David Cameron warns country is facing a decades-long battle against terror threat from Syria and Iraq as he announces tough new measures
Islamist terrorists are “highly likely” to attack the UK as David Cameron announced the threat assessment has been raised to its second highest level.
It is the first time the threat level has been at “severe” since 2011 when it was reduced to “substantial” and reflects growing concern from the risk of British jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq.
It is feared more than 500 have gone and around half of those are now back in the UK, with some possibly planning attacks here.
At least one plot is known to have already been foiled.
The Prime Minsiter warned that the Isil extremists in Iraq and Syria now pose a “greater and deeper threat than anything we have seen before”, including Al Qaeda.
“In Afghanistan the Taliban were prepared to play host to al Qaida, the terrorist organisation,” he said.
“With IS we are facing a terrorist organisation not being hosted in a country but seeking to establish and then violently expand its own terrorist state.
“With designs on expanding to Jordan, Lebanon, right up to the Turkish border, we could be facing a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a Nato member.”
He said that the threat is “growing” and that people can expect to see more armed police on the streets in response to the crisis.
On Monday he will announce a package of “uncompromising” measures to help tackle British jihadis and fill the “gaps in our armoury”.
They will include new powers to make it easier to take people’s passports away and he is also expected to bolster controls on terror suspects in Britain.
He said: “This is the first time in three years that the threat to our country has been at this level. My first priority is to make sure we do everything possible to keep our people safe.
“We have all been shocked and sickened by the barbaric murder of James Foley and the voice of what increasingly seems to be a British terrorist on that video.
“But we have to listen carefully to the security and intelligence officers who do so much every day to keep us safe. I chaired a meeting a week ago with our intelligence and securitry services and we agreed that the answer to this threat was not to dream up some sweeping new power that could be ineffective in practice but it is becoming clear that there are some gaps in our armoury and we need to strengthen them.
“We need to do more to stop people travelling, to stop those who do go from returning and to deal decisively with those who are already here. I will be making a statement in the House of Commons on Monday. This will include further steps to stop people travelling with new legislation that will make it easier to take people’s passports away.”
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, insisted there was no intelligence to suggest an attack was imminent but that the “first and most important duty of government is the protection of the British people”.
However, the change also comes less than a week before a Nato summit in south Wales which will see the biggest ever gathering of heads of state in the UK.
Police and security services have long been concerned over the large numbers of British jihadists travelling to Syria and Iraq.
The decision to raise the threat level, which is now only one stage below “critical” – which means an attack is imminent – was taken by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC).
Mrs May said: “JTAC’s judgements about that threat level are made on the basis of the very latest intelligence and are independent of Ministers.
“The increase in the threat level is related to developments in Syria and Iraq where terrorist groups are planning attacks against the West.
“Some of those plots are likely to involve foreign fighters who have travelled there from the UK and Europe to take part in those conflicts.
Armed police patrol the Terminal 5 building at London’s Heathrow Airport (AFP)
“That process will continue and the British public should be in no doubt that we will take the strongest possible action to prect our national security.
“We face a real and serious threat in the UK from international terrorism. I would urge the public to remain vigilant and to report any suspicious activity to the police.”
Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner Mark Rowley, National Policing Lead for Counter-Terrorism, said: “The threat level from international terrorism has changed from SUBSTANTIAL to SEVERE in response to the developments in Syria and Iraq.
“This means it is highly likely that a terrorist attack could happen in the UK.
“We therefore continue to urge the public to remain vigilant and to report any suspicious activity to police. We need communities and families to bring to our attention anyone they perceive may be vulnerable, a danger or escalating towards terrorism.
“From this afternoon we will begin to increase our levels of visible patrols and implement other security and protection measures. We will also build on existing community relations to provide reassurance and seek their support and assistance in keeping the UK safe.”
Anyone with information is urged to contact the Anti-Terrorist Hotline on 0800 789 321.