Online retail boom helping criminals smuggle guns into UK, says police chief

Police trying to prevent terrorists from obtaining guns warn a rise in parcels being sent to Britain due to online shopping is helping criminals to camouflage firearms being smuggled into the country.

Dave Thompson, chief constable of West Midlands police and the national lead for countering firearms, said there had been a surge in the number of guns circulating in the UK.

In a Guardian interview, he said firearms were being reactivated overseas and then ordered for delivery into the UK. “Traditionally you’d have seen maybe six or seven years ago we’d be stopping people at Dover with 10 Baikals [a make of firearm] concealed in compartments in the car. That’s become less of a feature. What’s become more of a feature is weapons through the fast parcel system, individual items coming through.”

Dave Thompson, chief constable of West Midlands police. Photograph: Handout
Thompson said guns and ammunition were still hard to acquire in the UK, and after the Paris attacks police had intensified their focus on stopping weapons being available for sale. But firearms are coming in from the US and Europe, with Germany causing special concerns, as well as Balkan countries.

Once the weapons are smuggled into Britain, it is feared, they could fall into terrorist hands. “We can’t safeguard ourselves by relying on criminals who might have access to firearms to have benign intent,” Thompson said.

He said criminals were trying a range of tactics to avoid detection. “We have to watch a trend of disassembling the weapons and sending them in component parts.”

Thompson also said he was concerned that officers could be outgunned during an armed terrorist attack, and the atrocity in Paris last November by marauding gunmen was a “game-changer” for counter-terrorism chiefs.
If Britain was attacked, army special forces may be on the scene too late, so the government must fund more police firearms officers who would be the first to face armed terrorists, he said.

Thompson said the Paris attacks, in which Islamic State-inspired gunmen killed 130 people, meant police needed a “significant” increase in firepower. His force, like others, had already put more armed officers on the streets and would train more, but he said extra money would be needed to reach the level he believes is needed.

“While we do plenty of firearms operations, we deal with people who there is not much debate we are going to win the encounter with, because we’re better trained, we’re better capable, they generally don’t fire back at us,” he said.

In a Paris-style attack, with heavily armed teams of trained terrorist gunmen shooting diners and revellers, Thompson said: “These scenarios, we are dealing with situations where you are not guaranteed winning in the encounter early on and I need to give the firearms officers the best chance to win.”

The ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, visited Birmingham and London months before spearheading the carnage in the French capital. Found on his phone were pictures taken during his visit to fellow jihadis. There has been no official comment on what is thought to have been the reason for the visit.

Thompson would only say counter-terrorism officials were alert to the dangers of “hostile reconnaissance” by terrorists before an attack, and that a large amount of inquiries were ongoing after Paris by his force, involving international partners.

The West Midlands chief constable accepted the area was second only to London for the number of terror plots linked to it. In counter-terrorism circles there is a quip about Belmarsh, where a number of convicted terrorists serve their sentences: “The most common accent in Belmarsh is Brummie.”

The rise of Isis, which Thompson referred to as Daesh, had led to a very high “intensity and determination” of terrorist threat, he said.

Thompson said there were differences between how al-Qaida had tried to attract British recruits and Isis’s approach. Key to this was Isis’s declaration of a hardline, pan-national Islamist state.

“There is something around the concept of Daesh, the concept of a caliphate that is drawing people to that. And I think there is a greater sophistication in the approach taken to radicalise people through more digital means, and I think that has driven a different face of the challenge we’ve faced over the last few years.”

Thompson leads policing in an area with one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in Britain. He said his force, serving an area where 30% of people come from ethnic minorities, struggled to treat all fairly. “I don’t think we are a fair organisation on race still,” he said.

More generally, he said people were more law-abiding now but more questioning of authority. For the police this meant officers had to re-earn trust and legitimacy, day in day out, by how they conducted themselves and how they served the public.

He said he had told his officers to “befriend” those in need and wanted to modernise his force as crime moved from the public sphere, such as the streets, to the private sphere, in the home and via the internet.

Thompson voiced concerns at government plans to expand the definition of extremism to include those who do not espouse violence but are nevertheless deemed to fall foul of “British values”. A number of senior officers at several forces have indicated they are worried about the plans.

Thompson said it was right for government to consider the issue but said police had not asked for the measures. He said: “What I do not want to be in the position is where communities feel marginalised and pushed into a corner and the relationship with Muslim communities is defined by extremism. Because I won’t let that happen for policing. It’s really important we don’t let that happen around policy in general.”

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