Children as young as 13 are talking about committing acts of terror, against a backdrop of rising extremism during the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK’s most senior counter-terrorism officer has warned.
Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Neil Basu told MPs on the home affairs select committee that counter-terrorism networks have not recorded a rise in terrorism-related material during the coronavirus outbreak, but interest in extremism is on the rise.
The head of counter-terrorism policing said his “greatest single fear” was the ability of rising extremism to incite vulnerable people towards terrorism.
He said: “What I am seeing – particularly in the rightwing terrorism space, and this is anecdotal, so it’s not academic – is an increase in lots of young people being attracted to this.
“So we are seeing people as young as 13 starting to talk about committing terrorist acts.”
Basu said the ideology can be mixed or hard to define but “they’re just interested in violence”.
“When you’ve been locked down, with social media having such an influence on every single one of us in our daily lives, and you’re able to sit there and just take all that in on a permanent basis with no other form of distraction or protective factor around you, and I’m thinking schooling, employment, other friends, family members who are not influenced or potentially extremist themselves, that is a concern.
“That is definitely an effect of Covid-19 we are worried about.”
Basu also repeated warnings about leaving the European Union without a deal at the end of the transition period, adding: “We would not be as safe as we are today.”
He told the committee: “My biggest concern at the moment is where extremism affects malleable, vulnerable people of all kinds, age groups, societal backgrounds, there is no one route to a terrorist path, the amplification of extremism and its ability to incite a vulnerable section of the population towards terrorism is probably my greatest single fear.”
Basu said Covid-19 had amplified hateful extremism.
“The outcome of all of that we have yet to see. I don’t know how that is going to influence the next generation,” he said.
Basu said counter-terror operations had about 800 live investigations, 10% of which related to rightwing terrorism.
Earlier the committee heard from Sara Khan, head of the commission for countering extremism, who said she believed there was a gap in legislation preventing extremists from being prosecuted for their hateful behaviour. A review launched by the commission and led by former counter-terror chief Sir Mark Rowley is examining potential gaps in the law.