London: European militants fighting in the Middle East pose a “likely” terror threat on their return home, with some boasting the necessary bomb-making skills to attempt a 7/7 style attack, experts warn.
An estimated 400 Britons and more than 250 Germans are said to be fighting in Iraq and Syria, many with the Sunni Islamist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (Isil), prompting fears of attacks when they return home.
Many of the fighters have the ability to make bombs, academics said, following this month’s warning by British Prime Minister David Cameron that Isil is already planning to attack the UK.
Dr Peter Lehr, lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the Scotland-based University of St Andrews, said that returning Isil fighters pose a “likely threat” to the UK.
“They may attempt to rerun 7/7,” he said. “[Isil] is a very capable organisation, as their recent advance has shown. They are well-trained fighters, some with advanced weapons training.”
Lehr added that some fighters in Iraq and Syria will return to Europe as experts in constructing bombs.
“Most of the young militants are cannon-fodder. But some of them may possess more advanced skills,” he said. “Many of them will perish on the battlefront. But there will be enough left that survive and come back hardened fighters.”
Lehr said the European terror threat from IS is strongest in the UK, Germany and France. In the UK, there have been “verbal threats so far over YouTube and Twitter”, Lehr added, although he said he thought the country’s intelligence services are “well prepared” to deal with Isil.
The UK has pledged to crack down on Britons travelling to Iraq and Syria to fight with Isil and other insurgent groups. David Cameron said earlier this month that such groups are planning an attack in the United Kingdom.
“The estimates are now this is a greater threat to the UK than the return of foreign militants or fighters from Afghanistan or Pakistan region, and we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep our country safe,” he told the UK Parliament.
Terrorism expert Professor Lee Marsden, head of the School of Political Social and International Studies at the University of East Anglia, cast doubt over whether David Cameron has any concrete information of an imminent terror attack by Isil.
“It seems to me that he’s preparing the domestic audience for some kind of action in Iraq,” he said.
While the UK has ruled out putting ‘boots on the ground’ in Iraq, Cameron may be preparing the public for the UK giving wider support to the US in its activities in Iraq, Marsden added.
The academic said there is still a “real danger” of returning IS fighters plotting a 7/7 style attack in the future. The July 7, 2005 bombings, a series of coordinated suicide attacks on London’s transport network, claimed the lives of 52 people.
“It is conceivable that [IS] could plan an attack here at home … They do have to be watched very carefully on their return,” Marsden said.
“In Iraq and Syria [IS has] used suicide bombs before. The possibility is that they could do that here also,” added. “Cameron is right to say this is a possibility. Where I think he is overstepping is saying this is already being planned.”
Matthew Henman, a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre, said there is “no indication” that IS is currently planning an attack in the West.
“Its primary concern is establishing its Islamic state in the wider Levant region before expanding out internationally,” he said.
However, greater involvement of the US or UK in Iraq would mean that Isil is unlikely to object to attacks on the West in the future.
“This is certainly something that IS would be unlikely to oppose or discourage should the UK or US become involved in the counter-insurgency in Iraq,” Henman said.
Henman said he was not aware of any IS members or activities in the UK, but said affiliated organisations may be carrying out fundraising or recruitment activities for it.
Sajad Jiyad, a British Iraqi and director of the Iraqi Centre for Integration and Cohesion (ICIC), a London-based charity that promotes social cohesion and integration of migrants, said he had read postings on jihadist forums from Britons claiming to be fighting with IS in Iraq.
“You can bet there is a network here in the UK,” he said, adding that he said a UK attack by returning IS fighters was likely.
“We know that 9/11 was years in the planning, and that 7/7 was years in the planning. So it’s very likely that something is being planned. We can only hope that the British intelligence services manage to put a stop to it.”
Jiyad said he believes there to be about 800 British fighters in Iraq and Syria — double the UK government’s estimate.
“They pose a danger because these guys are the ones willing to fight, to kill, to behead, to execute — they are willing to blow themselves up. So they’re a danger on British soil when they come back here. And they will come back.”
Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu), said there was “no doubt” that IS had ways of recruiting UK-based Muslims.
“As yet IS is not focused on attacks in Europe. But we would be naive to think that is off the cards,” he said.
“The threat is enhanced by the continuous failure by Britain and other leading members of the international community to devise and implement a coherent strategy to deal with these crises in Iraq and Syria,” Doyle added. “If this policy failure continues, the threat will only escalate.”