Britain still faces a major threat from Islamic State-inspired terrorism despite the fall of the so-called caliphate in Syria, the head of MI5 has warned.
Andrew Parker said that while the collapse marked a “hugely symbolic” loss, the group has shown that “an ideology does not require territory to survive”.
Describing Islamist terrorism as the “most acute” of the multiple terrorist threats facing the UK, the intelligence chief flagged up the “startling” pull of IS propaganda.
“In the UK there remain individuals who are inspired by IS propaganda, despite having shown no interest in travelling to Syria,” he said, in an article for the Evening Standard newspaper.
“Of the plots thwarted by police and MI5 and our Western allies in 2018, 80% were conducted by people inspired by the ideology of IS but who had never actually been in contact with it in Syria or Iraq.”
Mr Parker, the director general of the security service, added that IS’s remaining members are intent on directing terrorist attacks around the world, including on European soil.
This ambition is shared by al Qaida, whose desire to attack the West “hasn’t diminished while IS has been in the spotlight”, he said.
Mr Parker also disclosed that his agency is working with police, other public bodies and private companies to develop “cutting-edge artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies” to analyse the intelligence picture.
Citing the vast amounts of data generated by smartphones and the emergence of applications that encrypt communications, he said: “The haystack is bigger and the needle smaller.
“Increasingly, the vital piece of information that might stop an attack is unlikely to be held by MI5 but buried somewhere else in the mountain of data scattered across the world.”
MI5 has joined police in combating the threat from right-wing terrorism, following a rise in the number of investigations in the last three years, while dissident Republican groups “still cling to terrorist methods” to disrupt the Northern Ireland peace process, Mr Parker said.
“But of the multiple terrorist threats facing the UK, Islamist terrorism remains the most acute,” he wrote.
“The abhorrent events in Sri Lanka are a stark and tragic reminder of terrorists’ determination and ongoing ability to perpetuate misery through launching large-scale attacks.”
Police and MI5 are running a record 700-plus live terrorism investigations.
There are around 3,000 active “subjects of interest” (SOI), plus a wider pool of more than 20,000 “closed” SOIs who have at some point featured in probes.
Britain was hit by five attacks in 2017, while 14 Islamist and four extreme right-wing plots have been foiled in just over two years.