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MI5’s assessment of the terrorist threat in the UK

Commentary, 13 November 2006
Domestic Security, Intelligence, Terrorism, Europe
Has the MI5 chief's warning on 9 November updated our appreciation of the the terror threat in the UK?

In her first public speech since the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, Director General of MI5, has spoken of the increased terrorist threat to the UK.  Her words come during a period in which we have been told by Peter Clarke, Head of Scotland Yard’s Anti Terrorism Unit, that there are ‘thousands’ of individuals involved in terrorist activities in this country. Furthermore, the Home Secretary informed us that there are twenty-four active terrorist ‘plots’ against the UK. Is the presentation of these figures an effort to give the country a more accurate illustration of the security landscape so that we can understand the limitations of intelligence and prepare for any future atrocities? Or, are they merely an additional group of numbers to add to an already fragmented picture of the UK terrorist threat?   

Whilst the media have focused on the ‘eye-catching’ numbers of plots and individuals involved in terrorism, the speech given by Dame Manningham-Buller was well balanced, measured, distinctly apolitical and wide-ranging across the panorama of the current terrorist/counter-terrorist effort.  What are we to make of these assertions which the press are labelling as ‘chilling’ and a ‘stark public warning’?  Firstly, there is no doubting the significance of the Head of MI5 speaking publicly about the level of the terrorist threat faced by the UK.  For an organization usually shrouded in secrecy, and which carries the brunt of responsibility for the UK’s fight against terrorism, Dame Manningham-Buller’s announcement is poignant.  If anyone should understand the full security picture in the UK, it is her.  Therefore, the fact that there are around  thirty plots to ‘kill people and to damage our economy’ is of grave concern. MI5 officers and police having to contend with some ‘200 groupings or networks, totalling over 1600 identified individuals who are actively engaged in plotting, or facilitating, terrorist acts here and overseas’ adds to a somewhat alarming picture.  However, what these figures lack is a context upon which to base analysis.  How many of the 1600 individuals represent a potent terrorist threat?  Or, indeed, how many are considered to be of ‘low risk’?  Obviously, for reasons of operational and national security it is not possible to know the full meaning of these numbers. Yet we should temper our fear of these statistics by not taking them at purely face value.

In 2005 a leaked Home Office and Foreign Office dossier entitled Young Muslims and extremism, it was estimated that the number of British Muslims who were actively engaged in terrorist activity to be ‘extremely small and estimated at less than one per cent’. This is a particularly inaccurate representation of the figures, but this would equate to somewhere in the region of 16,000 British Muslims involved in extremist activity.  Therefore, are we to understand that the number of British Muslims involved in terrorist activity has decreased since 2005, or is it a matter of UK government departments not communicating with each other to establish an authoritative understanding of the threat we face.  If, as a nation, we are to effectively combat terrorism there is a requirement that government departments share information so that an accurate intelligence package can be formulated. 

Conversely, the fact that we are facing 'thirty plots’ at present would indicate that there is a higher degree of organisation within the terrorist networks in the UK.  For there to be so many plots of a serious nature being carried out by what is ostensibly a low number of people, it would indicate that their methods are becoming increasingly sophisticated.  What is more concerning though is that these figures are representative of the plots that MI5 know about, there are of course going to be more of which our security service knows little or nothing about.

In a speech given at RUSI on 9 November 2006, Margaret Beckett called for the ‘moderate majority’ of citizens who are against violence to rise up and reclaim our society, values and way of life from extremists.  If this is to be achieved, then it is important that we know and understand the threat we face.  Dame Manningham-Buller’s speech went some way to enhance this understanding, however, it is for wider society to ‘rise-up’ and act upon information that they may have regarding extremists within society to assist in the fight against terrorism in the UK.


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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