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June 25, 2012 11:32 pm
Jonathan Evans, the director-general of MI5, has one overwhelming issue on his mind this summer: that London holds games for the Olympics and Paralympics that do not end up being scarred by terrorism.
But while the Olympic Games have long been seen as the biggest test of Mr Evans’ tenure as Security Service chief, he is also thinking hard about how the intelligence services should respond to three other issues that dominate the global agenda: the Arab Spring, the eurozone crisis and the growth in cyberespionage.
In a rare speech last night setting out his thinking, Mr Evans made clear he was not complacent about the Olympics. The event presented “an attractive target for our enemies”, he said, and some terrorist groups would even now be wondering if they could pull off an attack.
But MI5 is not seeing the sudden explosion of planning activity and “chatter” from would-be terrorists that officers had expected to be engaging with about now. Hence Mr Evans allowed himself a confident prediction: “I think that we shall see a successful and memorable games this summer in London.”
If he feels reassured, it is not because the risk from jihadism has gone. Osama bin Laden’s core al-Qaeda movement in Pakistan and Afghanistan has certainly been decimated. But Mr Evans warned that “in back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country, there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here”.
What has changed, however, is that successive governments have spent hugely on MI5 and MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, since the 2005 London bombings. The agencies are therefore far better placed than they were to stop the plotters. “You could say that we are near to reaching a form of stalemate,” he said. “They haven’t stopped trying but we have got better at stopping them.”
Over the years, MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, has been run by some varied personalities. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, who headed the service from 2002 to 2007, was a larger than life character, one who has made her concerns about the Iraq war known in recent times. By contrast, Jonathan Evans, the director-general for the last five years, is a far more dour and reserved character – one who does not seem to enjoy the limelight on the rare occasions he allows it to shine on him.
Mr Evans, 53, has spent his entire 32-year career at MI5. Much of it in the 1980s and 1990s involved tackling terrorism in Northern Ireland – an issue on which he had strikingly few comments in last night’s speech. In 2001 he was appointed MI5’s director of international counter-terrorism, 10 days before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.
His five years heading MI5 have seen the agency receiving a huge boost in funding, helping the UK avoid a major terrorist attack since the London bombings of July 7 2005. Mr Evans has given strong support to controversial legislation, most notably the current bill on communications data that would allow greater surveillance of e-mail messaging between individuals.
Mr Evans believed counter-terrorism would remain a significant issue for MI5 in the years ahead. The Arab uprising had opened up opportunities for democracy. But it also meant that “parts of the Arab world have once more become a permissible environment for al-Qaeda”.
This brings particular risks to the UK. For some time, dozens of British nationals have travelled to Somalia and Yemen to fight alongside al-Qaeda affiliates. Now, a “small number” were making their way to other states like Egypt, Niger and Mali. “Some will return to the UK and pose a threat here,” he warned.
While Islamist extremism continues to dominate much of MI5’s attention, Mr Evans also highlighted new potential threats. For example, MI5 is reflecting on how economic turmoil in Europe may lead to the rise of political extremism not only in countries like Greece but also in the UK.
Mr Evans believes the British have in the past been “stolidly unimpressed by political extremists of left or right”. This suggests any problems that may arise in the UK will come from lone actors attracted to extremism. That said, the carnage wrought by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway last year meant that MI5 was working closely “to monitor and understand trends in this area”.
Significantly, he devoted much more space in this speech than previous ones to the growth in cyberespionage: “What is at stake is not just our government secrets but also the safety and security of our infrastructure, the intellectual property that underpins our future prosperity and the commercially sensitive information that is the life-blood of our companies.”
Even so, Mr Evans carefully refrained from publicly identifying China and Russia as culprits. The failure to do so underlines the fundamental conundrum facing western governments. As one Whitehall official put it: “In the cold war, we had the luxury of being able to treat the Soviet Union exclusively as a security threat. Our security concerns are now increasingly focused on a state, China, with which we also happen to have important economic interests. That makes life difficult.”
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