A lot of rot is written about what MI5 thinks, because the spooks don’t talk –even to deny wrong stories (like the supposed Remembrance Day Plot to kill the Queen, etc). But now and again, they do speak. Andrew Parker, the agency’s director-general, gave a wide-ranging speech last night which worth reading in full. It makes the front pages today. Here are half a dozen points which jumped out at me:
1. The terror threat is heating up.
‘Terrorist-related arrests are up 35 per cent compared with four years ago. Since 2010, more than 140 individuals have been convicted for terrorist-related offences’.
2. Three Islamist plots have been intercepted ‘in recent months’. Since 7/7, police say the spooks have intercepted a major Islamist plot a year. Parker says things are speeding up:
‘Strikingly, working with our partners, we have stopped three UK terrorist plots in recent months alone. Deaths would certainly have resulted otherwise. But we cannot be complacent. Although we and our partners try our utmost we know that we cannot hope to stop everything’
3. MI5’s broken wire. ‘My sharpest concern as director-general of MI5 is the growing gap between the increasingly challenging threat and the growing availability of capabilities to address it.’
So intercept targets are deciding to vary their communication methods (or ‘change up’ as they say on The Wire – he didn’t quote it, sadly). MI5 needs:
‘the right tools, legal powers and assistance of companies which hold relevant data. Currently this picture is patchy.’
Translation: MI5 can do with more co-operation from tech giants and proper powers from Parliament to keep an eye on the bad guys. So let’s remember that next time there’s a furore about the surveillance state.
He also rejects as false the choice between security and privacy.
Our driving purpose is to protect the freedoms of the majority by identifying and focussing on the small number of people who threaten our safety, security and freedoms. This can only be achieved with effective powers to find out what they are doing and to stop them.
4. Plots to attack the UK are being hatched in Syria. Isis is
‘Trying to direct terrorist attacks in the UK and elsewhere from Syria, using violent extremists here as their instruments…and seeking through propaganda to provoke individuals in the UK to carry out violent attacks here.’
5. ISIS has ‘directed or provoked’ 20 terror plots already.
Outside Iraq and Syria, we believe that since October 2013 there have been more than 20 terrorist plots either directed or provoked by extremist groups in Syria. Let me remind you of a few:
four people were shot dead in Brussels last May by a French returnee from Syria;
in Canada, a soldier was killed in a hit and run attack and another shot dead outside the parliament building;
in Australia, the hostage-taking at a cafe in Sydney led to the deaths of two hostages;
in France, a knife attack on police;
and other attacks have been foiled – for example, early in 2014 police in France seized improvised explosive devices from a flat linked to another Syria returnee.
6. A UK terror attack is now ‘highly likely’. The rise in lone-wolf attacks is taking place in addition to the normal al-Qaeda complex attacks and Syria means they’re fighting war on yet another front.
‘It was primarily the rising threat from Syria – not just ISIL – that led the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre to raise the threat level for international terrorism from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’ last summer. ‘Severe’ is an evidence-based judgement meaning that an attack on the UK is highly likely.’