The new chief of the MI5 Ken McCallum directly specified “the differing national security challenges presented by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other actors” were “growing in severity and in complexity – while terrorist threats persist at scale”…reports Hitesh Tikoo
The new chief of the MI5, the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, has said that spy threats posed by Russia and China against the country were “growing in severity and complexity”, while the terror threats from the Islamic State (IS) and the far right “persists at scale”.
In his first speech since he was announced as the new MI5 Director General at the end of March, Ken McCallum focused on risks from hostile states, including undermining “the integrity of UK research” on a Covid-19 vaccine.
McCallum said the UK faced threats “up to and including assassinations, as the (Russian opposition figure) Alexei Navalny poisoning reminds us; threats to our economy, our academic research, our infrastructure and, much discussed, threats to our democracy”.
He directly specified “the differing national security challenges presented by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other actors” were “growing in severity and in complexity – while terrorist threats persist at scale”.
The intelligence agency, whose work has been dominated by counter-terrorism in the past two decades, said in its last update that it had thwarted 27 terrorist plots in the past four years, including eight from the far right.
McCallum said the threat posed by the far right was “sadly rising” and that the agency was concerned about young people being attracted to far-right thinking “which does tend to suggest this threat will be with us for some years to come”.
But the MI5 boss said that, unlike with Islamist terrorism, the far right remained fragmented.
“We’re not yet seeing a coherent global movement, we don’t see the same kind of thing we’ve previously seen with Al Qaeda or IS,” he added, although the agency remained alive to the possibility the far right could become “more structured and coherent”.
However, some in Westminster have argued that the agency needs to refocus on countering Russia and China.
Over the summer, parliament’s watchdog intelligence and security committee accused the spy agencies of “taking their eye off the ball” when it came to Russian activities in the UK.
In July, Security Minister James Brokenshire had said that the UK was “more than 95 per cent” sure that Russian state-sponsored hackers targeted the UK, US and Canadian organisations involved in developing a Covid-19 vaccine.
Referring to that, McCallum said MI5 was watching out for “attempts to steal unique intellectual property” or in some way “interfere with what is happening”.
The changing threat includes claims that China tried to spy on the European Union (EU) by targeting a former MI6 officer, Fraser Cameron, who allegedly sold classified information to Chinese undercover operatives.
Cameron had denied the allegations.
China, McCallum added, was beginning to engage in an “interference in politics”.
However, McCallum said the UK needed to proceed carefully on China because of the economic impact of total disengagement.
He said the UK needed “a broad conversation across government and, crucially, beyond, to reach wise judgments around how the UK interacts with China on both opportunities and risks”.
McCallum said the Black Lives Matter protests, which swept across the UK after the death of the African-American man George Floyd in the US, had had an effect within MI5 and vowed to modernise the agency.
He pledged the domestic intelligence service would increase the number of minority ethnic people employed as analysts, agent runners and in other sensitive posts.