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MI6 Chief Reviews the Big Four Threats and Heralds Unprecedented Public-Private Partnerships

Richard Moore, Chief of the U.K. Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), has made his first public speech since taking up his role in October 2020. He talked about the seismic changes he sees in the world, specifically in the espionage environment. He discussed China, Russia and Iran, three of the “Big Four” priorities for the intelligence world. He also explained what the U.K. is doing to address the fourth priority – the amorphous, shape-shifting character of international terrorism.

MI6 has traditionally relied primarily on its own capabilities to develop world class technologies. But, as the MI6 Chief told the International Institute for Strategic Studies, mastering human intelligence in the digital age is a national security imperative, and it cannot be done alone. Moore spoke of partnering with the private sector to find new technologies to allow continued mastery of human intelligence in the digital age. 

China

Moore said that China’s power, and its willingness to assert it, is growing.

“The Chinese Intelligence Services are highly capable and continue to conduct large scale espionage operations against the U.K. and our allies. This includes targeting those working in government, industries, or on research of particular interest to the Chinese state. They also monitor and attempt to exercise undue influence over the Chinese diaspora. 

“Chinese intelligence officers seek to exploit the open nature of our society, including through the use of social media platforms to facilitate their operations. We are concerned by the Chinese government’s attempt to distort public discourse and political decision making across the globe.”

Moore added that Beijing’s growing military strength and the desire to resolve the Taiwan issue also pose a serious challenge to global stability and peace.  

“Beijing believes its own propaganda about Western frailties and underestimates Washington’s resolve.  The risk of Chinese miscalculation through over-confidence is real.

“The Chinese Communist Party brook no dissent. Beijing have eroded Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ framework, and removed individual rights and freedoms, in the name of national security. Its surveillance state has targeted the Uighur population in Xinjiang, carrying out widespread human rights abuses, including the arbitrary detention of an estimated 1 million Muslims. 

“Worryingly, these technologies of control and surveillance are increasingly being exported to other governments by China: expanding the web of authoritarian control around the planet.

“Adapting to a world affected by the rise of China is the single greatest priority for MI6. We are deepening our understanding of China across the U.K. Intelligence community, and widening the options available to the government in managing the systemic challenges that it poses. 

“This is not just about being able to understand China and Chinese decision making. We need to be able to operate undetected as a secret intelligence agency everywhere within the worldwide surveillance web.

“And we want other countries to be clear-eyed about the debt traps, data exposure and vulnerability to political coercion that arise from dependency on relationships where there is no recourse to an independent judiciary or free press.

“We will seek an overlapping set of partnerships with different countries and regions on these issues – making common cause on common concerns.”

Russia

Turning to Russia, Moore spoke of the threat from state-sanctioned attacks, interference in democratic processes, cyber intrusion and the use of political proxies to undermine stability.

“More often than not these Russian state activities are designed to be covert, or at least deniable. However, we are also seeing more brazen activity – often linked to the personal enrichment of elites around President Putin – the denial of which is increasingly implausible.”

The MI6 Chief said if Russia ceased its destabilising activity, more focus could be given to common threats, and Russian legitimate interests could be addressed through dialogue.  “That dialogue might reassure Russia that, as the Prime Minister noted in his recent Mansion House speech, we have no desire to be adversarial towards Russia, to undermine or encircle it.”

Iran

MI6 also remains actively focused on Iran. Moore said Hezbollah has grown to become a state within a state, contributing directly to state weakness and political turmoil in Lebanon. And Iran has repeated the model in Iraq, where Moore said it has exploited a fragile transition to democracy to seed the country with armed gangs who are undermining the state from within, murdering those who seek to uphold the law. 

He also warned of Iran’s cyber capabilities.

“Iran has also built up a substantial cyber capability which it has used against its regional rivals as well as countries in Europe and North America, and maintains an assassination programme which it uses against regime opponents. There are many parallels with the challenge that Russia poses, and it is no coincidence that the two countries have made common cause in Syria.”

International Terrorism

The fourth and final of the ‘Big Four’ challenges is the threat from international terrorism. 

“We retain an intense focus on developing new agent relationships and technological capabilities needed to degrade existing terrorist groups, prevent their spread, and identify unknown threats. To do this, MI6 continues to recruit agents in the most dangerous organisations in the world. We benefit from outstanding cooperation with our colleagues in MI5 and GCHQ and from our international partners.

“In the last twenty years, the U.K. intelligence community as a whole has disrupted dozens of overseas attack plans before they could reach the U.K. – saving potentially thousands of lives.  

However, Al Qaeda, Daesh and their affiliates and imitators retain an undiminished appetite for violence and the inflicting of mass casualties, and the world still presents fertile ground for radicalization. Terrorist networks have spread in the Middle East, the Sahel, Sub Saharan Africa, the Horn of Africa and beyond. 

“Counterterrorism work is more difficult in a more fragmented world, with rising internal conflicts, some states regressing in economic development as a result of conflict, and the diffusion of technologies making it easier for terrorists to conceal their planning. The home-grown threat of terrorism – with the attendant difficulty of disrupting lone wolf attacks – means that, sadly, some attacks are always likely to get through. 

“Furthermore, there is no doubt about the morale boost the Taliban victory in Afghanistan has given to the extremist movement globally, as well as its potential emboldening effect on countries such as Russia, China and Iran. 

“MI6 deals with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Nowhere is that sentiment more relevant than in Afghanistan. I am immensely proud of the contribution MI6 officers made to the Afghan mission, and to preventing Al Qaeda from carrying out another attack on the scale of 9/11. But I won’t soft soap it, the threat we face will likely grow now we have left Afghanistan.  Al Qaeda and Daesh will seek to increase their foothold, and to rebuild their ability to strike Western targets.  

“Our priority, as the Prime Minister has said, is to stop the re-emergence of large scale international terrorist operations from a Taliban controlled Afghanistan, and to protect the U.K. homeland and our citizens from any threat that might emanate from there. 

“As an intelligence community we will now do this ‘outside in’: working from the outside to identify and disrupt any threats from a resurgent Al Qaeda. This is an extremely difficult task, and will rely extensively on regional partnerships as well as coordination with our allies. 

“At the same time, we are engaging with the Taliban and testing their willingness to cooperate. It is also the job of my Service to provide the independent secret intelligence from our sources to illuminate this murky scene. With our allies, we will be ready to disrupt Al Qaeda if the Taliban renege on their promises not to allow Al Qaeda to rebuild external operations capability and to tackle the threat from Daesh. 

Public-Private Partnerships in the Digital World

Moore said there is no longer such a thing as an analog intelligence operation in the digital world. 

“Our intelligence targets have online lives. Our officers need to operate invisibly to our adversaries. And we need to be able to run our agent and technical operations in an environment in which “Made in China” surveillance technology is found around the world. 

“All of this requires insights from data, the tools to manipulate data and, most important, the talent to turn complex data into human insight. The combination of technological prowess and insights from human intelligence gives the U.K. a powerful edge. The Integrated Review elevated science and technology as a component of the highest importance to our national security and we need to work to shape international norms in collaboration with allies and partners. 

“Our adversaries are pouring money and ambition into mastering artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology, because they know that mastering these technologies will give them leverage. 

“An intelligence service needs to be at the vanguard of what is technologically possible.”

Moore said MI6 is now pursuing partnerships with the tech community to help develop world-class technologies to solve the biggest mission problems. 

“We cannot match the scale and resources of the global tech industry, so we shouldn’t try. Instead we should seek their help. Through the National Security Strategic Investment Fund we are opening up our mission problems to those with talent in organizations that wouldn’t normally work with national security. Unlike Q in the Bond movies, we cannot do it all in-house. 

“I cannot stress enough what a sea-change this is in MI6’s culture, ethos and way of working, since we have traditionally relied primarily on our own capabilities to develop the world class technologies we need to stay secret and deliver against our mission.”

MI6 is in safe hands for its modernization. Moore understands not only the threats facing the U.K. and its allies, but also how these must be confronted in the digital age. He is not afraid to break the mold and is the first member of the British intelligence services to use social media publicly.

Read the full speech at the Secret Intelligence Service

Kylie Bielby
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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