Britain’s intelligence services are to share secret material about potential terrorists as they build teams of monitors to confront a heightened threat after a year of attacks that left 36 people dead.
The UK’s domestic security service MI5 will pass biographical details of people on the periphery of terror plots to officials from local councils, the justice system and the charity sector to help spot signs of suspicious behaviour.
Details of the programme were announced by Home Secretary Sajid Javid amid concerns that officials are struggling to cope with the scale of the threat with 500 live operations currently in place with some 3,000 potential suspects.
Another 20,000 were investigated by police but are no longer part of an active police inquiry. Salman Abedi, who killed 22 people in a suicide bomb attack in Manchester in May last year, was categorised as a "closed subject of interest" at the time of his attack.
The long-awaited announcement comes amid an anticipated spike in 2018 of people being released after serving time in jail for terrorist offences. Research by the Guardian newspaper suggested that more than 80 of the 193 jail terms issued between between 2007 and 2016 will run out by the end of this year.
Government critics say that cuts to services will make it harder to track potential re-offenders after their release. Those due to be released in 2018 include Anjem Choudary, 51, a notorious hate preacher, who was jailed in 2016 after urging Muslims to join ISIS after years of inflammatory comments that did not breach any laws.
“Former convicted terrorist offenders are a worrying risk pool for MI5 and counter-terrorist policing,” Richard Walton, the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism unit, told the newspaper. “Those intending to reoffend also often ‘lay low’ for a period as they know that there will be close attention on them after release.”
The updated strategy announced on Monday sets out plans for improving the monitoring of offenders when they are released. The Government accepted that the large numbers of people being released was a concern. “What we’re seeing is a large group of people who have effectively crossed the Rubicon to become radicalised,” security minister Ben Wallace told the BBC.
“We have to move resources to make them disengage … which is different from deterring them in the first place.”
The current threat level to Britain is severe, meaning an attack is highly likely and the government said it had foiled 12 extremist plots since March last year. Officials said that the threat posed is expected to remain high over the next couple of years.
The new strategy being announced Monday includes plans to pass on information to agencies about those at the fringes of terrorist plots to give an early warning of potential attack plans.
Pilot projects will be started in London, Manchester and the West Midlands in which elements of previously classified material will be passed to officials working in the community with potential suspects.
The information provided would be basic biographical data of people who had appeared on the radar of counter-terrorist officials but were among the 20,000 not under active investigation.
The proposals are likely to spark human rights concerns that individuals who may only be connected to a terrorist through a phone call, could be unfairly targeted by the authorities.
“One of the lessons learned from the 2017 attacks was that we can do better by sharing more of this classified intelligence,” said Mr Javid. “It wasn’t really happening before.”
He said the programme would likely result in the sharing of data of a “few hundred” people. Officials said that the information would not be passed to the private sector.
The programme will seek help from van hire companies following a series of attacks using vehicles in London, and from the sellers of chemicals that could be used for bomb-making.
The strategy will also include proposals to improve security in crowded places, reduce the vulnerability of infrastructure and seek to tap expertise in the private sector to use technology to improve detection.
It also calls for a new offence of repeatedly watching streamed terrorist content online. It is currently a criminal offence in Britain if material – such as ISIS propaganda material – is downloaded.
Previous research has shown the amount of time it takes from conceiving a plan to carrying it out has reduced significantly, making it harder for security services and police to crack down on plans.