Britain’s MI6 Chief: Islamist Terrorist Threat Is Here to Stay

Armed police officers stand on duty at Buckingham Palace in London, Britain May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Paul Hackett
Armed police officers stand on duty at Buckingham Palace in London. (Reuters/Paul Hackett)

LONDON (Reuters) - The Islamist terrorist threat to the West will endure for years to come because simply taking back territory from Islamic State will not solve the deeper global fractures which have fostered terrorists, Britain’s foreign intelligence chief has said.

In his first public comments outside Britain, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service said that globalization, the information revolution, a deepening sectarian divide in the Middle East and failed states would ensure that terrorism remained a threat.

When asked by  Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan at a panel discussion in Washington whether the apex of the Islamist terrorist trajectory had been reached, MI6 chief Alex Younger said, “Regrettably, this is an enduring issue which will certainly be with us for our professional lifetime.”

“I would have to forecast that whilst it is wholly desirable to remove territory, you will have a persistent threat representing some of the deep fault lines that still exist in our world,” he said.

Islamic State militants have lost territory in Iraq and Syria, though they have claimed responsibility for a range of attacks against the West.

His remarks were shown on a recording posted on Wednesday by the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at the George Washington University.

Younger, as chief of MI6, is one of the West’s most powerful spies and rarely speaks in public. He was appointed in 2014 by then-Prime Minister David Cameron.

MI6 operates overseas and is tasked with defending Britain and its interests.

Younger said terrorism was fueled by a host of fractures across the world. “It is fueled by a deepening sectarian divide in the Middle East and there are some deep social, economic and demographic drivers to the phenomenon we know as terrorism,” he said.

At times joking, Younger praised cooperation with allied spy services and also pitched spies as a good key way to keep communication open even with espionage services from nations less friendly with the West.

“It is a fact, isn’t it, that a lot of countries are run by people like us. Now that is thankfully not the case in democratically constituted regimes,” Younger said after the CIA director raised the subject of communication with Moscow.

“We need to find ways of messaging these countries and communicating with them,” he said, noting that while communication could be beneficial, “we must uphold the values that we are constituted to defend.”

Younger said that what he called the information revolution had fundamentally changed the operating environment for spies.

“There will be two sorts of intelligence services: those that understand this fact and have prospered and those that don’t and haven’t. I am determined that MI6 will be in the former category.”

An economics graduate and former soldier, Younger has worked for MI6 in Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan since 1991, according to a short biography released by the government at the time of his appointment as MI6 chief.

The BBC reported Thursday that the MI6 is to get 40 percent more spies in one of the biggest expansions since the Cold War as the service seeks to harness new technology.

The MI6 will see its numbers increase to a little under 3,500 by 2020 from around 2,500, the BBC said, citing unidentified sources. MI6 does not disclose its staff numbers.