The number of live terror investigations in the UK has hit a record of 700 as Islamists and the far-right “feed each other”, police have revealed.
And this figure is expected to rise, the head of national counterterror policing, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, told MPs.
Speaking to the Home Affairs Committee, he said around 80 per cent of investigations by police and MI5 were looking into Islamist jihadis and 20 per cent “other”, including a “significant proportion from the right-wing”.
“There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the two ideologies, both perverse, are feeding each other,” Mr Basu said.
“The overriding threat to the UK remains from those inspired by Isis and the resurgent al-Qaeda, but our operations reflect a much broader range of dangerous ideologies, including very disturbingly rising extreme right-wing activity.”
The senior officer said the dramatic rise in religiously aggravated hate crime is a “proxy measure” for the increasing terror threat, as well as an increase in right-wing people being referred to the Prevent counter-radicalisation programme.
“We are seeing across Europe far-right activity increasing and there’s no doubt that crosses the border into the UK,” Mr Basu said, praising Border Force efforts to stop some figures entering the country.
“People who’ve got other problems, who are malleable, vulnerable, are being sucked very quickly into this ideology and it can be very difficult to spot.”
Mr Basu said the security services were also monitoring returned Isis fighters who could not be prosecuted because of a lack of evidence.
“The 40 per cent [of 900 recruits from the UK] who came back quickly are not my concern, my concern is the battle-hardened terrorists.
“I am satisfied that we have coverage on the people who we know who travelled and returned … [but] assuming that we know everyone who travelled and everyone who came back is the difficulty.”
Proposed terror laws would make it easier for returning Isis fighters to be prosecuted by making it illegal to enter “designated areas abroad”, but MPs say the plans may violate human rights and they have not yet been approved by parliament.
Mr Basu said 13 Islamist and four extreme right-wing plots had been foiled since the Westminster attack in March 2017.
He raised concern that the atrocity had “lowered the bar” for extremists who were inspired to attempt low-tech plots using cars and knives.
“It generated in the minds of some extremists an intention that brought their capability forward,” Mr Basu told MPs.
“The greatest concern to me comes from simple attacks on softer targets that are cheap to mount, easy to disguise and therefore harder to see and stop.”
He said he thought “every single day” about the 36 people murdered in the four attacks in London and Manchester last year.
Scotland Yard is implementing new safety measures for its officers and those around parliament after the Westminster attack inquests found that PC Keith Palmer’s life could have been saved.
Mr Basu said the UK’s counterterror capability was running “red-hot” because of the increase in plots, the majority of which come from UK nationals or dual British citizens.
“I’d like to tell you that we are matched to the current threat, but the reality is that we are not,” he added.
“Matching the new threat including now extreme right-wing terrorism and hostile state activity requires a new way of working and to maintain our current resources.”
He called for the government to offer a long-term funding settlement rather than the current short-term arrangements. He also said local forces and neighbourhood police, which counterterror teams “depend entirely on”, should be well resourced.
“It is my view the government’s most important pillar of contest has been and will always be Prevent, and we all need to talk much more about it,” the officer added.
“We have got to challenge extremist behaviour even if it doesn’t cross the criminal threshold because of the kind of intolerance it breeds.”
He said government work had caused the “big six” tech firms to improve the way they remove extremist content, but that ultimately they should be preventing the material from being uploaded.
Mr Basu named social media as the “greatest single difference in ramping up the terror threat regardless of the ideology” and added: “We have to be as clinical in getting hateful posts removed from the extreme right-wing as well as we have been from the Islamists.”
Sara Khan, the lead commissioner for countering extremism, told MPs that legal content posted on social media had also been linked to plots and atrocities such as the Finsbury Park attack.
“The scale of content is mind-boggling and I’m not sure if tech and social media companies currently understand it,” she added.
Ms Khan, who is carrying out national research on all types of extremism, said broad efforts were needed to reclaim “civility” and support those working against radicalisation who face hostility and threats.
“Extremism is not going to be something that changes overnight,” she said. “It’s a long and growing problem but I think we are on the way to understanding extremism in a better way … and building a better response.”