LONDON: MI5 boss Andrew Parker has warned that Britain faces the most acute and intense threat ever from militants seeking to inflict mass attacks, often with spontaneous plots that take just days to bring to execution.
After four militant attacks this year that killed 36 people in Britain — the deadliest spate since the London bombings of July 2005, MI5 chief Andrew Parker said the threat was at the highest tempo he had seen in 34 years of espionage.
“The threat is more diverse than I have ever known: plots developed here in the UK, but plots directed from overseas as well, plots online, complex scheming and also crude stabbings, lengthy planning but also spontaneous attacks,” said Parker.
“Attacks can sometimes accelerate from inception, through planning, to action in just a handful of days,” he said in a speech in central London. The director general of MI5 rarely gives public speeches. The last was in 2015.
Andrew Parker said there had not yet been a large influx of British militants returning home from Syria and Iraq. He added that more than 130 Britons who travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with so-called Islamic State had died. But there was currently “more terrorist activity coming at us, more quickly” and that it can also be “harder to detect”.
MI5 was running 500 live operations involving 3,000 individuals involved in extremist activity in some way, he said.
Speaking in London, Mr Parker said that twenty attacks had been foiled in the last four years, including seven in the last seven months, he said – all related to what he called Islamist extremism. The five attacks that got through this year included a suicide bomb attack after an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena in May, killing 22.
In some cases, individuals like Khuram Butt – who was behind the London Bridge attack – were well known to MI5 and had been under investigation by the security services.
Mr Parker was asked what was the point of MI5 surveillance when someone who had made “no secret of his affiliations with jihadist extremism” had then been allowed to go on to launch a deadly attack.
He said the risk from each individual was assessed on a “daily and weekly basis” and then prioritised accordingly. “One of the main challenges we’ve got is that we only ever have fragments of information, and we have to try to assemble a picture of what might happen, based on those fragments.”
He said the likelihood was that when an attacked happened, it would be carried out by someone “that we know or have known” – otherwise it would mean they had been looking “in completely the wrong place”.
And he said staff at MI5 were deeply affected on a “personal and professional” level when they did happen.”They are constantly making tough professional judgements based on fragments of intelligence; pinpricks of light against a dark and shifting canvas.”
He said more than 800 individuals had left the UK for Syria and Iraq. Some had then returned, often many years ago, and had been subject to risk assessment. Mr Parker revealed at least 130 had been killed in conflict. Fewer than expected had returned recently, he said, adding that those who were still in Syria and Iraq may not now attempt to come back because they knew they might be arrested.
Mr Parker stressed that international co-operation remained vital and revealed there was a joint operational centre for counter-terrorism based in the Netherlands, where security service officers from a range of countries worked together and shared data.
This had led to 12 arrests in Europe, he added.
In terms of state threats, Mr Parker said the range of clandestine activity conducted by foreign states – including Russia – went from aggressive cyber-attack, through to traditional espionage and the risk of assassination of individuals. However, he said the UK had strong defences against such activity.