MI5 is having to protect research into a coronavirus vaccine from interference by saboteurs, Britain’s top spy revealed today as he warned that the country is facing a “nasty mix” of threats from terrorists and growing danger from hostile states.
Ken McCallum said there were also increasing threats to democracy from foreign intelligence services with rising “online disinformation, hack-and-leak, attempted covert influencing of political figures” taking place.
He added that MI5 would strive to counter such attempted “hidden foreign influence” in our politics and would mount investigations “without fear or favour” when necessary.
Mr McCallum, who took over as MI5’s director general earlier this year, said other dangers included the continued menace posed by “tens of thousands of individuals” committed to Islamist terrorist ideology and a growing number of Far-Right terror plotters.
He also warned of a continuing need to be “grinding away” at “rejectionist terrorist groups” in Northern Ireland that were still seeking to undermine peace.
But he said that the biggest impact on MI5’s work in recent months had been the coronavirus pandemic which had altered the way in which spies had to operate and brought a “particularly intense phase” of new challenges as terrorists looked for different targets and covert surveillance on empty streets became more difficult.
“We face a nasty mix – terrorism isn’t going away, and State-backed hostile activity is on the rise,” Mr McCallum said as he took part in an online question and answer session with the media today in his first public appearance since his appointment. “Those threats are becoming more diverse and in some ways more difficult to spot.”
“For MI5 just like everyone else, 2020 has been dominated by the pandemic. We’ve sought where we can to help on Covid itself – advising on the safe construction of Nightingale Hospitals; repurposing research originally done on toxic chemicals to help understand how Covid in droplets might disperse in certain environments; offering our skills in data analytics and modelling; simply allowing medically-qualified MI5 officers to step away from their duties here and directly support our NHS. And, crucially, on the vaccine, we’ve been working to protect the integrity of UK research.”
He added “The big shifts in everyone’s lives – reduced travel, more online, and the rest – mean shifts in how our adversaries are operating. Fewer crowds mean terrorists look at different targets; online living means more opportunities for cyber hackers; and so on. Equally, you wouldn’t expect me to get into detail, but common sense will tell you that covert surveillance is not straightforward on near-empty streets.”
Mr McCallum said that Islamist terrorism remained the biggest threat and that MI5 was having to “continually scan” for those “mobilising towards attacks”.
But he said that the menace from Far-Right terrorists was rising, accounting for eight of 27 “late stage” plots foiled in this country since 2017 even though the danger was not “on the same scale as Islamist extremist terrorism”.
On the threat from hostile states, Mr McCallum said this was “one of the toughest challenges facing MI5” as the “differing national security challenges presented by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other actors are growing in severity and in complexity”.
He said our spies’ task included protecting against the threat of assassinations, citing the case the threat of the Russian dissident Alex Navalny who recently survived a poisoning, and defending democracy against interference.
He went on: “MI5 has dealt across generations with attempts by foreign intelligence services to influence UK political life. But with the range of activity spreading – online disinformation, hack-and-leak, attempted covert influencing of political figures – this part of our work is growing.”
Mr McCallum emphasised that MI5 was also determined to learn lessons from previous successful attacks, including that on the Manchester Arena in 2017, which is currently the subject of an ongoing public inquiry, to stop future atrocities.
Hear more on today’s Leader podcast:
“We keep striving to find new ways to increase our chances of stopping future atrocities. We absolutely recognise that this constant push is no real consolation to those who have lost loved ones in past attacks. But we all come to work every day determined to do everything in our power to stop awful things happening.”