London: Up to 4,000 extremists have attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan before returning to Britain, security chiefs have revealed.
The alarming figure raises fresh questions about border controls and the capacity of the intelligence and security services to keep the country safe.
It demonstrates how Gordon Brown’s plans for tighter checks on people entering Britain, unveiled last week, will come too late to keep out many dangerous individuals.
Afghanistan was the centre for Al Qaida’s terrorist training activities between 1996, when the Taliban regime came to power, and the end of 2001, when America and Britain invaded the country. Since then, the focus has shifted to areas of Pakistan along the Afghan border.
More than 400,000 journeys are made each year between Britain and Pakistan, the vast majority of them legitimate. It is not known how many travellers continue their journey overland into Afghanistan.
Double the estimate
A senior security source said of the Al Qaida camps: “There are 3,000 to 4,000 people who went from the UK to Afghanistan and came back. The important question is, where are they now?” The figure is more than double the estimate of 1,600 which MI5 gave last autumn for the number of individuals actively involved in plotting terrorist attacks in the UK.
There are several possible explanations for the gap. Some of those who came back to Britain from Afghanistan may since have given up terrorist activities. Others may have left the UK to fight in Iraq.
MI5 and MI6 are working on the assumption, however, that Al Qaida sees its British Muslim recruits as too valuable to be used in Iraq, and that most are ordered to return to their communities in Britain to establish autonomous terrorist “sleeper cells”. Concerns over sleeper cells have been heightened since the failed “doctors’ plot” attacks in London and Glasgow two weeks ago.
Estimates for the total number of extremists who have received weapons training and religious instruction at Al Qaida camps, mostly in Afghanistan, have ranged from 20,000 to 70,000. Until now, intelligence sources have said it was impossible to estimate how many of those were British residents.