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MI5 Director General's Speech on Intelligence, Counter-Terrorism and Trust

Speaker: Jonathan Evans
Published November 5, 2007

Jonathan Evans, Director General of Security Service of the UK's MI5, gave this speech in which he said MI5 is currently investigating upwards of 2,000 individuals who are a security threat because of their support for terrorism. This figure is up 25 percent from 2006.

Good morning and thank you for the invitation to speak at your Annual Conference and, in particular, thanks to Paul Horrocks and Bob Satchwell.

It is fairly unusual for the head of MI5 to speak at a media-focused event. But the issue of trust is highly relevant to the world of intelligence. All the more so as we tackle the most immediate and acute peacetime threat in the 98-year history of my Service.

Public trust is becoming an increasingly important issue for many organisations, both private and public. My Service is no exception, and we need to ensure that our work is sufficiently understood. Although our operations must remain secret for them to be successful, we have a responsibility to keep the public informed about the threats they face and what we are doing to counter them.

So today, I would like to talk to you about the threat to our national security as we see it, about the challenges which this poses to MI5 and the UK and about how, with the help and trust of the public, we can counter it.

As I am sure you are aware, the main national security threat that we face today is from Al Qaida and its associated groups.

Extremist ideology

But before we look at the violent manifestation of that threat in the UK, we need to remember where this comes from. The violence directed against us is the product of a much wider extremist ideology, whose basic tenets are inimical to the tolerance and liberty which form the basis of our democracy. So although the most visible manifestations of this problem are the attacks and attempted attacks we have suffered in recent years, the root of the problem is ideological.

Why? Because the ideology underlying Al Qaida and other violent groups is extreme. It does not accept the legitimacy of other viewpoints. It is intolerant, and it believes in a form of government which is explicitly anti-democratic. And the more that this ideology spreads in our communities, the harder it will be to maintain the kind of society that the vast majority of us wish to live in.

You may recall that in her speech this time last year, my predecessor, Eliza Manningham-Buller, pointed out that this country was facing an increasing threat from Al Qaida-inspired terrorism. When she spoke, MI5 had identified around 1,600 individuals who we believed posed a direct threat to national security and public safety, because of their support for terrorism. That figure today would be at least 2,000. This growth, which has driven the increasingly strong and coordinated government response, is partly because our coverage of the extremist networks is now more thorough. But it is also because there remains a steady flow of new recruits to the extremist cause.

And it is important that we recognise an uncomfortable truth: terrorist attacks we have seen against the UK are not simply random plots by disparate and fragmented groups. The majority of these attacks, successful or otherwise, have taken place because Al Qaida has a clear determination to mount terrorist attacks against the United Kingdom. This remains the case today, and there is no sign of it reducing. So although MI5 and the police are investigating plots, and thwarting them, on a continuing basis, we do not view them in isolation. Al Qaida is conducting a deliberate campaign against us. It is the expression of a hostility towards the UK which existed long before September 11, 2001. It is evident in the wills and letters left behind by actual and would-be bombers. And it regularly forms part of Al Qaida's broadcast messages.

This campaign is dynamic, and since my predecessor spoke last year, we have seen it evolve even further.

As a country, we are rightly concerned to protect children from exploitation in other areas. We need to do the same in relation to violent extremism. As I speak, terrorists are methodically and intentionally targeting young people and children in this country. They are radicalising, indoctrinating and grooming young, vulnerable people to carry out acts of terrorism. This year, we have seen individuals as young as 15 and 16 implicated in terrorist-related activity.

The nature of the threat

Another development in the last 12 months has been the extent to which the conspiracies here are being driven from an increasing range of overseas countries.

Over the last five years much of the command, control and inspiration for attack planning in the UK has derived from Al Qaida's remaining core leadership in the tribal areas of Pakistan - often using young British citizens to mount the actual attack. But worryingly, we have more recently seen similar processes emerging elsewhere.

For instance, there is no doubt now that Al Qaida in Iraq aspires to promote terrorist attacks outside Iraq. There is no doubt that there is training activity and terrorist planning in East Africa - particularly in Somalia - which is focused on the UK. And there is no doubt that the extension of what one might call the 'Al Qaida franchise' to other groups in other countries - notably in Algeria - has created a significant upsurge in terrorist violence in these countries. It is no coincidence that the first suicide bombing in Algeria followed the creation of the new 'Al Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb.'

This sort of extension of the Al Qaida brand to new parts of the Middle East and beyond poses a further threat to us in this country because it provides Al Qaida with access to new centres of support which it can motivate and exploit, including in its campaign against the UK.

Since 9/11, there have been a number of examples of serious Al Qaida-related terrorist activity in Europe. But in the last 12 months we have seen an increase in attack planning across the continent. This summer alone we saw many terrorist arrests, including those in Germany, Denmark and Austria. It is too early to assess with confidence what all this means but certainly, we can see that the threat from Al Qaida related terrorism goes well beyond the UK.

Looking at the plots themselves, we now see different levels of sophistication. Yes, we have seen unsophisticated attempts to kill and injure, but we have also seen complex, logistically effective plots, which require a high degree of expertise and accurate targeting. We have to pay equal attention to both the crude and the complex. Because the primitive can be just as deadly as the sophisticated.

And the prognosis for the medium term? I do not think that this problem has yet reached its peak. Speaking after the London and Glasgow attacks earlier this year, the Prime Minister said that: "our country - and all countries - have to confront a generation-long challenge to defeat...terrorist violence."

He is of course correct. And it means that the work of the intelligence and security agencies will not be enough. We will do our utmost to hold back the physical threat of attacks, but alone, this is merely containment. Long-term resolution requires identifying and addressing the root causes of the problem. This is not a job only for the intelligence agencies and police. It requires a collective effort in which Government, faith communities and wider civil society have an important part to play. And it starts with rejection of the violent extremist ideology across society - although issues of identity, relative deprivation and social integration also form important parts of the backdrop.

This will not, however, happen overnight. I have been directly engaged in work against this violent extremist threat for most of the last decade, and I believe that terrorism inspired by it is likely to dominate the work of my Service well into the future.

And here is an important point. We know that the strategic thinking of our enemies is long-term. But public discourse in the UK works to a much shorter timescale whether the electoral cycle or the media deadline. We cannot view this challenge in such timescales. If we only react tactically while our enemies plan strategically, we shall be hard put to win this. A key part of our strategy must be perseverance.

The limitations of intelligence

I mentioned earlier that the number of people we are seeing involved in terrorist-related activity in the UK has increased to at least 2,000. And we suspect that there are as many again that we don't yet know of.

This means that on a daily basis, my staff are under acute pressure to prioritise. As a Service, we have grown, and I am grateful for the financial settlement which the Government has recently announced, which means we can expand further and deliver greater assurance. But even then we will not be able to cover every potential threat. However many resources we put in, there will still be difficult judgments to make.

It is important to recognise too that intelligence will rarely provide a complete picture. It gives us pieces of a whole, which then require assessment and interpretation. It helps improve our chances of success. And as we have seen in more than 200 terrorist convictions in the UK since 9/11, it does save lives. But it will not in itself provide certainty.

There is, however, a further difficulty in relation to intelligence work against the current threat, and it is one that I think has led to a degree of misunderstanding about MI5's work.

The networks we investigate are not the hard-edged cells typical of some other terrorist groups. Even though it may only be a handful of people who actually carry out a violent attack, it is now rare to see extremist groups acting entirely in isolation.

So the deeper we investigate, the more we know about the networks. And the more we know, the greater the likelihood that, when an attack or attempted attack does occur, my Service will have some information on at least one of the perpetrators. And in a sense this is a benefit. Why? First, because it means we can move more swiftly from intelligence to arrests. It means we can provide an informed assessment for the police, emergency services and Government, of the context of an attack, the likely depth of the conspiracy, and most importantly, the potential leads to follow to ensure that culprits can be arrested. And second, it demonstrates how the counter-terrorist net that the British intelligence community and our liaison partners have strung across the globe is working.

But we cannot know everything. There will be instances when individuals come to the notice of the Security Service or the police but then subsequently carry out acts of terrorism. This is inevitable. Every decision to investigate someone entails a decision not to investigate someone else. Knowing of somebody is not the same as knowing all about somebody. And it would be perverse for my Service to avoid knowing of somebody for fear of being held to blame if they later become involved in an attack. I think we should be very careful to bear this in mind when talking about so-called 'intelligence failures.'

On a different note, this autumn saw an important day for my Service. On the 10th October, we took on the lead responsibility from the Police Service of Northern Ireland for national security work there. And I am pleased to confirm today that our new Northern Ireland headquarters will soon be opened by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. This new building is a regional headquarters concerned with the broad spectrum of MI5's work. So although we will continue to investigate national security threats to Northern Ireland from there, the capabilities will also provide us with greater capacity in our overall work across the UK. Our Northern Ireland headquarters is now an important part of my Service's UK counter terrorism network.

Before moving on to talk about my Service's response to the international terrorist threat, I need to say one more thing. This year, yet again, there have been high levels of covert activity by foreign intelligence organisations in our country. Since the end of the Cold War we have seen no decrease in the numbers of undeclared Russian intelligence officers in the UK - at the Russian Embassy and associated organisations conducting covert activity in this country.

So despite the Cold War ending nearly two decades ago, my Service is still expending resources to defend the UK against unreconstructed attempts by Russia, China and others, to spy on us. A number of countries continue to devote considerable time and energy trying to steal our sensitive technology on civilian and military projects, and trying to obtain political and economic intelligence at our expense. They do not only use traditional methods to c collect intelligence but increasingly deploy sophisticated technical attacks, using the internet to penetrate computer networks. It is a matter of some disappointment to me that I still have to devote significant amounts of equipment, money and staff to countering this threat. They are resources which I would far rather devote to countering the threat from international terrorism - a threat to the whole international community, not just the UK.

How the Security Service is responding

So what, then, is the Security Service doing in response to the current threats?

I am very pleased to be speaking to you today in Manchester. Making my first public speech outside London is indicative of the direction in which MI5 is moving. We are a national Security Service, and the nature of the threat is now such that we must be present nationally. My Service has eight offices across Great Britain providing invaluable daily contact with police counter terrorist units and regional authorities. I intend that this presence will continue to grow. By 2011, we expect to have 4000 staff, and 25% of them will work outside of our London headquarters.

The difficulty here, of course, will be to ensure we get not just more people, but more of the right people. It is important for us to have a diverse workforce. Without this breadth of experience, attitude and perspective, we will not be as effective as we can be. And I am encouraged by the numbers of black and minority ethnic recruits joining us. But I am concerned that we are seeing fewer female applicants to the Service than we did during the 1990s - this is a paradox, considering that two of the last three Directors General were women. So we are now exploring ways to remedy this.

The Service does not just investigate threats. We also work, with others, to advise on reducing the vulnerability of our national infrastructure to terrorism. In February, the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure was established. CPNI - in which my Service plays a key role - is responsible for providing advice to business and Government on how to protect against terrorism.

The advice it provides, with the full authority of the Service, is wide-ranging. Whilst physical security remains a key part, protective security also means, for example, securing your IT systems or ensuring you know your staff and can trust them. Working in close partnership with colleagues in the private sector, Government and law enforcement, CPNI provides information on the threat, helping national infrastructure organisations identify their vulnerabilities and put in place proportionate security measures - physical, electronic and personnel. The level of direct contact and cooperation between CPNI and these organisations is higher than anything which has gone before. I welcome it.

More than ever before, we work on an integrated basis with our sister agencies, GCHQ and SIS, so that the particular skills of each agency are focused on the same threat. Their assistance and the intelligence they have provided to us have been invaluable to our operations, giving us coverage beyond our traditional strengths.

The same applies increasingly with the police. Speaking earlier this year, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of the Metropolitan Police's Counter Terrorism Command, said:

"the most important change in counter terrorism in the UK in recent years has been the development of the relationship between the police and the Security Service.. it is no exaggeration to say that joint working between the police and MI5 has become recognised as a beacon of good practice."

It is the vision and leadership of senior police officers like DAC Clarke that gives me confidence that this relationship will continue to flourish.

But it is here, finally, that I come to the issue of trust and the public. MI5 and the police cannot function without the assistance which we receive directly from members of the public.

My Service is grateful for all the offers of information that we receive on a daily basis. But we also need to maintain the wider trust and support of everyone in this country. In tackling this public threat, we are most effective when we are working with the grain of public opinion, not against it.

And as a necessarily secret organisation, we are, I believe, as open to the public as we can be. I will continue to make MI5 as visible as possible. It is right that the public should understand the way we work, and the thinking behind the wider counter terrorist strategy. And this is where you, the media, have a vital role.

The role of the media

I know that journalists today are working under an immense demand to deliver ever-greater volumes of news. And in the pressure-cooker of the 24-hour newsroom, it is, I am sure, difficult to draw out and explain all the nuances and complexities of a situation. So much as I might have gritted my teeth at some of the more colourful headlines, I am of course aware of what drives them.

But we must take particular care where there is the potential to compromise an operation, or worse, public safety. When this happens, generally due to a leak - the key consideration must be the consequences.

The first question must be whether the public interest in publication is greater than the possible consequences of for example, risking the life of one of our agents who has given us sensitive information, or alerting terrorists that they are under observation. I am, on the whole, impressed with the media's sense of responsibility and its understanding of our concerns. And as the demand for news increases, we cannot afford to let this understanding fall away. Because there is no contract between the security and intelligence agencies and the media. There is no memorandum of understanding between us. It is a matter of trust.

We must also pay close attention to our use of language. It is easy to forget, in talking of actions, aims and approaches, how what is said affects what is done. Yet you will be as conscious as I am of the consequences of words. And we are tackling a threat which finds its roots in ideology, so words really do matter. This is not political correctness. We cannot create hard and fast rules but we must recognise the extremist message for what it is. Anything which enables it to claim to be representative of Islam; anything which gives a spurious legitimacy to its twisting of theology will only play into its hands. One of Al Qaida's key aims is to provoke divisions within and between communities, and we have seen their own media department - to which they attach great importance - seeking to do this. So we've got to be sure that what is said neither explicitly nor implicitly makes this easier for them. The terrorists may be indiscriminate in their violence against us, but we should not be so in our response to them.

The issue of trust is nothing new to our Service. For nearly 100 years we have been gathering information secretly, and we have always relied on the willingness of others to provide us with the leads which can save lives. For as long as we have passed this intelligence to others for their use, we have trusted them to use it responsibly.

And of course trust has to be earned. That is why I place such importance on the ethos of the Service, which has always been to uphold high standards of probity and respect for what we now call human rights.

However, the relationship of mutual trust which we have with the public is now paramount. All of our experience suggests that there is a great deal of public support for the work that the Service does. I have seen this through positive messages to our website and heard it through words of support passed on by Whitehall and private sector colleagues. It is also evident through the number of people who have responded to our recruitment campaigns. We are grateful for this. This relationship is important, and we cannot take it for granted. It can be easily upset by words or actions.

But it is central to our success. I am sure that in the future, there will be more attempts to bully and cow our country; more attempts to harm and injure us; more attempts to drive division into our communities.

So our Service will continue to put all its efforts into protecting this country. And though our work is an essential part of the struggle against violent extremism, on its own it is not enough. This struggle relies not only on good intelligence and law enforcement, but also on the determination and perseverance of us all to resist extremism and to protect a decent, tolerant and open society.

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