Terrorist plots are escalating to the point of violence in a matter of days after a “dramatic” jump in the scale and pace of the threat facing Britain, the head of MI5 Andrew Parker has warned.
After four militant attacks this year that killed 36 people in Britain - the deadliest spate since the London “7/7” bombings of July 2005 - spy chief Parker said the threat was at the highest tempo he had seen in 34 years of espionage, Reuters reported.
“The threat is more diverse than I have ever known: plots developed here in the UK, but plots directed from overseas as well, plots online, complex scheming and also crude stabbings, lengthy planning but also spontaneous attacks,” he said.
“Attacks can sometimes accelerate from inception, through planning, to action in just a handful of days.”
In a rare public speech, Parker said that:
Britain has foiled 20 plots in the past four years, with seven Islamist attacks prevented in the past seven months.
There are currently 500 live operations involving 3,000 people involved in militant activity.
MI5 is tasked with protecting British national security and so takes the lead, along with the police, in countering militant attacks.
But after a suicide bomber killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena in May, MI5 began a review of how it handled intelligence on the bomber, Salman Abedi, who was known to the intelligence agencies.
Abedi was not among the 3,000 people currently under active investigation by MI5, although he was one of around 20,000 people known to have some connection to extremism.
“When an attack happens, we are determined, using the harsh light of hindsight, to squeeze out every last drop of learning,” Parker said.
“We are constantly evolving to stay ahead.”
The spy chief also used the event to call for a nuanced partnership with tech companies to tackle militants.
Britain has repeatedly demanded that Silicon Valley companies do more to suppress extremist content and allow access to online communication.
After British militants rammed a van into pedestrians on London Bridge and went on the rampage through packed bars, Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain must be tougher on stamping out Islamist militancy and proposed regulating cyberspace.
Parker said militants’ abuse of the internet could slow down the rapid pace of the hunt for attackers.
“This pace together with the way in which extremists can exploit safe spaces online can make threats harder to detect and give us a smaller window to intervene.”
Britain’s interior minister, Amber Rudd, said earlier this month that WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption communication services allowed pedophiles and organized crime groups to operate beyond the reach of the law.
But in today’s speech, Parker refrained from naming any companies directly.
“I am not somehow King Canute trying to hold back the tide of developing technology and wouldn’t wish to be heard that way,” he said.
“Technology is not the enemy, indeed it holds many opportunities for us.”
When asked directly whether Google, Facebook and Amazon were doing enough to prevent communications among militants, he said:
“There is a reasonable expectation, I think, from all of us but also from the public at large that these companies would do what they can to help us deal with these worst excesses.”