During testimony before the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament on Nov. 7, top British officials discussed the ongoing threat from al Qaeda and affiliated groups.
Sir John Sawers, the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, said the “biggest” threat to the UK is from terrorism, namely “al Qaeda and its many, many branches.”
Al Qaeda has been “emerging and forming and multiplying in a whole new range of countries, and of course that poses extra challenges, extra threats to us,” Sawers said. “There is no doubt that, especially over the last 12 months really, the threat has emerged.”
Sawers noted that more “British citizens have been killed overseas in 2013 than in the previous seven years combined.” He cited the January siege of the In Amenas natural gas facility in Algeria, as well as the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya in September, as evidence of the increasing threat. British citizens were killed in both incidents.
“There is no doubt at all that the threat is rising,” Sawers said.
“We do what we can to disrupt terrorist attacks overseas,” Sawers explained. “We foil a good number, but some of them get through and the threat overseas is getting greater.”
Andrew Parker, the Director General of the Security Service, or MI5, described how the threat from al Qaeda has evolved over time. After 9/11, Parker explained, there was an almost “monolithic” terrorist threat emanating from South Asia. In the years that followed, the threat has “spread out.”
“I want to be clear,” Parker said, “this diversification of threat is not a shift or a displacement from one area to another.” Instead, according to Parker, it is “the growth of the al Qaeda phenomenon” across Africa, Yemen, and Syria.
34 terror plots since 7/7 bombings
Parker said that there have been 34 terrorist plots in Britain since the July 7, 2005 bombings in London and “the vast majority” of them “have been disrupted by active detection and intervention by the Agencies and the police.” One or two failed on their own, the MI5 head added.
The 34 plots, Parker said, include one or two “major plots aimed at mass casualty that have been attempted each year.”
The “vast majority of the plots come from people who live” in the UK, Parker said.
“There are several thousand individuals in this country who I would describe as supporting violent extremism or engaged in it in some way, that we are aware of,” Parker elaborated. “The terrorist plots that we have dealt with, over the years, have almost all come from amongst those people.”
The committee asked if these plots could be, therefore, described as “homegrown.” But Parker said this description is not helpful “because of the complex and rich links there are between the individuals I have talked about living here, and the al Qaeda groupings overseas.”
“In almost every instance,” Parker said, “there are those linkages” to al Qaeda groups abroad. As an example, Parker cited the 11 would-be terrorists arrested and convicted as part of Operation Examine, which tracked the cell’s members as they traveled back and forth to northern Pakistan for training from late 2010 through much of 2011. The cell planned attacks worse than the 7/7 bombings, Parker said.
Parker also does not see an increase in “lone wolf” plots as replacing the threat posed by spectacular attacks. Instead, in his view, lone wolves are “an added phenomenon, rather than a shift from one [kind of attack] to another.”
Syria and the threat from ‘terrorism tourism’
Committee members inquired about the threat from “terrorism tourism,” including British citizens who travel abroad for jihad and may return home to commit terrorist attacks.
This threat stream “has grown recently and is growing at the moment because of
Syria,” Parker said. “Syria has become a very attractive place for people to go.”
British officials “have seen low hundreds now of people from this country go to Syria for periods and come back, some large numbers still there, and get involved in fighting,” Parker explained.
Syria poses unique challenges because the British government has no local partner to lean on, MI6 head Sawers warned. “Our whole strategy to prevent terrorism here in this country is to break the links between extremists or potential extremists here and al Qaeda branches overseas,” Sawers said.
“We need a whole range of partnerships to achieve that,” Sawers added, but “Syria is peculiarly difficult, because it is such a powerful magnet … for Jihadists in this country, and because we have no partner there.”
Most of the hundreds of British citizens who have traveled to Syria to fight will not engage in violence upon their return, Parker said, but some may pose a threat. Parker also said that the British security service is monitoring recruiters who are sending new jihadists off to fight in Syria.
British officials are not the only ones to express alarm in recent weeks over al Qaeda’s growing presence in Iraq and Syria. A senior Obama administration official told reporters in late October that al Qaeda’s presence in the two countries constitutes a “transnational threat.” [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Syria a ‘transnational threat’.]
Note: All quotes in this article were taken from the uncorrected transcript of evidence published by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.