Exclusive: Lockdown may have sent would-be terrorists on ‘dark journey’ to radicalisation, warns Damian Hinds

For Damian Hinds, the government brief he holds is both an honour and a burden.

Appointed by Boris Johnson as security minister in August, Mr Hinds’s days are filled liaising with intelligence agencies about the myriad threats facing Britons.

“The subject matter obviously is very heavy and at times harrowing,” Mr Hinds admits, hinting at the terror plots and extremist material come across his desk.

“Sometimes you see and hear things which you wish no human being had to see or hear.”

But on the flip side, he swiftly adds, “it’s a great privilege to work with amazing people doing amazing things to strive to keep us safe”.

Mr Hinds, who rose to education secretary under Theresa May before a spell on the backbenches under Mr Johnson, has kept a low profile since returning to Government.

Yet his short time in post has already coincided with two alleged terror attacks that shocked the UK: the killing of Tory MP Sir David Amess and the Remembrance Day taxi explosion outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital.

In a rare newspaper interview, Mr Hinds unpacks the major security threats he sees facing Britain, details worrying terror trends, and names the countries most hostile to the UK.

The pandemic and terror

The interview with The Telegraph before Christmas took place via video link – a fitting medium for a country about to enter a third calendar year over which Covid-19 looms large.

In recent years Mr Hinds has noticed a trend in the terror threat facing the UK that, he argues, may have been exacerbated by the lockdowns enforced to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The “shift”, as he called it, has come from global terror organisations leading plots to “self-directed” attacks that are much less centrally coordinated.

The change is nuanced, he argues. There are still terror organisations – not least the Islamist groups Isil and Al Qaeda – that carry a threat. Nor do lone actors plot entirely in isolation – they could talk to friends or family or like-minded individuals, Mr Hinds notes.

But the past two years of pandemic mitigation measures, which have seen people obligated to stay at home if possible for months at a time, may have fuelled bedroom radicalisation.

Mr Hinds says: “Clearly, logically, when you have more people who are spending more time in their bedrooms at their computer … you are going to get a growth in that tiny proportion of people for whom that is a dark journey.

“And as you know, on the internet, if you start to make those kind of downward spirals, you can quickly accelerate with the material that you come across and the other people that you can come into contact with.”

Mr Hinds does not like the phrase “lone wolf” to describe such threats. “I think it makes people conjure up sometimes a particular image of a particular type of person, which isn’t necessarily accurate,” he argues. He prefers the phrase "self-initiated".

Since March 2017, the UK police and intelligence services have disrupted 32 "late-stage" terror plots – a figure that rose in December, meaning another recent success. Mr Hinds hopes any further plots are foiled but knows guarantees are impossible to make: “I’m afraid you cannot say that you will thwart every attack.”

Hostile states 

It is not just terrorism that threatens UK security – geopolitical power struggles are on the rise.

Asked to name the most egregious hostile nations facing Briton, Mr Hinds picks out three countries: China, Russia and Iran. That triumvirate is the same as named by Richard Moore, the chief of MI6, in his first broadcast interview, given to the BBC last month.

“The three countries that I mentioned to you have physical human capability, they have a big cyber presence, they’re able to deploy at scale,” Mr Hinds says.

“They can run, and do run, information ops and are involved in multiple different ways. I mean, it’s difficult to give you a comprehensive list because there are so many potential ways.”

Those threats, translated into layman’s terms, give you a sense of the scale: spies on the ground, cyber attacks, soldiers on standby, disinformation campaigns.

Mr Hinds uses the list to underscore the need to update legislation that deals with foreign spies, which is in some places more than a century old.

The Government’s proposed new counter state threats law would create a new “Foreign Influence Registration Scheme” to help combat foreign espionage.

Mr Hinds adds that North Korea is a fourth hostile state on the radar.

And yet the UK’s relationship with these hostile states is complicated, not least with China, which is set to rival America as the dominant global power of the 21st century.

The Prime Minister has outlined a two-pronged strategy: Continuing to engage and trade with China, while also calling out human rights abuses and limiting its access to sensitive UK industries.

So does Mr Hinds think Chinese state-owned companies should not build UK nuclear power plants? He indicates support, while not doing so explicitly. “These are all things where we have to make sure that we have adequate defences and protections in place for our security,” he says, while adding it is “difficult to codify that exactly into rules of thumb”.

Right-wing terrorism and the Prevent scheme

Discussing the nature of the terror threat, Mr Hinds makes clear that he has concerns that Right-wing extremism in Britain is on the arise.

“There has been a growth in extreme Right-wing terrorism,” he says. “More young people coming on to the Prevent program have an extreme Right-wing mindset.”

But he goes on: “Islamist extremism terrorism, though, remains a potent threat. And we also have quite a few people who you might describe as having a sort of mixed or unclear or unstable mindset.

“Sometimes [they are] looking at flirting with different ideologies, different groups, sometimes apparently mutually exclusive – very, very different types of ideology.”

The Prevent program, which is aimed at stopping mainly young people becoming radicalised, has been criticised in some quarters. It is under a government-ordered review, with calls for everything from significant refinements to a total overhaul of approach being heard in the public debate.

But Mr Hinds defends its achievements. “What people don’t see and can’t see is all the success stories of Prevent,” he says, noting the “big scale” operation it has become.

Before the interview ends, there is time for one more topic: Afghanistan. The situation in Kabul has largely dropped off the UK front pages since the West’s troubled withdrawal in August.

Yet with the Taliban now back in charge two decades after being forced out after the September 2001 attacks, what risk to the UK now exists?

“We have to see obviously what happens in Afghanistan in the future,” Mr Hinds says, offering a final note of caution.

“Clearly, it has been a source of huge, huge risk in the past and we need to be vigilant about that into the future.”

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