telegraph also reported that senior government advisors are opposed to the bill. A counter-extremism specialist at the Home Office's de-radicalization program, Rashad Ali, said:
"You can't protect democracy by undermining democracy. The Government is obsessed with legislation but this is not something you can defeat by legislation. It is a battle of ideas and we have to defeat these ideas by argument, not by banning even having the debate. What we need, far more than any new law, is a counter-argument and a policy which can inspire [Muslim] society to defeat extremist ideas."
The former foreign office minister and shadow home secretary David Davis said that "restricting free speech, and forcing those who hold views inimical to our own into the shadows, is an authoritarian act that will only serve to further alienate those susceptible to extremist views."
The government's new Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, in a leaked letter to Home Secretary Theresa May, warned that the law would turn Ofcom into a state "censor."
"David Cameron seems to think that banning orders, extremist disruption orders and draconian laws are the way to tackle Choudary's ideological venom. But such legislation simply endangers the UK's democratic liberties and freedom of speech. It is far better openly to expose — and mock — the fictitious fabricated roots of Choudary's fundamentalist ideology. It is this way that Choudary will slowly but surely lose his malign influence over so many impressionable young minds."
British Prime Minister David Cameron has defended the bill. "For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone," he said. "It's often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that's helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance." He added:
"This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach. As the party of one nation, we will govern as one nation, and bring our country together. That means actively promoting certain values... And it means confronting head-on the poisonous Islamist extremist ideology. Whether they are violent in their means or not, we must make it impossible for the extremists to succeed."
The bill's passage is not a foregone conclusion. Cameron's new government has a majority of just 10 MPs in the House of Commons, and holds 228 of the 787 seats in the House of Lords. MPs are likely to propose and debate amendments to the government's proposals.
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.