SHAFAQNA- As many as 2,000 Britons are fighting alongside Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq, a senior Muslim MP has claimed.
Officials had suggested that the number of British jihadists within the ranks of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and other terrorist groups was about 500.
However, Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, a constituency with a significant number of Muslims, has suggested this was a fourfold underestimate of the number of British jihadists fighting in the region.
“The authorities say there are 500 British jihadists but the likely figure is at least three to four times that,” he said. “I think 2,000 is a better estimate. My experience in Birmingham is it is a huge, huge problem.”
There are growing fears that the authorities remain unable to detect extremists leaving UK ports on their way to terrorist training camps.
Evidence from one posting on a social networking site last week suggested that as many as 20 British jihadists have been joining Isil forces every day. And on Saturday it emerged that two more Britons – Abu Abdullah al Habashi, 21, and Abu Dharda, 20, both from London –had died fighting in Syria.
It was reported that Dharda, who grew up in west London, had been questioned by counter-terrorism police at a British airport and allowed to travel because they were “satisfied with the explanation he gave” for the trip.
The pair are thought to have died in the border town of Kobane, which Kurdish fighters have been defending against Isil with the help of US air strikes.
Al Habashi is believed to have made comments supporting Isil on social media, and appeared in at least two propaganda videos put out by the extremist group.
He grew up in north London in a British-Eritrean family, and converted to Islam when he was 16, according to reports. Dharda, who comes from a British-Somali background, is understood to have travelled to Syria in December 2013, entering via Turkey.
The Government has refused to say how many Britons had been arrested at UK borders in connection with terrorism in Syria, adding to concern the figure is very small and that the borders are worryingly porous.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, in an attempt to get to grips with the terrorist threat, will outline measures in a Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill requiring internet companies to keep data allowing police to identify terrorists who plot attacks online.
But Mr Mahmood said the Home Office had so far failed to do enough to crack down on British jihadists coming and going through UK ports.
Mr Mahmood, England’s first Muslim MP and a former member of the Commons home affairs committee, said: “The Government does not have significant people at border control. The fact is these jihadists are coming in and going out without almost ever being arrested. We have had hardly any arrests. We have had people coming back in after six months in Syria and they are not being picked up.”
The official figure of 500 jihadists was released by the authorities six months ago and has not been revised. Isil has since stepped up its recruitment drive by issuing gruesome videos of the murder of Western hostages.
Evidence gathered by The Telegraph suggests at least four Muslims, who had their passports confiscated either by the authorities or concerned parents, had still managed to leave Britain in recent months. It is estimated that at least 250 British fighters have returned from Syria and Iraq – about 30 of whom have been arrested – raising the prospect of a growing number of hardened jihadists on the streets.
Security services believe about 35 Britons, mainly fighting for Isil, have been killed in Syria and Iraq, but evidence of more arriving came in a message posted online last week.
A British jihadist posted on Twitter on November 11 that he had been joined by 20 Britons, after others had been killed in air strikes. The jihadist, writing under the assumed name Qa’qa al-Biritani, tweeted: “Was sat with around 20 British brothers. Allah has brought more to replace those who were martyred.”
The Muslim Council of Britain, which represents the UK’s 2.8 million Muslims, accused the Government of not doing enough to stop would-be jihadists from leaving the country. Harun Khan, the group’s deputy secretary general, said: “There are serious questions for the Home Office and the security services to answer. I don’t understand why border authorities are not making arrests.”
The Home Office has refused to disclose how many jihadists have been picked up at Britain’s borders.
In the nine months between January and September this year, 104 arrests were made for Syria-related terrorist offences but this gives no indication how many were picked up at ports.
James Brokenshire, the immigration and security minister, said: “The intelligence agencies and police are working to identify and disrupt potential threats. This includes interviewing individuals at the UK border suspected of being involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism, and cancelling or withdrawing the passports of some UK nationals of concern seeking to travel to Syria or Iraq.”
On Saturday, police said a 19-year-old man from Coventry had been arrested at Heathrow airport on suspicion of preparing for acts of terrorism. He was detained by officers from the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit on Thursday afternoon as he got off a plane from Jordan.
In February, three teenagers, including Mohamed Hadi, nicknamed “Bin Bieber” because of his youthful looks, left Coventry to fight for Isil. Police refused to confirm the identity of the arrested man.
The police on Monday will call on the public “to be prepared to play their part in keeping the country safe”.
The new appeal comes ahead of a “very substantial” report to be published on Tuesday by Parliament’s intelligence and security committee into the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May last year.
The report will examine the security and intelligence agencies’ prior knowledge of his murderers.
It is expected to highlight the basic and random nature of the attack and is likely to stop short of saying his death was preventable. Mrs May will also unveil her new plans in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, expected this week, as she reinforces her commitment to introducing a so-called “snoopers’ charter”.
The move follows concerns from police and intelligence agencies that technology firms are obstructing efforts to combat the use of the internet by terrorist groups such as Isil.