Alex Younger, known as “C”, Chief of UK Secret Intelligence Service. Photo by SIS

MI6 Chief Warns Russia and Others: ‘Do Not Underestimate Us’

Alex Younger, Chief of MI6, known as ‘C’, addressed students at St Andrews University on December 3, as an alumnus of the university. In a rare public address, only his second public speech in his four years as C of the Secret Intelligence Service, he covered a range of subjects, including the need for ‘fourth generation espionage’ in response to the emergence of hybrid threats, and MI6’s role in disrupting of terrorist attacks and countering the threat from nation states. He spoke of the strengthening of security ties in Europe and MI6’s commitment to UK’s law and values. Underpinning the speech was his message to the next generation of recruits he wants to join his organisation.

C described MI6’s mission, and the fundamental need for human intelligence in the era of artificial intelligence. He described the impact of exponential technological change, and the blurring of boundaries traditionally relied upon for our security. He was clear that adversaries are willing to explore ambiguity, and able to take advantage of the blurred line between the cyber and physical worlds, to probe UK institutions and defences in ways that fall short of traditional warfare, but that the UK is well-equipped to counter.

C described how MI6 and intelligence agencies are evolving a fourth generation espionage to meet the threats of the hybrid age:

“The era of the fourth industrial revolution calls for a fourth generation espionage: fusing our traditional human skills with accelerated innovation, new partnerships and a mind-set that mobilises diversity and empowers the young.”

He reflected on the persistent and evolving threat from terrorism to the UK, and outlined the work of MI6 overseas to disrupt terrorist threats lawfully through partnerships. He said that MI6 and partner agencies have disrupted multiple Daesh attack plans originating overseas. This included important contributions to helping European allies prevent terrorist attacks.

We did not respond to this flagrant hostile act by emulating Russian tactics. Instead, we operationalised our values, our legal system, and our alliances.

Speaking of the Salisbury nerve agent attack, C said “we exposed the perpetrators and coordinated the largest ever collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from NATO and partner states, significantly degrading Russian intelligence capability.

“When faced by these kinds of attacks, our approach with our allies is to seek to attach a cost to the behaviour. Our intention is for the Russian state to conclude that, whatever benefits it thinks it is accruing from this activity, they are not worth the risk.

“We will do this in our way, according to our laws, and our values. We will be successful nonetheless, and I urge Russia or any other state intent on subverting our way of life not to underestimate our determination and our capabilities, or those of our allies. We can do this to any opponent at any time.

But I should emphasise that even as the Russian state seeks to destabilise us, we do not seek to destabilise Russia. We do not seek an escalation. If we see a change in Russian behaviour, we will respond positively. But we will be implacable in defence of our people and our vital interests.”

C discussed how MI6 will continue to work with partner agencies to strengthen indispensable security ties in Europe, and reminded Europe that the cooperation works both ways.

“Since my last speech, we and our sister agencies have disrupted multiple serious Daesh attack plans originating overseas that, if successful, would have caused significant loss of life. This includes an important contribution to helping European countries, particularly our French and German allies, prevent terrorist attacks in their countries or against their citizens.”

Finally, C spoke on the need for diversity in MI6, to ensure operational effectiveness, and encouraged people across the UK, to consider joining MI6:

“I want to speak to young people who have never seen themselves in MI6… it doesn’t matter where you are from. If you want to make a difference, and you think you have what it takes, then the chances are that you do have what it takes, and we hope you will step forward.”

Watch the speech here

Kylie Bull has 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. She is an editor and contributor for Jane's by IHS Markit, a columnist for security and counter-terror publications, and a former managing editor for Homeland Security Today.

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