ES News email

Ken McCallum, the new director general of MI5 appointed earlier this year, made his first public appearance as Britain’s top spy today in an online question and answer with journalists.

He said the intelligence agency was fighting to protect research into a coronavirus vaccine from saboteurs , and warned of increasing threats to democracy from foreign spies employing “online disinformation, hack-and-leak, [and] attempted covert influencing of political figures”.

Mr McCallum, who took over as MI5’s director general earlier this year, said other dangers included the continued menace of Islamist terrorists and the growing number of Far-Right terror plotters.

But he told journalists that the biggest impact on MI5’s work in recent months had been the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some of the key points that emerged:

Q: What is the scale of the national security threat to the country today and where is it coming from?

A: Mr McCallum said that Britain is facing a “nasty mix” of increasing hostile state activity from countries such as China and Russia, as well as a terrorist threat which remains at a high level of menace with the dangers coming from Islamists, Far Right terrorists, and a small number of “rejectionists” in Northern Ireland. He also warned of growing attempts to interfere in democracy through “online disinformation, hack-and-leak” and the attempted “covert influencing of political figures”, as well as attempts to steal new research and other intellectual property.

Q: What examples did he give?

A: Attempts to steal or interfere with research into coronavirus vaccines were cited by Mr McCallum as one of the key areas of concern and that Russian agents had been foiled on one occasion earlier this year.

He added: “When it comes to vaccines there are two bits that we are on the lookout for. One is the attempt to steal unique intellectual property that’s been generated in that research or potentially fiddle with the data or in some way interfere with the integrity of what’s happening. The second risk we’ve got to be alive to is the possibility is that the research is still high integrity and sound but somebody tries to sow doubt about its integrity through a disinformation lens.

“There was some particular activity in relation to the Russian intelligence services. That was a specific example. Clearly, the global prize of having the first useable vaccine against this deadly virus is a large one so you would expect that a range of other parties around the globe would be interested in that research so we work with the colleagues who are experts and doing this research to manage their activity proportionately and sensibly.

Thames House. Mr McCallum said that Britain is facing a “nasty mix” of increasing hostile state activity (PA)

“It’s not about imposing security measures that stop vital research taking place, but ass with a lot of the work that we do with academia, it’s about how can we have research that we can trust and have high confidence in and protect it either in its substance or its reputation.”

Q: What are MI5’s concerns about threats to democracy and were any examples given.

A: Mr McCallum said that “Chinese espionage activity aimed against the European Union” had recently been thwarted by MI5 and was an illustration of how our spies would continue to work closely with their continental counterparts after Brexit. He said MI5 had also investigated attempts to interfere with the 2016 EU referendum but that “nothing of great significance” had been found. Another threat was “around social media, troll farms, internet influencing”.

Q: What more did he say about the threat from China?

A: The MI5 boss said British spies and their allies had “called out hostile activity by parts of the Chinese state” on a number of occasions and that his organisation was stepping up its work against espionage originating from Beijing.

Examples of the problem included hacking of commercially sensitive information and data, hacking of intellectual property and “things around technology and infrastructure” as well as “interference in politics”. But he emphasised that Britain also wanted to make “wise judgements” about how to work with China on “big global issues like climate change” and that cooperating with Beijing brought opportunities as well as risks.

Q: What about the terrorist threat in the UK?

A: Mr McCallum said that Islamist terrorism remained the largest threat with “tens of thousands of individuals” committed to its ideology, a smaller number of whom might at any one time by preparing an attack. He also said that work to counter the Islamist threat in prisons was improving but warned that this was a difficult and complex area with no easy solutions. Nor was the ideal of rehabilitating terrorist prisoners and turning them away from extremism easy to achieve. He added that there is “no ideal way” to manage terrorist prisoners in custody because dispersing them around the prison network risked allowing them to radicalise others, whereas putting them in jail together brought the danger of letting them make new or stronger contacts with each other.

Q: Did he have anything to say about British foreign fighters or the forthcoming trial of the so-called Islamic State “Beatles” Alexanda Kotey and Elshafee El Sheikh ?

A: MI5 is not expecting its agents to have to give evidence in person to the trial of the Kotey and El Sheikh, Mr McCallum said, before declining to say whether he expected the pair would receive a longer sentence in the US than they might have if brought back to the UK for trial. He did disclose, however, that there remains a “significant cohort” of UK-linked Islamists who are still in Syria or who have moved on to other countries. He said MI5 gave ministers advice on a case by case basis about the national security threat that each would pose if ever allowed to return here.

Suspects: El Shafee el-Sheikh (L) and Alexanda Kotey (R) (Syrian Democratic Forces/AFP via)

Q: What about the Far-Right threat?

A: Mr McCallum said this was growing with eight out of 27 “late stage” terror plots foiled since 2017 involving Far Right terrorists. He said online radicalisation was one of the causes of the increasing problem with more young people being drawn into Far Right extremism. He added that some were drawing inspiration from Right wing extremists in the US and elsewhere overseas, but that these connections were not “structured” and coordinated in the same way as Islamist terror activity could be. He also said that while the Far Right terrorism now outstripped the Islamist threat in Germany, the same was not the case here.

Q: Did he make other interesting points?

A: Yes, he said that there was a strong case for updating legislation in this country to bring in measures akin to the US registration of foreign agents law. He said the reason for this was that while existing British law made it possible to bring charges over espionage intended to steal state secrets, it was not adequately designed to enable prosecutions or attempts to plunder commercial secrets or to exert “covert influence” on democracy.

Q: Anything else?

A: Mr McCallum said the Black Lives Matter campaign this year had had a significant impact inside MI5 and increased its commitment to becoming more diverse. He said progress had already been made since he joined MI5 in the 1990s, when it had never had a senior black leader, but that the organisation was still “not yet as diverse at senior levels as we would wish to be.”

He added that there had been “deep and searching conversations” with staff coming forward to report “outright racist behaviour within the organisation” in the past and that he wanted “our own people to keep holding us to account on this.”