By Tom Whitehead, Security Editor
The Syrian conflict has become a “profound game changer” and poses the biggest terror threat to the UK and Europe for a decade, the Home Office’s terror chief has warned.
Syrian rebels inspect a tank that was left behind by government forces in the outskirts of Raqqa Photo: AFP
Charles Farr said there are thousands of al-Qaeda-inspired fighters now operating in the war torn country with many wanting to attack the UK and other Western nations.
He said there has never been so many groups and fanatics linked to the terror organisation so close to Europe.
Britons are among them and the fear is they have already or will return to the UK intent on organizing atrocities here.
The warning reinforces the changing nature of the terror threat following the weakening of al-Qaeda’s traditional strongholds in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
New threats are now coming from a number of volatile regions around the world which are being exploited by the terror group or extremists inspired by them.
Mr Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, told the National Security Conference in London: “Syria is a very profound game changer and the significance of it is still emerging.
“The blunt truth is there are more people associated with al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda associated organizations now operating in Syria then there have ever been before and are that close to Europe and operating with an intensity that is unparalleled since events in Iraq in 2006.
“They are much closer to us, in much greater numbers and fighting with an intensity that we have not seen before.”
He said foreign fighters are “flocking” to the country in numbers last seen in Iraq and warned they are likely to exceed such levels.
He later said there are hundreds and probably thousands of foreign fighters in Syria, although some may be legitimately fighting with the rebels to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al–Assad.
He told the audience: “Groups in Syria aspire to attack Europe and have both the capability and means to do so, including returning foreign fighters coming back to Europe.
“I think it is the most profound shift in the threat we have seen in at least five years and I think since 2003.”
Intelligence officials believe at least 100 British jihadists are either fighting in Syria or have returned to the UK.
Rebels from al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra waving their brigade flag (AP)
Many are said to have joined the fight with Jabhat al–Nusra, one of the country’s most militant groups, which has been linked to al–Qaeda.
James Brokenshire, the security minister, told the conference the trade off between national security and civil liberties was under the greatest pressure in the country’s history.
He signalled that leaks such as the Edward Snowden exposes, could put lives at risk by revealing sensitive techniques and methods.
However, the minister stopped short of commenting directly on the case or criticising the Guardian newspaper, which published the leaks.
The scandal has raised concerns over the level of snooping on individuals and friendly states by the US National Security Agency and the UK’s GCHQ.
Mr Brokenshire said the public would be forgiven for thinking the main threat to freedoms came from those tasked with protecting them but insisted that was not true.
He said it was right that people were able to challenge the activities of the security and intelligence services.
But given that so much of people’s lives are now online he said the balance between protecting their security and their liberty was “more pressing than at any moment in our history”.