British spies are risking their lives daily in Islamic State heartlands to “take the fight to the enemy,” the head of MI6 said recently. Alex Younger stressed agents recruited by the Secret Intelligence Service had penetrated IS “upstream” to stop terror attacks on Britain’s streets.
But in his first public speech, the SIS chief laid bare the perils these individuals faced operating in “the most dangerous and hostile environments on earth”, where paranoid IS fanatics have executed hundreds of people wrongly suspected of being spies. Speaking at MI6 headquarters in Vauxhall, central London (pictured) Mr. Younger, known as “C”, said:
“They know that the result of being identified as an MI6 agent could be their death. “But they do what they do because they believe in protecting their country and religion from the evil that Daesh (Islamic State) and other, terrorist organisations represent.” He told how MI6 and GCHQ intelligence had on “numerous occasions” given MI5 and the police vital information to identify and stop threats in the UK and its allies. They had disrupted 12 terrorist plots in the UK since June 2013.
In a wide-ranging address, Mr. Younger also: Accused Russia and Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad’s regime of seeking to “make a desert” of Aleppo and to “call it peace”. And warned Moscow that it was committing a “tragic example of the perils of forfeiting legitimacy” in the battle against terrorism. He highlighted the “increasingly dangerous phenomenon” of hybrid warfare with states using cyber-attacks, propaganda or the subversion of democratic process, though he stopped short of naming Russia or China in this context.
He also stressed the strength of intelligence ties with the US and “quality work” with European allies, particularly France and Germany, and expects “continuity” after Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as president. And explained that mastering new technologies was key to MI6 remaining at the cutting edge of intelligence gathering. Described the data revolution and Internet as an “existential threat combined with a golden opportunity” for intelligence services. Emphasised that “we need to be as fleet of foot on the highways and byways of cyberspace as we are on the streets of Raqqa”. Made the case for new IT powers to spy on terror suspects while stressing restrictions to protect civil liberties.
Told how MI6 wants to recruit the “best from the widest range of backgrounds”, partly to avoid “group think”. Describing James Bond’s “fierce dedication to the defence of Britain” as reflecting real-life MI6, but said the fictional character would have to “change his ways” to join it now.
Warning of the dangers of failed states providing a safe haven for terrorists, Mr. Younger spoke out against Britain simply trying to “pull up the draw bridge” in the hope of preventing terror attacks. “We need to take the fight to the enemy, penetrating terrorist organisations ‘upstream’,” he added. “By that I mean as close to the source as possible. In foot balling terms, it’s about always ensuring you are playing in the opponent’s half…The emphasis now is not just on finding things out, but on taking action against what we find.” British intelligence has proved vital in the military advances against IS strongholds in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul in Iraq. Agents recruited were not normally MI6 staff members or British but the latter were also deployed to “some of the most challenging locations imaginable”.
But Mr. Younger, who led MI6’s work on counter-terrorism ahead of the London Olympics, also argued that “ultimate protection” lies in values. “If you doubt the link between legitimacy and effective counter-terrorism, then, albeit negatively, the unfolding tragedy in Syria will, I fear, provide proof. “I believe the Russian conduct in Syria, allied with that of Assad’s discredited regime, will, if they do not change course, provide a tragic example of the perils of forfeiting legitimacy,” he explained. “In defining as a terrorist anyone who opposes a brutal government, they alienate precisely that group that has to be on side if the extremists are to be defeated.” He believes the IS terror threat will not be neutered unless the civil war raging in Syria ends.
While counter-terrorism represented the “urgent” problem, he argued that the “important” longer-term one was the “preservation of Britain’s capacity to take the right decisions in an increasingly complex, multi-polar and opaque” international order. This strand of MI6’s work had “taken on a new edge” in combating the “increasingly dangerous phenomenon” of hybrid warfare. While not mentioning claims that Russia sought to interfere in the US elections, he added: “The connectivity that is at the heart of globalisation can be exploited by states with hostile intent to further their aims deniably. “They do this through means as varied as cyber-attacks, propaganda or subversion of democratic process.” The risks at stake were profound and represented a fundamental threat British sovereignty, he added.