Sixty thousand British civilians are being trained by the Home Office to spot terrorists, Gordon Brown has revealed.
Huge numbers of staff on rail networks, at shops, public buildings and major sports venues have been picked out by MI5 and the police for the special training – teaching them to watch for ‘suspicious behaviour’ and respond swiftly to an atrocity.
The ambitious scheme was announced as the Home Secretary prepared to publish what she claimed would be the Government’s most detailed counter-terrorism strategy document to date.
The plans are likely to spark questions over the effectiveness of such a huge army of amateur and lightly-trained ‘terrorist watchers’, including concerns that they will swamp the police and security service and inflame community relations with spurious alerts singling out law-abiding British Muslims.
The Home Office would not provide any details of their training on security grounds, but said it centred on increased vigilance and improved response to terrorist attacks, including evacuation and crowd control procedures. Officials said MI5 had helped draw up the training course.
Gordon Brown, writing in a Sunday newspaper said: ‘Tens of thousands of men and women throughout Britain – from security guards to store managers – have now been trained and equipped to deal with an incident and know what to watch for as people go about their daily business in crowded places such as stations, airports, shopping centres and sports grounds.’
He said the public ‘should be under no illusion’ that ‘the biggest security threat to our country and other countries is the murderous agents of hate that work under the banner of Al Qaeda.’
Home Office insiders acknowledged that many of the 60,000 staff undergoing the training should already be trained to look for signs of security threats as part of their everyday work, and to deal with emergencies. One source said: ‘In many cases it’s a case of building on previous training and making them better at this stuff.’
Jacqui Smith told BBC 1’s Politics Show she wanted the counter-terrorism strategy, due to be published on Tuesday, to offer the public more detail than in the past on how the Government is working to protect Britain from terrorist attacks.
She said: ‘This is no longer something you can do behind closed doors and in secret.’
But privately her officials admitted it was impossible to give much detail without compromising the intelligence services and helping potential terrorists, adding that most details of terrorist groups suspected of targeting Britain – and their likely methods in planning and executing attacks – would remain classified.
Jacqui Smith said an attack on Britain remained ‘highly likely’ and could come without warning.
The paper, known as ‘Contest Two’ – will take in the lessons learned from the November attacks in Mumbai, although officials said there was no specific intelligence on threats to hotels in the UK.
The official terrorism threat level – set by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre – has remained at ‘severe’ for many months, indicating that an attack is likely but not imminent.
Interviewed by the BBC Jacqui Smith referred repeatedly to Britain’s ‘shared values’ which she said were under attack from terrorist extremists.
But pressed on what she believed an ‘extremist’ is she gave no answer, and avoided questions on whether she believed the Muslim protestors who tried to disrupt a homecoming parade for British troops in Luton earlier this month were ‘extremists.’
Home Office officials said Britain would be spending £3.5billion a year on counter-terrorism by 2011, while the number of specialist police officers has risen from 1,700 to 3,000 since 2003.
Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: ‘The horrific recent events in Mumbai highlighted the need for a different strategy in counter-terrorism – and the whole community needs to be involved.
‘No part of the UK is free from threat, and we know that terrorists want soft targets.
‘My big concern is that the Government is still not doing enough to tackle individuals and groups in the UK who are fostering the hatred and extremism that lies behind the terrorist threat.’