By Patrick Corby
Andrew Parker, Director General of the Military Intelligence section 5, also known as MI5, made his first public statement since he took office on the 8th October around the significant threat domestic terrorism poses in the UK and how information leakage can seriously harm national security.
Parker, who has been in the role for 6 months, said: “Describing the reality of the terrorism threat we face is challenging in public discourse. I’ve heard too much exaggeration at one end, while at the other there can sometimes be an alarming degree of complacency.”
Intelligence agencies administered in the UK by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) receive some £2bn in funding each year from the UK HM Treasury to carry out Agency Strategic Objectives (ASO). Last year these included objectives such as counter-terrorism, cyber-security and counter-espionage; this year that remains unchanged.
In his speech, Mr Parker reminded the public that earlier this year three cases of domestic UK terrorism went to court, one of which was a 7/7 copy using rucksack bombs. All pleaded guilty and received 260 joint years in UK prison, the threat level of terrorism in the UK, according to the ISC, is operating under ‘substantial’ – a strong possibility for an attack – due to these and other similar cases. These domestic threats along with all terrorist activity right now are based on what US president Obama calls “soft targets” that are smaller in scale, domestic in nature and more difficult to monitor.
This was seen recently in the attacks of the Al-Qaeda Somali affiliated group, the al-Shabaab, on Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Centre. Even though al-Shabaab’s cohesion as a group has been weakened by the Western-backed African Union in recent years, by chasing them out of Somalia’s main cities, it still poses a threat as smaller more mobile cells, which, as the Nairobi attacks show, are ready to flare.
In a similar light the threats to UK soil come from small cell groups that have contacted and are trained by the ready and willing groups within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan; an area where custom is much more important than any higher regime wishing to gain control of the area.
Those young men who carried out the 7/7 bombings in 2005 came and went through this same region in Pakistan ultimately to the UK capital, London.
Mr Parker’s statement also highlighted Syria, which is in civil war right now, as offering a hotbed of opportunity to organise and plan attacks against Western interests. Large numbers of extremists from Europe and the UK have been attracted to the area, as they have in Pakistan, and once they return home will be ready to use their new found military prowess against whom they deem it necessary.
Addressing this concern directly, Mr Parker stated that terrorist cells in the UK have became “more diffuse, more complicated, more unpredictable,” and that “since 2000, we have seen serious attempts at major acts of terrorism in this country, typically once or twice a year”.
In regard to this new “diffused” real threat, MI5 have changed their communications interception in recent years in order to monitor the traffic of terrorists. This, Mr Parker said, is “vital to the safety of the country and its citizens,” as it provides “many of the intelligence leads on which we rely”.
“The detail of the capabilities we use against [terrorists]…. represent our margin of advantage,” he said, adding: “That margin gives us the prospect of being able to detect their plots and stop them. But that margin is under attack.”
Put this passage in context to the Guardian’s recent leaks of security information supplied by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, and modern surveillance becomes something less about an act against our freedom of speech or privacy and more a counter to modern day terrorism and the access the internet affords.
Parker said that Snowden’s leaks from the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) of some 58,000 documents have been put to use stopping multiple attacks in the UK over the last decade and “cause enormous damage, to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques”.
“Unfashionable as it might seem, that is why we must keep secrets secret, and why not doing so causes such harm…. It remains the case that there are several thousand Islamic extremists here who see the British people as a legitimate target.”
Seen from this point of view, a public discourse around privacy is needed in order to constrain what can and cannot be done with the information sought out by our government but in a modern political arena where Islamic extremism is a real danger it must be recognised as playing a vital role.
Al- Qaeda may be diffused and depleted as one large organisation but the Salafi Jihadist view of the world against Western interests are still an ever posing threat on UK soil, with a real danger of becoming a severe national threat.
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