IS 'plot to attack UK foiled': how serious is the threat?

Four men arrested amid fears of British jihadists returning from Syria to launch attacks on UK soil

Armed police at Westminster
(Image credit: Rob Stothard/Getty Images News)

The first alleged UK terror plot linked to Islamic State has been foiled by police and MI5, reports suggest. Four men were arrested in armed raids in London, amid fears jihadists are returning from Syria and Iraq to carry out beheadings or firearms attacks on British streets. The arrests come six weeks after the UK's terror threat assessment level was raised from "substantial" to "severe" in response to the conflicts in the two countries, which have attracted hundreds of Britons to fight, including a 15-year-old girl who left her home in Bristol two weeks ago.

Here's what we know so far:

Who are the four men?

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The four suspects, two aged 21 and two aged 20, have not been officially named. However, The Sun has identified one of the 21-year-olds as a man of Moroccan origin, nicknamed "The Surgeon", who lives with his mother and sister on a North Kensington estate. The men allegedly belong to a jihadist group based around the Ladbrooke Grove area. One of them is suspected to have recently returned to the UK from Syria.

What are they accused of doing?

The suspects are being held in custody at different London police stations on suspicion of "being concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism". The men were believed to have been acting on the orders of IS leadership to carry out an attack in the UK. The Daily Mail says officials "swooped" amid heightened fears that fanatics are planning a high-profile gun attack or a beheading after returning from Syria. "One line of inquiry is that the men may have been planning a copycat attack in the wake of sickening propaganda videos of Jihadi John beheading Alan Henning and David Haines in Syria," says the Mail. "The possibility of a firearms attack is also being investigated." The Daily Telegraph says the men had been monitored in a joint police and MI5 operation for some time. One Whitehall source told the newspaper the raids were an "early disruption" of what could have been a "significant plot".

When were they arrested?

Officers from the Metropolitan Police's counter terrorism command (SO15) and specialist firearms command (SCO19) made the arrests yesterday morning. Officers dressed in black reportedly stormed The Surgeon's house at 4.30am with stun grenades. One witness told The Sun they had heard three explosions and saw dozens of armed police "charging around" everywhere. "There were blinding, flashing lights and a lot of shouting and screaming – police were yelling at people to get back in and close their doors. It was terrifying," they said. Scotland Yard said that no shots were fired but that one of the men was tasered during his arrest.

What are police doing now?

Police have said the arrests were part of "an ongoing investigation into Islamist-related terrorism". Officers are searching a number of residential addresses and vehicles in west and central London and are analysing seized computer equipment and documents.

How serious is the terrorism threat in the UK?

David Cameron and security officials have repeatedly warned that IS has the UK in its sights. The Times reported on Monday that counter-terrorist police activity is at its highest level since the 7/7 London bombings, with fears of a "lone wolf" attack. "Police have increased the number of armed patrols and searches, and specialist officers have been visiting extremist sympathisers and those who have been to Syria," reported the newspaper. An Islamic State video released online last week urged fanatics in the UK to strike.

Police in Australia arrested 15 suspected Islamist extremists amid fears they were planning random killings, including a public beheading, notes the Daily Telegraph. Other plots have been uncovered in France, Italy and the Netherlands. Following yesterday's arrests, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, told BBC London radio the case was "quite serious" and said the "drumbeat" around terrorism has intensified. However, he added: "I don't want to worry the people of London. We are here to keep them safe and we believe we are on top of things."

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