MI5 chief highlights concern over British Muslims travelling to Syria

MI5 chief Andrew Parker

Below is an edited transcript of a speech by Andrew Parker, the head of the domestic secret service MI5, to the Royal United Services Institute on Tuesday.

We have highlighted the sections of the speech, which directly affect and concern British Muslims.

In the speech Parker said:

1. He expects a major terrorist attack once or twice a year.

2. Al Qaida has benefitted from the Arab revolutions.

3. Al Qaida and its affiliates in South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula present the most direct and immediate threats to the UK.

4. A growing proportion of MI5’s casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have travelled to fight there or who aspire to do so.

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“Turning to international terrorism, let’s start with the plain facts: from 11 September 2001 to the end of March this year 330 people were convicted of terrorism-related offences in Britain.

At the end of that period 121 were in prison, nearly three-quarters of whom were British. In the first few months of this year there were four major trials related to terrorist plots.

These included plans for a 7/7-style attack with rucksack bombs, two plots to kill soldiers, and a failed attempt to attack an EDL march using an array of lethal weapons.

Woolwich murder suspect Michael Adebolago
Woolwich murder suspect Michael Adebolago

There were guilty pleas in each case. 24 terrorists were convicted and sentenced to more than 260 years in jail.

Today, the threat level for international terrorism in the UK is assessed to be “substantial”: attacks are considered a strong possibility. But what does that really mean?

Since 2000, we have seen serious attempts at major acts of terrorism in this country typically once or twice a year. That feels to me, for the moment, unlikely to change.

While that tempo seems reasonably even, the ground we have to cover has increased as the threat has become more diversified.

Al Qaida

Ten years ago, the almost singular focus of the international CT effort was al Qaeda in South Asia.

Since that time we have seen violent Islamist groupings in various countries and regions exploiting conflict, revolutions and the opportunity of weakened governance to gain strength and refuge.

Some have adopted the al Qaeda brand, becoming franchised affiliates with what at the same time has been a declining al Qaeda core in South Asia.

A time-lapse sequence of a world map over the past decade would show outbreaks in Iraq, North and West Africa, Yemen, Somalia, and most recently Syria.

British Muslims are travelling to fight in Syria
British Muslims are travelling to fight in Syria

Al Qaida and its affiliates in South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula present the most direct and immediate threats to the UK. For the future, there is good reason to be concerned about Syria.

A growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have travelled to fight there or who aspire to do so.

Al Nusrah and other extremist Sunni groups there aligned with al Qaeda aspire to attack Western countries.

The ability of al Qaeda to launch the centrally directed large scale attacks of the last decade has been degraded, though not removed.

We have seen the threat shift more to increasing numbers of smaller-scale attacks and a growing proportion of groups and individuals taking it upon themselves to commit acts of terrorism. It remains the case that there are several thousand Islamist extremists here who see the British people as a legitimate target.

Overall, I do not believe the terrorist threat is worse now than before. But it is more diffuse. More complicated. More unpredictable.

We have again seen the reality of terrorism this year. At the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria and then in Nairobi two weeks ago, we saw once more the unconstrained intent of the terrorists in action and the impact on Britons living and working around the world.

And on 22 May, Fusilier Lee Rigby was brutally killed in Woolwich – the forthcoming trial prevents me saying more. And we have seen violent attacks against Muslims and Mosques.

Counter terrorism

I’d like to turn now to counter terrorism. The months preceding 7 July 2005 saw widespread scepticism about the threat…

Surely it couldn’t happen here? I was Counter Terrorism Director the day al Qaeda murdered 52 people in London. I led the Service’s CT response – a story for another day.

But the steps we and our partners were then able to take with an injection of new resources led directly a year later to what has been described as the biggest counter terrorism success in modern history.

Al Qaeda tried to bring down a number of transatlantic airliners using liquid bombs – the reason why there are restrictions on taking liquids on planes today. Like so many other attempts before and since, we were able to detect that plot and, with partners, stop it.

But, as events have tragically shown, we can’t stop them all.

There can be no doubt that the UK has one of the most developed and effective set of counter terrorist capabilities and arrangements in the world. But I don’t say this with any boasting.

The reality is of course that the UK has built and then advanced through many stages a set of defences over four decades in response to near-continuous severe terrorist threat.

Over that time in Great Britain and Northern Ireland thousands of people have died at the hands of terrorists. We have continually adapted, adjusted and advanced what we do to counter it, applying hard won lessons, sometimes painfully learned.

A strong record of success risks creating an expectation of guaranteed prevention. There can be no such guarantee.”

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