MI5 chief Andrew Parker warns of Ithreat to UK public
By Frank Gardner BBC security correspondent
Andrew Parker was named as the new head of the Security Service earlier this year.
Thousands of Islamist extremists in the UK see the British public as a legitimate target for attacks, the director general of MI5 has warned.
Andrew Parker was making his first public speech since taking over as head of the UK Security Service in April.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan and Yemen present “the most direct and immediate threats to the UK,” he said.
He added that the security services must have access to the many means of communication which terrorists now use.
Mr Parker was addressing the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall.
Threats to the UK are growing more diverse and diffuse, he said, but warned: “It remains the case that there are several thousand Islamist extremists here who see the British public as a legitimate target.”
He explained that “knowing of someone” was not the same as knowing everything about them.
He said that despite huge investment over the past decade, the reality was that MI5 focused the most intense intrusive attention on only a small number of cases at any one time.
With 30 years in MI5, Andrew Parker was previously Deputy DG, and before that, Director of its Counter Terrorism division at the time of the London bombings in 2005.
In his speech he named Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula as presenting “the most direct and immediate threats to the UK”.
By that he meant primarily its elements in Pakistan and separately in Yemen, from where Al-Qaeda has three times succeeded in smuggling explosives past security on to planes in the last 4 years.
Referring to the ongoing conflict in Syria, he said a growing proportion of MI5’s casework concerned individuals from the UK who had travelled to fight there.
He said extremist Sunni groups in Syria were aspiring to attack Western countries.
Stopped at airports
This has long been a concern of Western governments – that British-based jihadists will one day return from the killing fields of Syria and turn their new-found skills on the population back home.
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A number of people have been stopped at airports and some have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism.
Mr Parker said 330 people had been convicted of terrorism-related offences in Britain between 11 September 2001 and 31 March 2013.
He added that in the first few months of this year, there had been four major trials related to terrorist plots.
Chillingly, he reminded the public that these included plans for a 7/7-style attack with rucksack bombs, and named two other plots.
There were guilty pleas in each case, he said, with 24 terrorists convicted and sentenced to more than 260 years in jail.
Means of communication
Mr Parker’s speech also went on to reveal some of the fears and frustrations his service was experiencing over both the advances in technology and those who leak government secrets into the public domain.
He warned that terrorists now had tens of thousands of means of communication “through e-mail, IP telephony, in-game communication, social networking, chat rooms, anonymising services and a myriad of mobile apps”.
Mr Parker said it was vital for MI5 – and by inference its partner GCHQ – to retain the capability to access such information if the Security Service was to protect the country.
Intelligence officials in both the US and Britain have been absolutely dismayed at the wealth of secret data taken by the former CIA contractor Edward Snowden when he fled to Russia.
‘Reach and limits’
Some 58,000 of the files are from GCHQ, whose intelligence, Mr Parker said, had played a vital role in stopping many UK terrorist plots over the past decade.
Without mentioning Mr Snowden by name, he said ”it causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques.”
Doing this, he added, handed the advantage to the terrorists.
In conclusion, Mr Parker said he did not believe the terrorist threat was any worse now than before. But it was “more diffuse, more complicated, more unpredictable”.