The conflict in the Middle East has led to a surge in Islamist activity, with online terrorist propaganda rocketing and new individuals feared to have been radicalised, the head of counter-terrorism policing has said.
Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Matt Jukes, who is head of the UK Counter Terrorism Policing network, said the events had led to a “dangerous climate” with indications of a rising threat, after Hamas’s atrocity against Israel on 7 October last year led to a sustained Israeli assault on Gaza with heavy civilian casualties still continuing.
British counter-terrorism officials are concerned that outrage at Israel’s actions and at alleged western inaction is feeding grievances that can be exploited by Islamist propaganda, pushing people to go and stage their own attacks or support those who want to.
Jukes said: “That puts us at a point in communities, on the street and online which would lead us to describe what has happened in the Middle East as a radicalisation moment.
“These are the moments when a mixture of outrage, grievance and a set of enduring factors have got the potential to influence those susceptible of being pushed towards terrorism.”
He said that referrals to Prevent, the official scheme to stop people becoming terrorists, were up 13% between 7 October and 31 December last year compared with the same period in 2022. Jukes said the increase “is directly related to the conflict in the Middle East”.
After the attacks, the amount of terrorist propaganda online – a key way to incite attacks and support violent extremism – surged to 15 times the level it was at beforehand, before settling at a level seven times greater.
The British counter-terrorism chief said that 700 cases referred to terrorist cyber investigators had a British link and had potentially broken terrorism or other laws.
Jukes said: “That is extraordinary and demonstrates the volume and intensity of online rhetoric around the ongoing conflict.
“We always see spikes after terrorist incidents but what we have seen since 7 October is higher and more sustained than ever before.
“This is a conflict and these are tensions playing out online in a way which, in our experience, is unprecedented.”
The counter-terrorism internet referral unit has had to be reinforced. Jukes said: “We’ve had to put an unprecedented number of people into that work because we are looking for a needle in a haystack, and when the haystack gets 15 times bigger that poses a real challenge.”
Jukes said there had been a 25% increase in information flowing through police systems about terrorism and violent extremism, with useful calls coming in from the public: “I would describe the speed and the scale of the impact of those global events as extraordinary.”
He said there had been 33 terrorism arrests in the UK since 7 October, with 19 for alleged offences at protests and 13 for alleged terrorism offences online. So far, seven people have been charged and an investigation continues into a killing to examine whether there was an extremist motive.
The body that sets the UK terror threat level, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, has so far kept it at “substantial”. Jukes’s comments talked to fears that the likelihood of an attack has risen, with the most likely perpetrator being a lone actor carrying out an atrocity of low sophistication, such as a knife attack.
Jukes said: “I have not seen the conditions collide in the way we have in the last months during my tenure.”
But he added that the counter-terrorism command was skilled at foiling plots – 39 since 2017 – including making “goalline saves” where attacks were foiled at the last moment.
The war crimes unit, consisting of 20 officers, has received 92 reports of alleged offences: 19 by Hamas and 73 by Israel. British detectives have assessed them and decided that one merits being sent to the international criminal court for further investigation.
Jukes also said that espionage threats from foreign states – such as China, Russia and Iran – continue to grow, with organised criminals hired to stage attacks in some cases.
“That challenge is greater now than it has been since the days of the cold war,” Jukes said.