The head of MI5 has warned of an unpredictable terror threat that means Britain will face at least one attempted major attack every year for the coming years.
Andrew Parker, the director general of the UK Security Service, made his first speech since taking over the role in April at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall.
The head of the UK Security Services said the terrorist threat to the UK is now “more complicated” and “more unpredictable”. He pointed out that Britain has faced one or two major terrorist attempts every year since 2000 and that is unlikely to change over the coming years.
Parker warned that there are thousands of Islamic extremists that see the UK and its citizens as a target for attacks, and there is a growing terror threat coming out of Syria.
He said: “It remains the case that there are several thousand Islamist extremists here who see the British people as a legitimate target.”
“Al Qaida and its affiliates in South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula present the most direct and immediate threats to the UK,” Parker added.
“For the future, there is good reason to be concerned about Syria. A growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have travelled to fight there or who aspire to do so. Al Nusrah and other extremist Sunni groups there aligned with Al Qaida aspire to attack Western countries.”
Parker revealed that 330 people have been convicted of terrorism-related offences in Britain between 11 September 2011 and the end of March this year. At the end of that period 121 were in prison, nearly three-quarters of which were British.
He recounted there were four major trials related to terrorist plots in the first few months of 2013, including a failed 7/7-style attack with rucksack bombs, two plots to kill soldiers and a failed attempt to attack an EDL march. There were guilty pleas in each case, said Parker, with a total of 24 terrorists convicted and sentenced to more than 260 years in jail.
In his speech, Parker explained the current terrorist threat facing the UK as the Security Services face dealing with an evolving type of threats. The plots outlined by Parker showed a changing type of attack, a shift from large Al Qaida-orchestrated plots to attacks carried out by smaller-scale groups.
“The ability of Al Qaida to launch the centrally directed large scale attacks of the last decade has been degraded, though not removed,” he said.
“We have seen the threat shift more to increasing numbers of smaller-scale attacks and a growing proportion of groups and individuals taking it upon themselves to commit acts of terrorism
“Overall, I do not believe the terrorist threat is worse now than before. But it is more diffuse. More complicated. More unpredictable.”
Parker stated how, since 7/7, MI5 have worked hard to identify as many people as possible who are in the UK and known to support some form of terrorism. He added there are several thousands of such individuals, with varying degrees of involvements. However, he warned the notion that MI5 can continually monitor every aspect of these individual’s lives is wide of the mark.
He added: “Knowing of an individual does not equate to knowing everything about them. Being on our radar does not necessarily mean being under our microscope. The reality of intelligence work in practice is that we only focus the most intense intrusive attention on a small number of cases at any one time.
“The challenge therefore concerns making choices between multiple and competing demands to give us the best chance of being in the right place at the right time to prevent terrorism.”