By TOM MCTAGUE, DEPUTY POLITICAL EDITOR FOR MAILONLINE
Up to 5,000 Islamist fanatics are at large after returning to Europe from the front line in Syria, the Continent’s police chief has revealed.
Rob Wainwright, the British head of Europol, said the threat from home-grown terrorists was at its highest level since the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The warning comes after French gunmen killed 17 people over three days of terror in Paris last week.
Mr Wainwright, appearing in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said Europe now faces it’s ‘most severe terrorist threat since 9/11’.
He added: ‘We are talking about 3,000 to 5,000 EU nationals who are potentially a threat.
‘Clearly, we’re dealing with a large body of mainly young men who have the potential to come back and have the potential or the intent and capability to carry out attacks we have seen in Paris in the last week.’
The warning comes after revelations that a major security alert was triggered on New Year’s Eve by a message posted on Twitter claiming ISIS had ‘killed a British soldier’.
The tweet allegedly came from a fighter in Syria and read: ‘Allahu akbar! Islamic State has killed a British soldier in Britain in his own home.’
The threat was taken extremely seriously amid growing concern that British jihadists are planning to copy the beheadings carried out in Iraq and Syria and broadcast over the internet.
Counter-terror officers have allegedly picked up ‘chatter’ about abducting a serving soldier or police officer and filming their murder on the internet, the Times reported.
It comes after David Cameron promised to revive legislation – blocked by the Lib Dems – to ramp up internet surveillance powers to prevent terrorists from plotting atrocities online
The so-called Snoopers’ Charter would force internet and phone firms to store masses of information about emails, phone calls and internet clicks.
Mr Cameron said yesterday: ‘If I am prime minister, I will make sure we do not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other.’
Islamic State murdered British charity worker Alan Henning and broadcast the killing over the internet
Islamist fanatics murdered British charity worker Alan Henning (left) and Lee Rigby (right). Security chiefs fear further copycat killings
It raises the prospect of messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat being blocked.
But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg insisted that it was wrong to store every web site visit and social media interaction of every person.
The Lib Dem leader said the state should always ‘retain the right to steam open envelopes, to listen to telephone conversations’ of those suspected of criminal or terrorist activity.
But he said the Snoopers’ Charter ‘does cross a line’ and is ‘not a proportionate response’.
He told BBC Radio’s Today programme: ‘What it would do is say that you, every single person listening to this programme now, every website they visit over the last year, every social media interaction they have, will be stored by somebody.’
He stressed that his opposition was not about letting terrorists communicate in the ‘dark’ web’.
‘It’s about do I think that scooping up vast amounts of information on millions of people, children, grandmothers, grandparents, elderly people who are doing nothing more than visiting garden centre websites.
‘Do I think that is a sensible use of our resources and our time?
‘Does it address the issue which the agency quite rightly identifies, which is as technology mutates, as this globalised industry becomes more and more global how do we make sure that we continue to have the reach into those dark spaces so that terrorists cannot hide from it.’
The legislation, which was tabled in draft form by Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012, would have extended the requirement for companies to retain phone and email data to include records – but not the content – of every individual’s internet browsing activity, including use of social media sites like Facebook, internet gaming, and mobile phone messaging services.
Mr Cameron yesterday said that as well as well as the Snoopers’ Charter, new legislation will be required to enable the agencies to continue to intercept phone calls and access the content of electronic communications – on the basis of a warrant signed by the home secretary – when existing powers expire in 2016.
In a speech tonight Mr Clegg will argue ‘we do not make ourselves safer by making ourselves less free’.
The Lib Dem leader will also underline his party’s proposals for a Bill of Rights that would enshrine the right to free expression.
‘If we really believe freedom of speech is a founding principle of our democracy, then we must act to protect it,’ he will say.
‘I look enviously at America, where every schoolchild is taught from day one that they have inalienable rights – including free expression – which are a fundamental part of what it means to be American.
‘I want us to have the same. The time has come for a written constitution with a Bill of Rights. The Liberal Democrats are committed to a constitutional convention after the general election, and deciding how we enshrine free speech in a British Bill of Rights should be at the heart of it.
‘We must always defend the British values of freedom, openness and tolerance. We must always defend the rights of individuals to express themselves freely. And we must always defend the right of a free press to do its work without fear or favour,’ he will add.
‘It is at times like these, when our freedoms are under threat, that we must stand up for them most of all.’