UK spies point to more diverse terror threats

The trouble with reporting on the activities of the security and intelligence agencies, or on any matter dealing with national security, is that by definition it is difficult to establish the veracity of what they claim, especially when they press for more money.

There seems no doubt, however, as Theresa May, and Charles Farr, her senior counter terrorist adviser at the Home Office, emphasised earlier this week, that threats to Britain's security are getting more diverse, and therefore more difficult to pursue.

The government's latest annual report on CONTEST, the name given to its counter terrorism strategy, referred to al-Qaida affiliates operating in ungoverned, or badly governed, spaces in northern Africa, from Somalia to the east and Mali and Nigeria to the west.

It referred to Syria where anonymous security sources were quoted as saying up to 100 British-based jihadists had gone to fight. "As and when UK residents return here there is a risk that they may carry out attacks using the skills that they have developed overseas", said the CONTEST report.

Sir Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5 who is to retire in April, wisely said last year: "We will have to manage the short-term risks if there is to be a longer-term reward from the Arab Spring."

He added for good measure: "In back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country, there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here."

Farr, a former senior MI6 officer, told journalists on Tuesday: "We're in a potentially key moment. The threat has dispersed and diversified to the point where it might require more resources because we're having to spread those resources across a wider geographical area".

Kidnapping for ransom, added the CONTEST report, has become an "increasingly common terrorist tactic". And the threat of a biological attack had now to be taken seriously. "Biological attacks are easier than those involving other forms of weapons of mass destruction," Farr said. He added that university science departments held materials that were essential for academic research but could also be used in mass impact attacks. There had been routine "chatter" by jihadist groups on internet sites relating to such attacks for many years.

So the security services and the emergency services, and the military, are stepping up contingency plans, and increasing the stock of medical supplies, to deal with an attack from a biological "weapon". They are also developing capabilities "to deal with terrorist attacks that use firearms" — a reference to the shootings in Mumbai in November 2008 which left more than hundred dead.

Then on Wednesday, the government announced that a new initiative to counter cyber attacks. Large screens at what is called a "fusion cell" at a secret location in London will monitor attacks and provide details in real-time of who is being targeted.

Some 160 companies — mainly in the finance, defence, energy, telecommunications and pharmaceuticals sectors - will cooperate in a Cyber Security Information Sharing Partnership (CISP) . Information about attacks will be shared in what officials describe as "a secure Facebook [group] for cyber threats".

Evans last year described the extent of cyber attacks on British interests as "astonishing – with industrial-scale processes involving many thousands of people lying behind both State sponsored cyber espionage and organised cyber crime".

We are never short of threats. The question is how to analyse them, to judge, and manage risks, and set out priorities.

Earlier this month, the US top intelligence official, James Clapper warned Congress that a major cyber attack on his country could cripple the country's infrastructure and economy.

According to the New York Times, he suggested that cyber attacks now posed the most dangerous immediate threat to the US, more even than an attack by global terrorist networks.

MI5, MI6, and GCHQ — which is badly in need of recruits aware of what's going on in cyberspace — have had their budgets increased substantially since the 9/11 attacks on the US twelve years ago.

The parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee's said in its last annual report that GCHQ's difficulties retaining internet specialists was a matter of grave concern.

Yet GCHQ also estimated that approximately 80% of successful cyber attacks could be thwarted by simple computer and network "hygiene".

The combined annual budget of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ is officially put at nearly £2bn. We are not told how this is distributed, and cannot tell whether it is too little or, indeed, too much.



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