Children as young as 15 are being groomed for terrorist acts in Britain by al-Qa’ida, the head of MI5 has warned.
The timing of the speech by Jonathan Evans, 24 hours before the Government unveils its latest programme of anti-terror legislation, was seen by Labour MPs as part of a softening-up process for the extension of the detention of terrorist suspects without charge beyond the current limit of 28 days.
Mr Evans, the director general of the security service, used a Society of Editors conference to give a rare insight into the threat identified by MI5. He said the total number of people who pose a direct threat to national security has risen in the past year, and could be as high as 4,000.
Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, said last year that there were about 1,600|al-Qa’ida supporters in the UK who were actively engaged in terrorist activities and were known to the intelligence services but that figure had risen to about 2,000, said Mr Evans.
“We suspect that there
are as many again that we don’t yet know of,” he said.
He highlighted the way that al-Qa’ida was targeting vulnerable young people as recruits, with teenagers as young as 15 and 16 years old having been implicated in terrorist plots.
“As I speak, terrorists are methodically and intentionally targeting young people and children in this country,” he said. “They are radicalising, indoctrinating and grooming young, vulnerable people to carry out acts of terrorism.”
Terror plots were being directed from the tribal areas of Pakistan where al-Qa’ida’s “core leadership” is based, “often using young British citizens to mount the actual attack”.
“This campaign is dynamic and since my predecessor spoke last year, we have seen it evolve further,” said Mr Evans. “We are rightly concerned to protect children from exploitation in other areas. We need to do the same in relation to violent extremism.”
The extension of the “al-Qa’ida brand” to new parts of the Middle East and other regions posed a further worrying threat, he added. There were signs that al-Qa’ida in Iraq was seeking to promote attacks outside that country while terrorist training and planning against the UK was being carried out in Somalia.
Mr Evans said it was a matter of “some disappointment” that MI5 was still having to deal with “unreconstructed attempts” at spying by countries such as China and Russia, which still had the same number of undeclared intelligence officers in the UK as during the Cold War. “They are resources I would far rather devote to countering the threat from international terrorism – a threat to the whole international community, not just the UK.”
An anti-terror Bill will be included in the legislative programme to be unveiled with the Queen’s Speech today. A QC and leading voice on civil liberties on the Labour benches, Bob Marshall-Andrews said he
suspected the timing of the speech was linked to the legislation. He will oppose an extension of detention beyond 28 days unless he heard hard evidence that it was necessary. “I have still heard nothing to change my mind,” he said.
Tony McNulty, the Home Office minister, has said the Government would prefer to extend detention without charge to 56 days.
The shadow Home Secretary David Davis hinted that the Opposition would not support an extension of the detention powers.Reuse content