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The threat to national security

Address at the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals by the Director General of the Security Service, Jonathan Evans.

1.         Thank you very much for the invitation to speak at the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals.

2.         I would like to take this opportunity to provide some comments on the national security threats as we currently see them, not least so that those with responsibility for managing risks to their businesses – or even in their private lives – can do so on an informed basis. So I intend to cover the threat in three parts, first, Irish Republican dissident terrorism, then Al Qaida and its associates, and finally espionage.

3.         I start with Northern Ireland because of the developments in the last eighteen months. The Security Service, as part of the arrangements to facilitate the devolution of policing and justice under the Good Friday Agreement, assumed the lead responsibility for national security intelligence work in Northern Ireland in October 2007. At that point our working assumption was that the residual threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland was low and likely to decline further as time went on and as the new constitutional arrangements there took root. Sadly that has not proved to be the case. On the contrary we have seen a persistent rise in terrorist activity and ambition in Northern Ireland over the last three years. Perhaps we were giving insufficient weight to the pattern of history over the last hundred years which shows that whenever the main body of Irish republicanism has reached a political accommodation and rejoined constitutional politics, a hardliner rejectionist group would fragment off and continue with the so called "armed struggle".

4.         Like many extreme organisations, the dissident Republicans have tended to form separate groups based on apparently marginal distinctions or personal rivalries. But those separate groups can still be dangerous and in recent months there have been increasing signs of co-ordination and cooperation between the groups. This has led to a position where this year we have seen over thirty attacks or attempted attacks by dissident Republicans on national security targets compared to just over twenty for the whole of last year. In addition we have seen an increasing variety of attack techniques used, ranging from shootings to undercar devices to large vehicle bombs. At the same time we have seen improved weapons capability (including the use of Semtex). The vast majority of attacks are directed at the security forces, principally the Police Service of Northern Ireland. But the terrorists are reckless - often putting members of the public at risk. While at present the dissidents' campaign is focussed on Northern Ireland we cannot exclude the possibility that they might seek to extend their attacks to Great Britain as violent Republican groups have traditionally done. Therefore, while we do not face the scale of problems caused by the Provisional IRA at the height of the Troubles, there is a real and increasing security challenge in Northern Ireland.

5.         There is a crucial difference in my view from the position fifteen years ago. The Provisionals at their height could claim the political support of a significant body of opinion in Northern Ireland, and did develop a credible political strategy to operate alongside their terrorist campaign, but we see little evidence of a viable political programme on the part of the dissident Republican splinter groups. Their political base is small and localised. It is also clear that many of the dissident Republican activists operate at the same time as terrorists and organised criminals, with involvement in both smuggling and the illegal narcotics market, despite public denunciations of drug dealing. No doubt they see some benefit to their criminal enterprises from their terrorist activity and vice versa.

6.         Despite the demands in Northern Ireland, where we have reinforced our presence in response to the increased violence and work closely with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the main effort for the Security Service remains international terrorism, particularly from Al Qaida, its affiliates and those inspired by its ideology.

7.         I don't want to give a number for those of current security interest as that has sometimes been used in the past as a kind of metric for the severity of the threat. But I can say that while the UK's counter terrorist capabilities are enormously more effective than was the case ten years ago, we remain extremely busy with terrorist casework on a day-to-day basis. Though it is rightly invisible to the man or woman in the street there is a huge amount of activity taking place every day to manage the terrorist risks this country still faces. Every day hundreds of officers are involved in this intense struggle, identifying and investigating people suspected of being, or known to be, involved in terrorism or the infrastructure that makes terrorism possible. And all the time we are looking for opportunities to disrupt their illicit activities before they can endanger the public. The secret nature of this struggle makes it hard for those not directly involved to understand some of the skirmishes that come into the public domain: for example the Control Orders, the immigration cases and the criminal cases. So it might be helpful for me to describe what this daily struggle involves, since counter terrorism is subject of some rather misleading and excitable conjecture.

8.        Each month at present we receive in Thames House, our Headquarters, several hundred pieces of information that might be described as new "leads" to violent extremism and terrorism relevant to the UK. These leads come from a variety of sources. They might be suspicions passed on by members of the public, they might be pieces of information passed to the UK from other countries, they might be reports from the police, from GCHQ, from MI6, from our own telephone intercepts, human sources in and around extremist groups and so on. But it is impossible to investigate fully several hundred new leads a month so we have a well established system for prioritising the leads according to how directly they appear to indicate a terrorist threat, or terrorist support activity here in the UK. The most worrying leads are investigated most fully; those at the bottom of the priority list might receive only limited scrutiny. This is not ideal and involves difficult risk judgements, but it is the unavoidable practical fact of counter terrorist work within any realistic resource constraints. We are fully aware that among those apparently lower priority leads might be some that are in reality very significant, but given that most of our resources are already tied up in existing cases (because some cases can go on for months or years) and that we shall have several hundred more new leads every month, we have to make decisions about which ones we pursue. (It was this need to prioritise that the Intelligence and Security Committee described in their thorough report into the 7 July bombings).

9.          Once these leads have been prioritised, the higher priority ones are investigated using the capabilities available under the law to our Service, the Police and the other agencies. This is a highly integrated process because there is no way effectively to separate the domestic and overseas aspects of such cases. Very few of our counter-terrorist investigations today are solely UK-based, which is why close integration with SIS and GCHQ, as well as the Police, is critical. The purpose of the investigations is to find out whether there is anything to worry about, and if so to find out as much as we can about it so action can be taken to stop the terrorist planning or stop the support activity. This might be by arrests, by immigration action, by special measures such as Control Orders or in some other way. Our aim is to reach a position of assurance where any threat is identified and action taken to disrupt it before any harm is done, and particularly before there is an imminent danger to the public. This is of course easier said than done, and will never be fully achievable, but it is the aim.

10.          It is interesting to note in this context that in the last ten years what might be called a "zero tolerance” attitude to terrorist risk in Great Britain has become more widespread. While it has always been the case that the authorities have made every effort to prevent terrorist attacks, it used to be accepted as part of everyday life that sometimes the terrorists would get lucky and there would be an attack. In recent years we appear increasingly to have imported from the American media the assumption that terrorism is 100% preventable and any incident that is not prevented is seen as a culpable government failure. This is a nonsensical way to consider terrorist risk and only plays into the hands of the terrorists themselves. Risk can be managed and reduced but it cannot realistically be abolished and if we delude ourselves that it can we are setting ourselves up for a nasty disappointment.

11.         In the investigations that we are pursuing day to day, sometimes our ability to uncover and disrupt a threat goes right down to the wire, as was the case with the airline liquid bomb plot in 2006. The plotters were only days away from mounting an attack. Sometimes it is possible or necessary to step in much earlier, though in such cases it can be hard to get enough evidence to bring criminal charges. But I would rather face criticism when there is no prosecution (often accompanied by conspiracy theories about what was supposedly going on) than see a plot come to fruition because we had not acted soon enough. Operation Pathway, the disruption of an Al Qaida cell in North West England 18 months ago, is a good example of a necessarily early intervention where criminal charges could not eventually be sustained. The case has subsequently been reviewed by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and Mr Justice Mitting concluded that the case involved a genuine threat from individuals tasked by Al Qaida. Whilst we are committed to prosecutions wherever possible it is a sad fact that for all sorts of good reasons terrorist threats can still exist which the English criminal justice system cannot reach. The government cannot absolve itself of the responsibility to protect its citizens just because the criminal law cannot, in the particular circumstances, serve the purpose.

12.          If that is the investigative and assurance process, how does the overall threat look today in comparison with three or four years ago?

13.          At any one time we have a handful of investigations that we believe involve the real possibility of a terrorist attack being planned against the UK. That number will fluctuate and some cases may not develop as far as we had expected, but most turn out to be the real thing. The fact that there are real plots uncovered on a fairly regular basis demonstrates that there is a persistent intent on the part of Al Qaida and its associates to attack the UK. But as well as intent there has to be capability and their capabilities can be patchy. Some of those we see being encouraged or tasked by Al Qaida associates to mount attacks here are not people with the skills or character to make credible terrorists. Others are. But determination can take you a long way and even determined amateurs can cause devastation. The case of the neo-Nazi David Copeland, who attacked the gay and ethnic minority communities with such appalling results in 1999, is a good example of the threat posed by the determined lone bomber. Against that analysis, the recent encouragement by a senior Yemen-based Al Qaida associate to his followers in the West, to mount any sort of attack against Western interests and not to feel the need to aspire to spectacular terrorism such as 9/11, is a real concern.

14.         The percentage of the priority plots and leads we see in the UK linked to Al Qaida in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where Al Qaida senior leadership is still based, has dropped from around 75% two or three years ago to around 50% now. This does not mean that the overall threat has reduced but that it has diversified. The reduction in cases linked to the Tribal areas of Pakistan is partly attributable to the pressure exerted on the Al Qaida leadership there. But the reduction is also partly a result of increased activity elsewhere. In Somalia, for example, there are a significant number of UK residents training in Al Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there. Al Shabaab, an Islamist militia in Somalia, is closely aligned with Al Qaida and Somalia shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taleban. There is no effective government, there is a strong extremist presence and there are training camps attracting would be jihadists from across the world. We need to do whatever we can to stop people from this country becoming involved in terrorism and murder in Somalia, but beyond that I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside Al Shabaab.

15.          The other area of increased concern in respect of the domestic threat to the UK is Yemen. The AQ affiliate based in Yemen, known as "Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula" is the group that among other things developed the concealable non-metallic underpants bomb used in both the attempt to murder the Saudi Security Minister His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed Bin Naif in 2009 and in the narrowly averted Christmas 2009 aircraft bombing over Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The operational involvement of Yemen based preacher Anwar Al Awlaqi with AQAP is of particular concern given his wide circle of adherents in the West, including in the UK. His influence is all the wider because he preaches and teaches in the English language which makes his message easier to access and understand for Western audiences. We saw his hand in the Abdulmutallab case. There is a real risk that one of his adherents will respond to his urging to violence and mount an attack in the UK, possibly acting alone and with little formal training, and we have seen a surge in Yemen related casework this year. The outcome of some of these investigations has been reported in the media.

16.          In terms of the trajectory of the threat it is worth also drawing attention to some other relevant factors.

17.          First, our experience over the last ten years has shown that networks of terrorist supporters can be extraordinarily determined, resilient and patient. We see groups that have been disrupted and where several members have been convicted of terrorist or other offences, but that are able to revive and resume terrorist-related activities within a relatively short period of time and sometimes under other leadership. And of course they learn each time from the mistakes that they or others have made.

18.          Second, it is now nine years after 9/11. The upsurge of terrorist support activity in the years immediately following it is long enough ago for individuals who were successfully investigated and convicted of criminal offences during that period now to be coming out of prison having served their terms with remission. Unfortunately we know that some of those prisoners are still committed extremists who are likely to return to their terrorist activities and they will be added to the cases needing to be monitored in coming years. Experience has shown that it is very rarely the case that anyone who has been closely involved with terrorist-related activity can be safely taken off our list of potentially dangerous individuals; the tail of intelligence "aftercare" gets increasingly lengthy.

19.         Third, we are now less than two years from the London Olympics. The eyes of the world will be on London during the Olympic period and the run up to it. We have to assume that those eyes will include some malign ones that will see an opportunity to gain notoriety and to inflict damage on the UK and on some other participating nations. There will be a major security operation to support the Games, but we should not underestimate the challenge of mounting the Games securely in an environment with a high terrorist threat, the first time this has been attempted.

20.         So, to sum up the Al Qaida related threat. The country continues to face a real threat from Al Qaida-related terrorism. That threat is diverse in both geography and levels of skill involved but it is persistent and dangerous and trying to control it involves a continual invisible struggle. Counter-terrorist capabilities have improved in recent years but there remains a serious risk of a lethal attack taking place. I see no reason to believe that the position will significantly improve in the immediate future.

21.          I would like to conclude with a brief reference to the espionage threat. Events over the summer in the United States underlined the continuing level of covert intelligence activity that takes place internationally. Espionage did not start with the Cold War and it did not end with it either. Both traditional and cyber espionage continue to pose a threat to British interests, with the commercial sector very much in the front line along with more traditional diplomatic and defence interests. Using cyberspace, especially the Internet, as a vector for espionage has lowered the barriers to entry and has also made attribution of attacks more difficult, reducing the political risks of spying. And cyber espionage can be facilitated by, and facilitate, traditional human spying. So the overall likelihood of any particular entity being the subject of state espionage has probably never been higher, though paradoxically many of the vulnerabilities exploited both in cyber espionage and traditional espionage are relatively straightforward to plug if you are aware of them. Cyber security is a priority for the government both in respect of national security and economic harm. Ensuring that well informed advice is available to those who need it, including through the use of private sector partners is, and will remain, vital.

22.         It is fitting that I should make these comments to the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals. National security is obviously a responsibility of government but the assets that underpin both our security and our economic wellbeing are to a large extent owned or managed by the private sector. The objectives of the Company, including the promotion of excellence and integrity, and the advancement of knowledge in the security profession, in whatever sector, are therefore highly relevant to the national security challenges we face. I hope that the comments that I have made will contribute to the successful planning and implementation of the good security practice that underpins so much of our national life today.

16 September 2010

 

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