The head of Britain’s domestic intelligence service has warned that homegrown Islamist extremists inspired by Isis propaganda remained the biggest threat to UK security, raising fresh concerns over the terror group’s potency even after its defeat in Syria.
Andrew Parker’s comments come days after a new video was released through official Isis media channels showing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Sunni extremist group.
In his first public appearance in five years, Mr Baghdadi claimed responsibility for last month’s Easter suicide bombings in Sri Lanka and threatened to launch a new wave of violence around the world.
While security analysts say the video could be a sign that Isis is in disarray and taking desperate measures to try to inspire fresh attacks, Mr Parker insisted the pull of such propaganda was “startling”.
The MI5 director-general added that 80 per cent of the plots thwarted by police, MI5 and the UK’s western allies in 2018 were conducted by people inspired by the ideology of Isis “but who had never actually been in contact with it in Syria or Iraq”.
The statistic suggests the threat posed by returning fighters and their families to European countries may not be as significant as first feared.
“Although the collapse deprived Isis of physical space, it has shown that an ideology does not require territory to survive,” Mr Parker wrote in the London Evening Standard on Wednesday. “In the UK there remain individuals who are inspired by Isis propaganda, despite having shown no interest in travelling to Syria.”
Mr Parker said last month’s attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, which killed more than 250 people and were carried out by a local Islamist terror group but dedicated to and claimed by Isis, showed that the organisation was still capable of launching large scale, murderous attacks.
“The abhorrent events in Sri Lanka are a stark and tragic reminder of terrorists’ determination and ongoing ability to perpetuate misery through launching large-scale attacks,” he wrote. “There is no doubt that the fall of the so-called caliphate in Syria marked a significant military defeat and a hugely symbolic loss for Islamic State, but we must not be complacent.”
Isis surrendered its remaining territory to US-backed forces in March. Hundreds of foreign fighters are now being held in detention camps while European and other western governments try and work out what to do with them.
Mr Parker’s remarks back up concerns expressed by one former western intelligence chief, who told the Financial Times that sleeper cells or organised group attacks were now less of a concern than lone operators who have been radicalised online.
“The basic assessment has been that organised cells as such are maybe less fundamental than they were and it’s the individual radicalisation process which is a particular concern,” the former intelligence chief said. “It’s the impact on individual radicalisation.”
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