British schools and universities will soon be legally obligated to prevent terrorist radicalization on their campuses, Home Secretary Theresa May announced on Monday.
Under Britain's new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which will be introduced on Wednesday, universities will be barred from hosting extremist speakers — although May did not elaborate on what will constitute "extremist" speech. In addition to prisons, probation providers, and local councils, schools and colleges will also have a statutory duty "to help prevent people from being drawn into terrorism." This new duty, said May, "will be enforceable by court orders."
A criminal provision that will ban British insurance companies from paying ransom to terrorists in the event of a kidnapping and a measure that will force internet service providers to retain data linking web users to their devices were also announced Monday. May noted that police will have the authority to bar British citizens suspected of terrorist activities abroad from returning home to the UK.
"We have worked hard to make it easier to get rid of foreign nationals," she said.
The new measures were unveiled at a speech before the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London. May told the audience that muscular new steps were needed to thwart an ever-mounting terrorist threat to Britain's national security, posed primarily by Islamic State militants and their Western adherents.
"The threat we face now is perhaps greater than it has ever been," she said. "We must have the powers we need to defend ourselves."
But the Home Office's demand that schools and universities ramp up counter-terrorism activity is likely to prove contentious.
"It is far from clear how universities and other public bodies will be required to 'cooperate' or how they will be able to identify 'extremist' speakers," Thomas Hughes, executive director of the human rights organization Article 19, told VICE News. "A flourishing education system depends on lively and diverse debate. The vague measures that Theresa May alluded to in her speech raise serious concerns regarding academic freedom."
For several months, security officials have been warning of Islamic State-inspired assaults on British soil. On Sunday, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe told the BBC that British security forces had stamped out "four or five" terrorist plots in 2014 alone. Earlier this year, the government raised the national threat level from "substantial" to "severe."
On Monday, May ran through a quick succession of counter-terrorism statistics.
Since April 2010, Britain has arrested 753 people on terrorism-related offences; 212 were charged and 148 were successfully prosecuted. Meanwhile, 13 people have been extradited and hundreds have been excluded from Britain — including 84 "hate preachers." Since May 2010, the government has revoked the citizenship of 27 Brits on terror grounds. And the Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit has removed around 65,000 web images that purportedly "encouraged or glorified acts of terrorism."
May added that British police have foiled around 40 terrorist plots since the suicide-bombing attacks on London transit in 2005.
"There have been attempts to conduct marauding, 'Mumbai-style' gun attacks on our streets, blow up the London Stock Exchange, bring down airlines, attack a British ambassador and murder serving members of our armed forces," she said.
The Monday speech kicked off a nationwide "Counter-Terrorism Awareness Week," led by Scotland Yard, which involves security-themed presentations at schools, airports, shopping centers, cinemas and farms across Britain. An event on Friday will celebrate the relaunch of Britain's "Fertilizer Security Five-Point Plan," which instructs farmers on how to secure their chemical fertilizer stores so that they can't be accessed by terrorists for use in explosives.
Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart