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UK police to counter hostile state threats with new unit

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) - British police said on Friday they had set up a new unit to counter threats posed by China, Russia and Iran, saying they were very concerned about risks ahead of a national election expected this year.

Assistant Commissioner Matt Jukes, Britain's head of counter-terrorism policing, said the evidence and the sense among his officers was that the challenge posed by hostile states was "greater now than since the days of the Cold War".

"I don't want to be coy. We are talking about parts of the state apparatus of Iran, China and Russia," he told reporters.

Britain passed a national security act last year in an attempt to make it harder for countries to spy, steal trade secrets and interfere in the political system.

Jukes said the new specialist investigations unit would use the act's new powers. "We will be the most overt part of the UK security community stepping up its response to those hostile state actions," he said.

Volumes of online misinformation were greater than in any previous election year in Britain, Juke said, adding police were also concerned about plots to kill dissidents or political opponents, citing more than 15 direct threats he said were linked to the Iranian state apparatus over the last two years.

The police chief also said the conflict in Israel and Gaza was a "radicalisation moment" that had the potential to push susceptible people towards terrorism.

"This is not simply rhetoric," he said in a briefing with reporters. "In my seat, you tend to look at dashboards of indicators and there are particular indicators that we will be focused on. And right now, there are needles on that dashboard that are moving in the wrong direction."

Since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel and its subsequent bombardment of Gaza, the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit had received an unprecedented spike involving online material, with 3,000 referrals of which 700 were regarded as potentially being in breach of terrorism or other laws.

Some of the cases related to misinformation or AI-generated false imagery while others involved the manipulation of images from previous conflicts.

Separately since Oct. 7, 92 referrals had been made by organisations, law firms and individuals to the London police war crimes unit, of which 19 were made against Hamas or people in Gaza, and 73 against Israel.

Only one so far had led to an individual being referred to the International Criminal Court who might be able to provide it with evidence while the others were still being reviewed.

(Reporting by Michael Holden, Editing by William Maclean)