Not long ago, British intelligence officers were famously secretive, even by the standards of their trade.
Now the domestic security service MI5 is not so much coming in from the cold as sprinting. Arguably, it simply must. The UK faces security threats that are serious, wide-ranging, complex, and changing. In the current environment, a security service must continue to wage lonely and hidden battles, but it needs help too.
This can be seen in new proposals for increased powers for MI5, revealed by the Sunday Times last weekend. They include plans to allow the security services to share more information about suspects with other government agencies. The focus will be people who are deemed potentially dangerous but are not priorities for overstretched security officers.
The numbers tell the story. Last year MI5 said it has looked into over 23,000 people “of interest” in terrorism investigations, but only around 3,000 in this pool were under active investigation.
So do events. Three of the perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks were known in the intelligence world but were not under the kind of intensive surveillance which could have allowed the authorities to stop them.
This is no catastrophic failure across the board – in October 2017 the Director General of MI5, Andrew Parker, said that no fewer than 20 attack plots had been found and stopped in just four years. Further plots have been disrupted since then.
Still, people slipping through the net is a risk and obtaining more assistance from other government bodies could help.
This mirrors broader policy developments in the UK. In general, terrorism and extremism were issues for relatively small numbers of specialists in the past. Now even teachers and health workers have been enlisted in the struggle under the UK’s “Prevent” programme. They are asked to spot and refer potentially dangerous extremists.
Reportedly, the new plans also call for longer sentences for some terrorist offences, increased monitoring of convicted terrorists when they are released from prison, and the recruitment of 1,900 more security and intelligence personnel.
There will also be an increased focus on “communities where the threat from terrorism and radicalisation is highest”. This will almost certainly lead to furious responses from Islamist agitators.
The backdrop is undoubtedly alarming. “Lone wolves” can be very hard to detect. Wolf packs are a problem too, of course. Members of Islamic State’s hefty British contingent could turn to terror when they come home. Meanwhile, security officials must counter rising far right threats as well. To add to the pressure, the security services are also dealing with increased Russian hostility.
The Home Office has refused to comment specifically on the press reports, but a spokeswoman has acknowledged that change is coming with these words: “The updated counter terrorism strategy, which is still being finalized, will be a comprehensive and cross-cutting response to the evolving threat from domestic and international terrorism.”
These developments are part of an international pattern which can be seen in the pages of European Eye on Radicalization. At the sharp end – spooks, armed police officers, determined prosecutors – more resources and powers are needed. But they are not enough on their own. Countering terrorism must be a mission for many more of us in wider society if we are to have a chance of winning.