LONDON -- Home Secretary
Jacqui Smith said Tuesday that hundreds more Britons are suspected of plotting
terrorism than was previously known, urging lawmakers to back an extension of
the length of time police can hold terror suspects before they are charged with
Intelligence officers now believe there are around 2,000 suspected terrorists
in Britain, Smith said, an increase from a figure of 1,600 given last year by
departing MI5 chief Eliza Manningham-Buller.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown plans to set out options to toughen
anti-terrorism laws on Wednesday and is expected to propose extending the length
of time terrorist suspects can be held for questioning, or scrapping the limit
Brown was scheduled to make a statement to parliament setting out suggested
revised laws, likely to include a recommendation to allow the use of wiretaps in
court cases, a practice currently banned in Britain.
British lawmakers rejected the government's bid to allow police to detain
suspects without charge for 90 days in 2005, forcing it to accept a compromise
of 28 days.
But Smith said since the rule was introduced last year, six suspects had been
questioned up to the 28-day limit, three of whom were charged in connection with
an alleged plot to down U.S.-bound airliners. Three others were released.
"This all gives us a strong view that the time is right to reconsider whether
we should allow longer than 28 days for pre-charge detention," Smith told
Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee.
Proposals to tighten terror laws follow failed attacks last month, when a
pair of luxury cars packed with gas cylinders and nails were found in central
London and two men crashed a Jeep Cherokee loaded with fuel canisters and
gasoline into security barriers at Glasgow airport's main terminal, setting it
Security officials said the time-consuming nature of the inquiry into the
London and Scotland plots, which involved investigations across Britain, Iraq,
Australia, India and Jordan, also supported the case for increased custody
Smith said Brown's statement would set out options for proposals to increase
the limit, but will not back any one particular solution. Brown's spokesman,
Michael Ellam, declined to give details in advance. "We'll be setting out those
issues in the statement," he said.
Proposals to toughen anti-terrorism laws could set Brown on a collision
course with civil liberties campaigners.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said extending the
custody limit for terror suspects beyond 28 days would effectively create a new
system of internment, "the most chilling and counterproductive tool in Britain's
Figures released last week showed that between September 2001 and March 2007,
1,165 people were arrested under terrorism laws, but only 241 were charged with
Of those, 41 have been convicted in courts and 114 are awaiting trial, the
Home Office statistics showed.
The Home Office said around 200 other offenders had been charged with
criminal offense not covered by anti-terrorism laws, including murder, firearms
offenses and fraud.