Ken McCallum (MI5)

MI5’s New Director General Warns of Increasing State-Backed Hostile Activity

MI5 Director General Ken McCallum has spoken about his top priorities and the current threat landscape in his first public address since taking up the role in April. He was formerly the Deputy Director General.

An MI5 officer with almost 25 years of experience across the full spectrum of the organization’s national security and intelligence work, McCallum’s first ten years concentrated on Northern Ireland-related terrorism, with his work contributing to the peace process remaining a career highlight. Senior operational roles in countering Islamist extremist terrorism followed, and a period leading on cybersecurity, where he expanded MI5 engagement with the private sector. In 2012, he took charge of all counterterrorism investigations and risk management in the run-up to, and during, the London Olympics.

McCallum said in his address on October 14 that MI5’s counterterrorism activities will be focused on three main missions: Northern Ireland, Islamic extremism, and right wing extremism. While the Northern Ireland threat is currently not as severe as it once was, McCallum cautioned that a few rejectionist terrorist groups, without meaningful community backing, persist. “Our aim is ambitious: of course to get ahead of life-threatening plots – but then to go further, grinding away at the ability of those organizations to mount such plots in the first place. Working in close partnership with the police, we are making important progress, including in bringing terrorist leaders to justice.”

The threat from Islamic extremism remains the greatest threat to the U.K. “It is still the case that tens of thousands of individuals are committed to this ideology – and we must continually scan for the smaller numbers within that large group who at any given moment might be mobilising towards attacks,” McCallum said. “Having someone “on our radar” is not the same as having them under detailed real-time scrutiny. Difficult judgements of prioritization and risk must be made. That task has become sharper in recent years, as more terrorists have gone for basic attack methods requiring little preparation, meaning there are fewer clues for us to detect in advance – and less time to find those clues.”

Right wing terrorism continues to increase in the U.K. as it does in many other countries. MI5 operate entirely the same system for right wing terrorism as it does on Islamist extremist terrorism, with cases pursued by the same professionals, operating to the same thresholds, prioritized on the basis of threat and risk rather than ideology. “This threat is not, today, on the same scale as Islamist extremist terrorism. But it is growing: of the 27 late-stage terrorist attack plots in Great Britain disrupted by MI5 and Counter Terrorism Policing since 2017, 8 have been right wing extremist,” said McCallum.

McCallum spoke of a public inquiry and reviews into the Manchester attack in 2017 and the wider counterterrorism system. He added that MI5 will bring “determined focus” to any additional recommendations which emerge from the Inquiry. 

In addition to core counterterrorism efforts, MI5 also works to protect the U.K. from hostile activity by other nations. “It’s not just about spies and it’s not just about stealing state secrets. In 2020 we are defending against threats to people, up to and including assassinations as the Alexei Navalny poisoning reminds us; threats to our economy, our academic research, our infrastructure. And, much discussed, threats to our democracy,” McCallum said. “In the 2020s, one of the toughest challenges facing MI5 and indeed government is that the differing national security challenges presented by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other actors are growing in severity and in complexity – while terrorist threats persist at scale.”

The Director General said work is also increasing on defending democracy against attempts by foreign intelligence services to influence U.K. political life. Such attempts include online disinformation, hack-and-leak, and attempted covert influencing of political figures. “There are delicate lines to tread here. Responsibility for regulating U.K. elections rightly lies elsewhere; in a liberal democracy none of us want MI5 to be the arbiters of political fairness. But neither do we want hidden foreign influence in our politics.”

On China, McCallum said “we need expansive teamwork – a broad conversation across government and crucially beyond, to reach wise judgements around how the U.K. interacts with China on both opportunities and risks.”

McCallum said the future of the U.K.’s national security will be forged in the bringing together of different expertise and perspectives “from within and from well beyond the traditional security domain”. And he added that technology, while often a tool for terrorism, can also tilt the odds in MI5’s favor.

In closing, he said threats are becoming more diverse and in some ways more difficult to spot. “We face a nasty mix – terrorism isn’t going away, and State-backed hostile activity is on the rise. But let’s not make these people ten feet tall. Through hard experience, the U.K. has a mature national security system; MI5 is a capable member within a genuine team. That team includes, every day, support from individual members of the public.”

Read the full address at MI5

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Kylie Bielby has more than 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. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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