British members of humanitarian aid convoys heading for Syria are being targeted by Islamist extremists intent on radicalising them, security sources fear.
The UK authorities are increasingly alarmed that potential jihadists are returning to this country from Syria having learned terrorist techniques and picked up experience of combat. The problem has been exacerbated by the large numbers of informal aid convoys heading into areas controlled by hardline groups opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
A Whitehall source told The Independent: “Aid groups’ work inevitably takes you to places where some serious groups could be operating.
“Some will go out there sympathetic to the general cause, but there will be a cadre that come back with new training and links to groups.”
Some large international aid organisations do not operate fully in Syria because the civil war has made much of the country too dangerous.
Instead they hand supplies over to local groups which are able to negotiate with militia leaders. Some British Muslims are known to be travelling with the local convoys.
The intelligence agencies are most worried about them falling under the influence of the Jabhat al-Nusra group, which is affiliated to al-Qa’ida. It has an estimated 5,000 fighters operating across Syria.
More than 100 British men are among thousands of foreigners who are believed to have travelled to the country to fight alongside opposition forces.
Groups battling Assad’s forces control up to half of Syria’s populated areas with hardline organisations gaining a growing foothold in the resistance.
As a result, MI5 and MI6 have added Syria to those parts of the world, alongside Pakistan/Afghanistan and Somalia, which they are most worried about as crucibles of terrorism.
They are particularly concerned because Syria’s proximity to Europe makes it easier for violent extremists to travel to and from the country.
“We now also have to think about Syria as one of the big ungoverned spaces of concern to counter-terrorism in the UK,” a source said.
The independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, said yesterday: “Jihadi conflicts have the potential to radicalise individuals in the UK and for some individuals who return from fighting abroad to pose a direct threat to the UK.”
He also reported that terrorist plots in Britain were becoming less complex with fewer participants, warning that “lone actor” attacks could be more difficult to detect and disrupt. The threat from such incidents was illustrated by the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in May in Woolwich, south-east London.
But Mr Anderson added: “The will and capacity to commit 7/7 style atrocities still exist in the United Kingdom, as demonstrated recently by the Birmingham rucksack bomb plot. However the bombers’ chances of success have diminished with the marked improvement in MI5’s coverage since 2005.”
Syria aid: By numbers
4 million Number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria
1.5m Syrians who have fled their homeland
€1.5bn Pledged by G8 in humanitarian aid for Syria and its neighbours
5,000 Estimated number fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra group, of 50,000 rebel fighters overallReuse content