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Bringing Intelligence into the Light

Commentary, 9 January 2009
Intelligence, Terrorism, Europe
In the first public interview ever given by a serving Director General of MI5, Jonathan Evans claims that the high number of prosecutions of suspected terrorists has ‘chilled’ the enthusiasm of terror networks. Although the UK is making headway against the terrorist networks within its own borders, the long-term fight against terrorism will be won by upholding liberal democratic values rather than adopting the Guantanamo approach.

In the first public interview ever given by a serving Director General of MI5, Jonathan Evans claims that the high number of prosecutions of suspected terrorists has ‘chilled’ the enthusiasm of terror networks. Although the UK is making headway against the terrorist networks within its own borders, the long-term fight against terrorism will be won by upholding liberal democratic values rather than adopting the Guantanamo approach.

By Dr Tobias Feakin, Director, National Security and Resilience Department

Watch Tobias Feakin comment on this subject on Channel 4 News

On Monday 5 January 2009 the Director General of MI5 Jonathan Evans took the unprecedented step of inviting most of the country’s major newspapers into his headquarters at Thames House to give interviews. This is the first time in MI5’s one hundred-year history that a Director General has given a press interview while still in active service. Indeed, it is in co-ordination with the Security Service’s centenary this year that such a step has been taken. What is the significance of this in itself and, indeed, what are we to make of what was said during the interview?

It should come as no surprise to observers that Mr. Evans took the step of giving a public interview. Since his arrival at MI5 in April 2007, he has strived to modernise the Service and ‘de-mystify’ some of its traditionally closed areas of work. Although no operational details as to how the Service conducts its activities have been provided, an effort has been made to create more transparency, providing information on the types of work its agents carry out, why they do it, as well as their assessments of the threats the nation faces.

MI5 has undergone a great deal of institutional change since Evans took the helm. Personnel levels will soon be twice what they were prior to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and those personnel are being recruited from a vastly more diverse pool of ethnicities and social backgrounds to help deal with the modern threats the UK currently faces. Gone are the days of additions to the service being plucked from Oxbridge; a modern era beckons, in which MI5 has to be representative of the population it serves. Furthermore, it has to be technologically savvy enough to keep up with those it hopes to stop from conducting acts of terror.

In particular, it was good to hear, if a little belatedly, a government official making a public statement on the relative success in the number of prosecutions that are being upheld in the courts - more than eighty in the last two years.

‘There have been eighty-six successful convictions since January 2007’, says Evans, ‘of whom approaching half pleaded guilty, which has had a chilling effect on the enthusiasm of the networks. They’re keeping their heads down’. Will this, however, constitute as much success as he suggests?

In the battle for hearts and minds, more should be made of the fact that the fight against terrorism will be won through the long-term approach of upholding liberal democratic values such as the right to trial, rather than taking the Guantanamo approach, which has proven to be more than counterproductive.

Unfortunately, it will only take one successful plot to unfold for failure to loom large, and the relative successes of the past year to be forgotten.

What are we to make of some of the other elements to the interview? Most interesting, in the current climate of economic gloom, was his reference to the idea that the recession could impact upon the security of the nation, though he did not expand beyond suggesting that MI5 was examining some of the potential outcomes of 'the West' becoming less economically dominant in the future.

Al-Qa’ida have long had a tendency to attack targets using low cost methodologies that create the largest economic impact possible. It would seem logical that targets of extreme economic importance will become even more valuable to terrorists in countries experiencing economic trouble, including the UK. Examining the security plans and arrangements around such places should therefore become more important.

Weak and fragile states such as Somalia, Pakistan and Sudan have in the past and present provided fertile territories for terrorist training and attack planning activities. Imagine the number of countries that could become ‘weak and fragile’ or, worse still, completely ungovernable, as the economic downturn truly takes hold. This could lead to any number of developing, or already fragile countries becoming easy targets for terrorist groups to use as bases to operate and train in the future.

One immediate impact of the economic downturn would be on the already active world of industrial espionage. One of MI5’s key activities is to assist in safeguarding the economic wellbeing of the UK. With increasing competition for economic resources, incidences of ‘foul play’ both by state and non-state actors will undoubtedly increase, and this will directly have a bearing upon MI5’s duties in the coming years.

However, this is gazing into the ‘crystal ball’ of future threats, and what should be of concern to most is the here and now. The UK has not suffered an entirely successful terrorist attack since the 2005 London bombings. Though there have been efforts to attack once more, these have largely been thwarted, though not always by careful counter-terrorist work by our Police and Security Service: luck has often played a role too.

Unfortunately for Jonathan Evans, the work of MI5 in stopping and disrupting terrorist activity will often go unreported, as is the nature of intelligence work. It would seem that we can, to a degree, accept his sentiment that the UK is making headway against the terrorist networks within its own borders, and that relative successes in the fight against terrorism should be emphasised.

More: Dr Tobias Feakin comment on Channel 4 News

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Author

Dr Tobias Feakin
Senior Associate Fellow

Dr Tobias Feakin is Australia's inaugural Ambassador for Cyber Affairs. He leads Australia's whole of government international... read more

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