There is “no doubt” that events in Afghanistan will have “heartened and emboldened” extremists, the boss of MI5 said as he warned of the potential return of “al Qaida-style” terrorist plots.
Director-general Ken McCallum said that, although the Government has pledged to judge the Taliban by their actions, the UK security service and its partners will plan for the chance that “more risk, progressively, may flow our way”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is no doubt that events in Afghanistan will have heartened and emboldened some of those extremists and so being vigilant to precisely those kinds of risks (is what) my organisation is focused on along with a range of other threats.”
While “inspired” acts of terrorism are “by volume” the largest number of threats that MI5 and their partners face in the UK, Mr McCallum also warned of the “potential regrowth of al Qaida-style directed plots”.
He said that although more directed plots from terrorist organisations take time to organise and carry out, psychological boosts for their causes can happen “overnight”.
“Terrorist threats tend not to change overnight in the sense of directed plotting or training camps or infrastructure – the sorts of things that al Qaida enjoyed in Afghanistan at the time of 9/11.
“These things do inherently take time to build, and the 20-year effort to reduce the terrorist threat from Afghanistan has been largely successful.
“But what does happen overnight, even though those directed plots and centrally organised bits of terrorism take a bit longer to rebuild… overnight, you can have a psychological boost, a morale boost to extremists already here, or in other countries.
“So we need to be vigilant both for the increase in inspired terrorism which has become a real trend for us to deal with over the last five to 10 years, alongside the potential regrowth of al Qaida-style directed plots,” Mr McCallum said.
His comments follow warnings he made during his annual address in July that terrorists will “seek to take advantage” of chances to “rebuild” as troops withdraw from Afghanistan, suggesting it could be “challenging” to disrupt potential threats without “having our own forces on the ground”.
Almost 20 years on from the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, Mr McCallum said it was “difficult to give a simplistic answer” as to whether the UK was safer, or less safe now from the threat of terrorism since 2001.
He said a consequence of the success of reducing large-scale terror events had been the growth of “inspired terrorism”. The so-called Islamic State had “managed to do something that al Qaida did not” in inspiring lots of people to attempt smaller scale acts of terrorism through online grooming.
“The number of plots that we disrupt nowadays are actually higher than the number of plots that were coming at us after 9/11, but on average they are smaller plots of lower sophistication,” Mr McCallum added.
He warned the threat of terrorism in the UK remains “a real and enduring thing”, describing how security services and police had disrupted 31 late-stage attack plots in Britain in the last four years.
Over the past two years during the coronavirus pandemic, six late-stage attack plots have been disrupted, he added, as he warned it would be “reckless” of him to claim that a terror attack would not happen on UK soil “on his watch”.
But he insisted those at MI5 “spend our lives” working to mitigate such threats.
One of the hardest things about being the boss of MI5 is the “prioritisation” of threats, Mr McCallum said, adding: “While we have, I can confidently say, saved thousands of lives across the last 20 years, we cannot always succeed.”