AN INDEPENDENT legal watchdog has called for stricter controls on terror suspects in Britain, placing Prime Minister David Cameron under renewed pressure following the brutal execution of American journalist James Foley by Islamic State jihadists.
David Anderson QC, the reviewer of UK counter-terrorism legislation, is urging changes to Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (Tpims) to make them more effective, amid fears hundreds of British jihadists are returning home from Syria and Iraq.
But he warned against a “kneejerk response” and said tougher laws by themselves would not be enough to tackle the problem of Muslim radicalisation.
Mr Cameron, who has returned to his holiday in Cornwall after chairing an emergency meeting in Downing Street earlier this week, has already said: “Far too many British citizens have travelled to Iraq and Syria to take part in extremism and violence – and what we must do is redouble all our efforts to stop people from going.”
According to some estimates, about 500 of the thousands of foreign fighters with the Islamist State are British, with around 200 thought to have returned already.
Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, believes a lack of border controls means the government’s estimates of British jihadi numbers are too low, adding: “I think it’s about 2,000 people.”
Among them are three jihadists who guarded Foley and other western captives. The trio, believed to be British, were dubbed “The Beatles” by the hostages, after the pop group, and given the nicknames John, Paul and Ringo.
The focus is now shifting to identifying and tackling the hundreds who may return home from fighting in the Middle East amid fears that terror could be brought to British streets. In Iraq yesterday, the violence continued with 64 people killed in an attack on a Sunni mosque north of Baghdad during Friday prayers, though it is not clear whether Shiite militia or the Islamic State extremist group were behind the atrocity.
Mr Cameron is facing calls for tougher laws to combat radicalised British Muslims following the release of a video showing GlobalPost and AFP journalist Foley being beheaded by the British jihadi nicknamed “John”, who spoke with a London-area accent.
Mr Anderson said: “Increasing radicalisation is the problem but it’s not a problem that can be attacked only by laws.
“But laws, like surveillance, are a very necessary part of the toolkit because they can keep a lid on the problem and, if you look back for the last few years, they have been working pretty well – we have had a lot of successful prosecutions, we’ve had deportations, we’ve had extraditions”.
The UK already has some of the strongest laws in the world to deal with terrorism cases but Tpims are weaker than the last Labour government’s Control Order regime.
Tony Blair’s administration brought in Control Orders in 2005 which kept terrorism suspects in their homes for 16 hours a day, without access to phones or the internet. They were controversial because they were used for people yet to be convicted.
Control Orders were replaced by Tpims by the coalition in 2011. They were authorised by the Home Secretary after an assessment by MI5.
Suspects are electronically tagged, must report to the police, and are prevented from travelling overseas.
They are subject to shorter ten-hour curfews overnight and are allowed limited access to mobile phones and the internet.
However, it is believed none is currently in operation, which critics said demonstrates their lack of effectiveness.
Mr Anderson added: “I did a report on Tpims in March and I made some recommendations for toughening up the regime to make it more usable and less liable to abuse.”
Yesterday, Lord Carlile, one of Britain’s top legal experts and Mr Anderson’s predecessor, said the decision to scrap the Control Order system in favour of the more limited Tpims should be revisited.
He said: “We can demonstrate that, certainly in the last six or seven years of Control Orders, they were very effective, including a provision that allowed certain people – if a judge agreed, a very senior judge – to be relocated.
“Of course, there are no Tpims at all at the moment. The Tpims that were created ran out and the government decided to have no more, for reasons which I have never understood.” The Lib Dem Peer and QC also backed the abandoned Communications Data Bill – which would have given police and security services access to communications metadata such as time and location of mobile phone calls. The legislation was effectively blocked by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg last year over civil liberties concerns.
“I have made clear to Mr Clegg and others in my party that I think they were wrong to reject what, after all, was merely an attempt to ensure that what we are actually doing now and have been doing for years is encased in a solid statute, a solid act of parliament,” Lord Carlile said.
“We are not talking about intercepting people’s telephone calls to a much greater extent; we are simply looking at the bare data which, in any event, is kept by the telephone and other companies for a fairly considerable period.”
Lord Carlile also said the government needed to “spend more money” on local campaigns to prevent radicalisation.
In some parts of the country, such as Cardiff, key schemes were “just vestigial”, and had allowed developing extremists to “slip through the net”.
Former Middle East minister Alistair Burt also called for the revival of Control Orders.
“If the authorities believe someone to be dangerous, what sort of monitoring is possible of that individual?” he said.
“That raises the issue of Control Orders coming back on to the agenda again. It is time to revisit Control Orders. These were cancelled when we came into office. But circumstances have changed.”
In response, the Home Office said the “strongest possible action” would be taken to protect national security, adding: “Ultimately, the best place for terrorists is behind bars and we will prosecute those who break the law.”