Foreign Secretary William Hague said the longer the conflict in Syria goes on the more Britons will be radicalized into becoming jihadists who threaten the U.K.
“Syria is now the No. 1 destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today,” Hague said in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute in London today. “This includes a number of individuals connected with the U.K. and other European countries. They may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria, but if they survive some may return ideologically hardened with experience of weapons and explosives.”
Hague renewed his plea for Russia to use its influence on Syria, with which it has ties dating back to the Cold War, to help negotiate a new government. He sees that being formed of the opposition and elements of the current Syrian regime.
The longer the conflict continues, the greater the risk of repatriating jihadists into Britain, Hague said. “More innocent lives will be lost, extremists will be emboldened, sectarianism will increase and the risk of the use of chemical or biological weapons will grow.”
The U.K. will also work with other governments to develop “a long-term, coordinated international approach” to defeat terrorism amid a growing threat in the West and North Africa.
“We must be resolute, decisive, and principled,” responding with methods “ranging from the overt to the covert,” Hague said. “The bulk of our effort to counter terrorism is now overseas where terrorists train and plan for attacks in the West. We cannot do it without working with other countries.”
Prime Minister David Cameron went to Algeria and Libya last month, seeking to step up security cooperation in the wake of the hostage crisis at a gas plant in eastern Algeria that left six Britons dead. He announced that U.K. special forces may train the Algerian army in counter-terrorism techniques.
The U.K. is providing military personnel to help train a regional intervention force to combat Islamist militants in northern Mali. It has also provided transport and surveillance aircraft to assist French forces fighting in the country.
The nature of the terror threat has changed, being geographically more diverse, more fragmented and “based even more closely on the exploitation of local and regional issues,” Hague said. “We must address the conditions in which terrorism thrives. We must also strengthen the ability of states to counter terrorism, while protecting human rights.”
The opposition Labour Party’s defense spokesman, Jim Murphy, used a separate speech in London today to attack the U.K.’s past approach to tackling the threat from al Qaeda.
“A principal flaw of past operations was to misunderstand the complexity of the threat,” he said. “Al Qaeda was presented as a grouping with traditional command and control structures. While truer in the past, it was and is a loose franchise; as much a worldview as a coherent entity. A search for simplicity and commonality led to solutions which paid insufficient regard to local circumstance and hailed ‘mission accomplished’ moments which may never be attainable in the traditional sense against extremism.”
Murphy argued that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should intervene in conflicts earlier and focus more on training of forces.