Secure or not secure? UK security in 2020

The scale of the threat
First, however, key incidents over the past year or so demonstrate beyond any question that the UK faces major national security threats (officially described currently as ‘substantial’ rather than ‘severe’, a change made, somewhat fatefully just before the second Islamist attack at London Bridge at the end of November 2019). They emanate from internal and external sources, from home-grown and foreign actors, from domestic subversive organisations as well as state actors, in particular (as our intelligence chiefs state publicly) Russia (responsible for the attack on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in early 2018, Iran and China albeit all behaving differently when it comes to killings in the UK but in similar ways where digital subversive activity is concerned.

What we can see at once is that foreign states impact gravely on our national security coming at us from outside our own borders, not least (but also not only) in cyber space. In the case of Russia, its intelligence officers feel entitled to come to our shores and assassinate their targets over here (the Salisbury attack is but one in a long and depressing series over the past decade). At a stroke it becomes plain that to counter this, our foreign intelligence service, SIS, is as much part of the picture as our domestic one, MI5 and why it is that both must work intimately with our cyber intelligence agency, GCHQ and with the counter-terror police.

But we are not talking only about states. Sub-state networks and individuals from home and abroad, both Islamist and neo-Nazi, represent real threats to our national security. In today’s global environment, linked by digital highways by electronic media, an evil individual in one country can be inspired to murder and maim by real-time video shots of killings by another individual whom they do not know on the other side of the world. The neo-Nazi ideology (grounded in Fascist Hitler worship) is as dangerous as (if mercifully less widespread) than Islamist ideology (grounded in a cult of violence and killing).

The message for the new inter-connected decade is all current threats exist in a domestic and foreign context, and all are international and transnational in all key respects. ‘Home and abroad’ have lost all meaning in this sphere.

In January 2020 a 17-year-old man (who cannot be named) was jailed for six years for planning a neo-Nazi terror attack in Durham which included setting fire to synagogues. He was inspired by Anders Breivik the Norwegian neo-Nazi who murdered 77 people in 2011, and was obsessed with the history of the Third Reich. Just a few weeks earlier, at the end of November 2019, a British Muslim, Usman Khan, killed two on London Bridge. Khan had been jailed in 2012 for being a member of a nine-man Al Qaeda group (inspired by Osama Bin Laden) that had planned to bomb the Stock Exchange (this followed the 2017 London Bridge attack in which five victims and three attackers died).

Beyond our shores, a lone Islamist attacker in Paris killed one person and wounded another almost exactly five years after the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine when two Islamist brothers killed twelve, itself preceded by the Bataclan attack two years earlier that had killed 60 in Paris.

In the Autumn of 2019, Germany had to confront the murder of two people at a synagogue in Halle, eastern Germany by a neo-Nazi gunman whilst the trial began in Chemnitz, also in eastern Germany of eight neo-Nazis who were planning a rampage in Berlin. In Hungary, a neo-Nazi mob attacked a Jewish centre in Budapest.

It is not surprising that we were told (in May 2019) by the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid and the UK’s counter-terror chief, Neil Basu, that ‘the tempo of terror attacks is increasing’, that in the period 2017-19 nineteen major attacks had been thwarted, of which fourteen were Islamist and five neo-Nazi. Just two years earlier, Sir Andrew Parker the director general of MI5 stated that 20 terror attacks had been foiled in the previous four years, many through ‘early intervention’ and that 379 terror related arrests had been in the same period.  He added that seven attacks had been disrupted in the previous seven months, of which four had been Islamist and one neo-Nazi. 3,000 individuals were being investigated in 500 ‘live’ operations at that time. Noting that ‘terror breeds terror’ Parker concluded that this was a ‘scale and pace we have not seen before’ and that this was a ‘long haul for the UK’.

Various estimates suggest there are from 23,000-35,000 potential jihadists in the UK; some 30,000 European Muslims travelled to fight for the so-called Islamic State (of whom 5-6,000 came from the UK, of these some 30 per cent had returned to the UK; yet only 25 per cent of the returnees were investigated and a handful restrained in some way).

Whilst it would be right to point out that, individually, none of these terror attacks resulted in large-scale deaths and even more important to emphasise that the vast majority of terror attacks in Europe were successfully disrupted by security forces before they could be launched, it is equally correct to highlight the fact that terror attacks, from Islamists and neo-Nazis are rapidly becoming established as serious national security threats across Europe.

Small wonder then that the UK’s key current and former security heads (of MI5, SIS and GCHQ) have made speeches since Brexit stressing the importance of transnational cooperation and the need to re-create existing EU tools after 2021 precisely because they are convinced they are needed. Even Sajid Javid (by this stage an ardent Brexiter) made it clear in his May 2019 speech that ‘whatever the outcome from Brexit we will continue to work together with partners’ adding that ‘in the event of a no-deal Brexit the UK and Germany would intensify cooperation and swiftly conclude any necessary bilateral security arrangements’.


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