The threat posed to the UK by "pathetic" Britons returning from fighting with Islamist extremists in Syria and Iraq is being exaggerated by the Government and the media, a former intelligence chief has warned. But Sir Richard Dearlove warned that the publicity being given to British jihadis could encourage their "radical fantasies" and make them more dangerous and suggested their "blood-curdling" videos should be ignored.
The ex-head of MI6 said the "distortion" of the 9/11 attacks meant too much priority was still being give to counter-terrorism at the expense of confronting more serious threats posed by Russia, China and growing European political populism. Fighting in Syria and Iraq should now be accepted as an "essentially Muslim on Muslim affair", he said, questioning why Britons intent on attacking the UK would not choose a safer place to get trained.
In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute defence and security think tank (Rusi), he said: "I feel deeply uncomfortable to see our national media making national security monsters out of rather misguided young men from our Muslim communities who frankly, I think, cut rather pathetic figures.
"Thanks to the media coverage they achieve celebrity status beyond their wildest dreams and are probably actually encouraged by the attention towards fulfilment of some of their more extreme radical fantasies. Surely better to ignore them and assume the means to control them, if and when they do come home, are sufficient to meet the threat that they pose."
He said he feared media pressure was having too great an influence on security policy including the sight of ministers "warning us again and again about the seriousness of the terrorist problems that we face. It is time to move away from the distortion that 9/11 understandably created in our national security stance," he said.
"Counter-terrorism activity will remain an important requirement but it should no longer dominate our national security thinking and planning, rather a problem we have learned to live with and that should seldom be given, either by the Government or the media, the oxygen of publicity.
"We must continue to cover the Middle East as a political requirement but without putting the incipient terrorist threat to ourselves at the centre of the picture and, in particular, without demonising our own Muslim community on account of the small number of their young men who were tragically sucked into the conflict and risk returning home in an ugly and dangerous frame of mind."
He dismissed fears of a repeat of the emergence of al Qaida from the West-supported Mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. "I strongly doubt that this is a problem likely to be repeated despite some of the blood-curdling claims made on our TV screens by young British jihadis because this new conflict is essentially Muslim on Muslim," he said.
Britain's involvement in the 2001 US-led invasion of Iraq was of "probably very small significance" in the current conflict, he suggested. The Russian incursion into Ukraine will have provoked a "lively debate" about the share of resources that should be moved from counter-terrorism to other threats, he added.