Speaking publicly for the first time in a briefing to reporters, the new director general of MI5 Ken McCallum set out the service’s priorities for the year ahead, including its continued fight against terrorism and hostile state activity as well as its work to help coronavirus research efforts.
Mr McCallum said the security service has been “rapidly adapting” how it works to keep the country safe during the outbreak, advising on the safe construction of Nightingale hospitals, allowing medically qualified MI5 officers to step away from duties to help the NHS and help with research on how coronavirus spreads.
In the race for a vaccine, officers have been working to “protect the integrity of UK research” from being stolen or potential interference from others who could try to “sow doubt” through disinformation, he said.
This still remains the largest part of MI5’s workload, with Islamist extremism continuing to providing the biggest portion of the workload.
Northern Ireland-related terrorism activity also remains and the security has recently taken the lead on right-wing terrorism, which is on the rise.
Particularly, the service is seeing young people attracted to extremist ideology, Mr McCallum warned.
On Northern Ireland, the area of work on which Mr McCallum first started his career, he said the nation “does not suffer in the way that it did” but “a few rejectionist terrorist groups, without meaningful community backing, persist”.
While he warned there were still “tens of thousands of individuals” who are committed to Islamist extremism, adding: “We must continually scan for the smaller numbers within that large group who at any given moment might be mobilising towards attacks.”
The task of monitoring potential threats has become “sharper” as more terrorists have chosen “basic attack methods” requiring little preparation, he said, meaning there are “fewer clues for us to detect in advance – and less time to find those clues”.
Right-wing terrorism is not on the same scale as Islamist extremism and is currently a risk posed by individuals rather than a “coherent” global movement but it is “sadly a rising threat” which now warrants a sharper focus pursuing such cases using similar tactics, he added.
– Hostile state activity
Challenges from hostile states are also on the rise with the service trying to defend against assassination attempts and threats to the economy, academic research, infrastructure and threats to democracy.
These are particularly faced from Russia, China and Iran, he said, explaining there was a “careful balance of opportunities and challenges” but the service was “looking to do more against Chinese activity”.
Mr McCallum is keen to continue bringing the service into the 21st century by making use of new technology, where suitable, and looking for other recruitment methods to attract a younger, more diverse group of people to apply for jobs.