Successful prosecutions of violent extremists have reduced the risk of an immediate attack in Britain, the head of the domestic security agency said in a series of interviews yesterday.
MI5 Director-General Jonathan Evans told newspapers that terror trials had had a “chilling effect on the enthusiasm of the networks.”
But he warned al-Qaeda leaders based in Pakistan still intended to mount attacks on Britain and had the capacity to do so, while in the longer term, the economic downturn was likely to throw up new potential dangers.
In a rare interview on MI5’s 100th year, Evans said: “The strategic intent of the al-Qaeda core, [based] in Pakistan, is to mount attacks in the UK, and their model is to use British nationals or residents to deliver the attacks.”
He said there was a “significant number of individuals in active sympathy” who were helping by “fundraising, helping people to travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia,” and providing equipment, support and propaganda.
But MI5 does not believe al-Qaeda has a “semi-autonomous structured hierarchy” in Britain and it had seen fewer “late-stage attack plans” in the past 18 months, he said, attributing this in part to the terror trials.
“There have been 86 successful convictions since January 2007 of whom approaching half pleaded guilty, which has had a chilling effect on the enthusiasm of the networks. They’re keeping their heads down,” Evans said.
The intelligence chief, who replaced Eliza Manningham-Buller last year, said the economic downturn would bring new challenges.
“Our focus in the next few years will be international terrorism, al-Qaeda and its associates, but we are also looking at the global economic crisis,” Evans told reporters.
“Watershed moments” in history often had national security implications, he said, adding: “We have to maintain flexibility and respond to threats. The world will not stay the same.”
While he stressed there was no direct link between extremism and wealth, it was important to consider what would happen if the “West becomes less economically dominant,” Evans said.
“As the world develops there is a knock-on effect in terms of domestic extremism, global power and the relationship between states. National security tends to be a spin-off issue from wider changes,” he said.
There was “no single path” to violent extremism, Evans said, adding that “social, foreign policy, economic and personal factors all lead people to throw their lot in with extremists.”
Israel’s military assault on Gaza would also likely see “extremists try to radicalize individuals for their own purposes,” he said.