MI5 Chief: there is a growing threat to the UK from Syria-related terrorism

Andrew Parker

Andrew Parker, the head of the domestic spy agency MI5, has warned that the threat to the UK from terrorists returning from Syria is growing.

He made the comments in a speech in London on October 8. We have reproduced an abridged version below but you can read the whole speech here.

“I’m going to talk tonight about the full range of terrorist threats that the UK faces. In describing the overall threat, it would be surprising if I didn’t focus first on the ongoing and increasing challenge from Syria. I spoke a year ago of MI5’s increasing focus on this growing threat. It has continued to expand and to morph, not least with ISIL coming to the fore.

Around 600 extremists are among the many Britons who have travelled there. A significant proportion has joined ISIL.

I won’t dignify the group with its self-adopted propaganda label ‘Islamic State’. Scholars have rightly pointed out that it is neither ‘Islamic’, nor is it a state. Its true nature is visible to all from its visceral brutality – including the murder of hostages – and its indulgence of the very worst imaginable forms of treatment of other human beings. Its hatred is directed against all who do not adhere to its own twisted ideology. The vast majority of its victims are Muslims. It is rightly condemned by Muslim leaders and scholars.

ISIL has large numbers of fighters and substantial resources in parts of Syria and Iraq. Its propaganda repeatedly names Britain as an enemy, but how is it a threat to the UK?

Well, there are three ways, all of which we have already seen in practice:

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a. I’ve already mentioned the first, which is the senseless and brutal murder of innocent Britons in the region. None of us need any reminder of that.

b. The second is that they are trying to direct terrorist attacks in the UK and elsewhere from Syria, using violent extremists here as their instruments.

c. And, third, they are seeking through propaganda to provoke individuals in the UK to carry out violent attacks here.

Modern terror group

Despite its medieval tactics, ISIL is a terrorist phenomenon of the modern age. It makes full use of the modern social media and communications methods through which many of us now live our lives. By these means it spreads its message of hate directly into homes across the United Kingdom – both to those seeking it and those who may be susceptible to its distortion and glamorisation of horrific acts.

Not all British extremists who have travelled to Syria will want to mount attacks in the UK when they return. But some do have that intent. Some have already tried to carry out acts of terrorism here and elsewhere. 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.

Briton Abdul Majeed Majid blew himself up in Aleppo
Briton Abdul Majeed Majid blew himself up in Aleppo

We know that terrorists based in Syria harbour the same ambitions towards the UK – trying to direct attacks against our country, and exhorting extremists here to act independently.

So we in MI5 will continue to work tirelessly with the police, GCHQ and SIS to uncover violent intent directed against Britain, both within the UK and in Syria. An important part of this work is identifying extremists travelling to and from Syria, and taking whatever steps we can to prevent them from getting to the conflict zones.

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.

The intelligence task we face is challenging. There are no in-country partner agencies we can work with in Syria. Collecting intelligence about a war zone is difficult, gathering evidence even more so.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the UK, as the near-daily media reports show, such extremists must expect to be arrested and prosecuted. In England and Wales, terrorist-related arrests are up 35% compared with four years ago. Since 2010, more than 140 individuals have been convicted for terrorism related offences.

We and the police are necessarily focused on preventing the terrorist threat associated with these extremists. But it’s an even greater success when individuals faced with ISIL’s propaganda turn away from its twisted message. We have seen the human misery that results from the opposite choice: bereaved and broken families, ruined lives, suffering and heartbreak.

Al Qaeda

Meanwhile, other Islamist terrorist threats persist. Al Qaeda continues to provide a focus for Islamist inspired violence and a significant driving force for extremists to plot terrorist attacks against the West. British Islamist extremists still travel out to South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and other theatres to try to obtain terrorist training. And terrorist groups in parts of Africa also pose persistent threats.

In Afghanistan in November a terrorist attack on a British convoy in Kabul killed five people, including two members of British Embassy staff. This tragically reminded us again of the risks run and the sacrifices made by all of those who have worked so hard in Afghanistan to safeguard our national security. And in Pakistan, the attack last month on a school in Peshawar, in which over 100 children and teachers were killed, underlines the brutality of the Islamist terrorist threat we face, and the terrible cost that it seeks to inflict on innocent people around the world.

The internet activity of British Muslims is being monitored
The internet activity of British Muslims is being monitored

So, in summary, we face a very serious level of threat that is complex to combat and unlikely to abate significantly for some time. From the totality of this picture, two aspects are worth noting.

First, the number of crude but potentially deadly plots has gone up. Last year’s attacks in Canada and Australia were examples. Such attacks are inherently harder for intelligence agencies to detect. They are often the work of volatile individuals, motivated by terrorist propaganda rather than working as part of sophisticated networks. They often act spontaneously or after very short periods of prior planning.

Such people often act alone. But even when violent intent is solely the work of one individual and they share their specific plans with no one else, it is almost always the case that someone, a member of the public or a friend, has had some prior insight into the dangerous direction they are moving in and the violent destination they are hoping to reach. So, as we go forward into 2015, we will need more help from the public in these sorts of situations. Such assistance will be invaluable when it comes to enabling MI5 and the police to save lives.

The second aspect worth nothing is that, alongside this greater volume, we still face more complex and ambitious plots that follow the now sadly well established approach of Al Qaeda and its imitators: attempts to cause large scale loss of life, often by attacking transport systems or iconic targets. We know, for example, that a group of core Al Qaeda terrorists in Syria is planning mass casualty attacks against the West.

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.

Internet surveillance

The internet has changed so many aspects of our lives – better in so many ways, revolutionising commerce and communication, providing greater choice and better access to information for us all. But also, as the examples show, it offers the same advantages and opportunities to terrorists too. They use it to spread propaganda, to radicalise impressionable individuals, to arrange travel, to move money. But most of all to communicate with one another, to plan and organise.

And that is why the capability to intercept these communications is so important to MI5 – the ability to monitor the terrorists’ communications as they plan is central to our chances of knowing their intentions and stopping them. So, if we lose that ability, if parts of the radar go dark and terrorists are confident that they are beyond the reach of MI5 and GCHQ, acting with proper legal warrant, then our ability to keep the country safe is also reduced.

The ability to access communications data is likewise vital to our ability to protect our national security. Such data has been crucial to MI5 and to the Police in detecting and stopping many terrorist plots over the last decade. We use those powers carefully, only where it is necessary and proportionate to do so. But unless we maintain this capability, our ability to protect the country will be eroded.”

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