British security services are preparing a new crackdown on terrorism as the threat against the UK continues to grow.
Details of the strategy officials are calling “Contest 3.0” will be made public early next year, a minister announced while revealing that yet another plot has been foiled.
Ben Wallace, the security minister, said a total of eight planned attacks have now been thwarted since the Isis-inspired massacre in Westminster in March, bringing the total to 21 since 2013.
“Nearly 600 investigative leads are ongoing, covering about 3,000 people and approximately another 20,000 people who we have at some stage had concern about,” he told the Westminster Counter-terrorism Conference.
“It is not a spike in the threat, but a shift that we are now facing, and that is something we all have to deal with.”
Mr Wallace said Isis posed the greatest threat to the UK but cautioned over al-Qaeda’s continued aspirations to hit the West, as well as the danger from neo-Nazi terrorist group National Action.
Speaking to officials from international military, security and research institutions gathered at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), Mr Wallace said there was a “long campaign” ahead despite the destruction of Isis’ self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
“Some of these threats are here to stay for a considerable time,” he added. “We are going to launch the Government’s new counter-terrorism strategy in the new year, building on what we’ve learned … And keep one step ahead of the terrorists."
The Contest strategy, which encompasses efforts to “prevent, pursue, protect and prepare” for terror attacks through security, intelligence and government agencies on all levels.
It was last updated in 2015, before the start of Isis’ deadly wave of terror attacks sweeping Europe and the atrocities that have left more than 30 victims dead and hundreds injured in the UK so far this year.
David Anderson QC, the former terrorism legislation reviewer, has been commissioned to review the response to the atrocities, with his recommendations expected before Christmas.
Military officials have hailed the destruction of Isis’ territories in Syria and Iraq, but officials speaking to the conference warned that the terrorist group was undergoing a dangerous evolution that makes international attacks a higher priority than ever before.
“There is no doubt that the threat to us all continues to grow,” said Alistair Burt, the minister for the Middle East.
“Even as we see Isis pushed back on the physical battlefield, we know that they will continue to pose a threat in the region. We also know that the battle of ideas is far from won.
“Isis is still capable of inspiring people to carry out attacks in its name and as such it remains a serious global threat.”
Although the loss of the terrorist group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria has not generated the number of fighters returning to Europe as once feared, officials warn surviving jihadis may travel to other Isis bases in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and the Philippines that can be used as launch pads for insurgencies and international attacks.
Meanwhile, Isis is reaching out to supporters via its “virtual caliphate”, which continues to push out propaganda and terror manuals despite intensifying global efforts to remove its material.
“Unfortunately it’s probably easier than before for a lone actor to perpetrate an attack with catastrophic consequences,” warned the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove.
He said deadly weapons had become “miniaturised”, with 25g of explosives now enough to blow up a plane, while online propaganda could be used to spread instructions for homemade chemical or biological agents to potentially be spread by drones.
Patrick McGuinness, the UK’s Deputy National Security Adviser, said all terrorists needed was the “internet and a mindset” to perpetrate global atrocities.
He added: “The frontline [against Isis] is now online … Until there is not a presence online, until Isis cannot occupy space online freely, we will not be safe.”
Around 850 people travelled from the UK to join Isis and al-Qaeda in Syria, with 15 per cent killed and half returned home, according to government figures.
More than 150 others have been prevented from travelling to the war-torn country, and more than 50 children from extremist families have been safeguarded through the courts.
Thousands of children are also among the 7,631 people referred to the Government’s Prevent counter-extremism programme in a single year – mainly for concerns over Islamist extremism.
Mr Wallace defended the controversial scheme, which has been accused of driving extremism itself by alienating Muslim communities, urging people to support “what is ultimately a safeguarding policy”.
He warned of the continued ability for Isis and other terrorist groups to use “online grooming” to inspire potential terrorists, including vulnerable people, amid a continued drive to find and remove extremist content online.
Mark Rowley, the head of national counter-terrorism policing, said there was no “silver bullet” to cure the terror threat facing the UK.
“There is more of it, it is moving more quickly and it’s harder to detect,” he warned.
“Our ability to prevent dangerous people killing on the streets of the UK or anywhere else in the world will always be critically urgent, but the most important thing we can all focus on to change the picture in the long-term is the preventative agenda, to counter the ideology to stop the next generation of terrorists.”