Britons who have fought for Islamic State abroad should be hunted down and killed to ensure they never return to the UK, the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said.
In the strongest remarks yet from a senior cabinet minister, Williamson suggested there was deliberate targeting of British jihadists by the armed forces fighting Isis as the group retreats in Syria and Iraq.
The new defence secretary told the Daily Mail: “A dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain.”
“I do not believe that any terrorist, whether they come from this country or any other, should ever be allowed back into this country,” he said. “We should do everything we can do to destroy and eliminate that threat.”
Williamson said jihadist groups in Libya, Iraq and Syria were breeding grounds for plotting attacks in the UK. “Our job in terms of eliminating will not stop this year, will not stop next year – it is something we have got to continue to pursue,” he said.
His remarks put him at odds with the head of the terrorism watchdog, who recently said the UK could attempt to reintegrate young and naive jihadists who wanted to return to the UK.
Max Hill, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, warned of the danger of “losing a generation” of men and women by automatically using the courts to punish them.
More than 800 UK citizens are thought to have gone to fight for Isis in Iraq and Syria, including teenagers, women and young families.
“We have got to make sure that as [they] splinter and as they disperse across Iraq and Syria and other areas, we continue to hunt them down,” he said. “Make sure there is no safe space for them, that they can’t go to other countries preaching their hate, preaching their cult of death.”
Williamson defended himself telling Friday’s Daily Mail: “The British people want to make sure that our streets are safe. The British people are incredibly proud of our armed forces, the work they do – making sure that the people who are a threat to this country are not able to continue to threaten this country. That’s what the British people want to know that their Government is doing. That is what we will continue to do.”
The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, delivered a speech on Thursday on British efforts to tackle terrorism, including hitting back at suggestions from the EU Brexitnegotiator, Michel Barnier, that the vote to leave the bloc had meant Britain had decided to take a step back from co-operation.
“Every day around the world I can tell you that British serving men and women are putting their lives at risk to roll up terrorist networks, to expose what they are doing, to thwart them and bring them to justice,” he will say.
“They are making good on what the prime minister has rightly called the unconditional commitment of the British people to the security of our European friends, not just in this continent but beyond.”