It is never an easy task trying to tread the fine line between freedom of expression and protecting the general public from the real and present danger posed by terrorists using modern electronic communication.
In London on Tuesday, in a rare public speech, the head of Britain’s famed MI5 spy agency, Jonathan Evans, spelled out to the British public what we in Israel have known for a long time; that the seismic changes that have rocked the Arab World over the last 18 months have carried with them an open goal for would-be jihadists and Islamic terrorists as governmental controls and the rule of law have been sidelined amidst the ongoing chaos.
The Lord Mayor’s Annual Defence and Security Lecture was the venue for Evans’ prescient remarks that made headlines in Britain due to the ‘no punches pulled’ picture that the head of Britain’s internal security service felt compelled to paint to the gathered audience, the national media, and the country as a whole.
With the massive security operation for The Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations having passed without any notable incident, coming just a few weeks ahead of London hosting the 2012 Olympic Games, Evans went on record with his grave concerns over the dangers of both terrorist and cyber attack causing difficulties during the huge international sporting gathering, as well as on an ongoing basis. On the cyber crime front he pointed out that one unnamed major British company had in the last 12 months alone sustained losses of no less than £800 million (US$1.25 billion), as a result of cyber crime that was almost certainly state-sponsored. Where did that money go, and what is it now being used for?
Evans urged the British government not to succumb to the pressure of those who wish to ensure full and unimpeded freedom of expression, and not to backtrack on proposed legislation that will allow MI5 to monitor the emails and phone calls of those suspected of serious crimes, including terrorism. He went on to cite evidence of as many as 100 British citizens who the agency is aware of having travelled to Arab countries for training by Al Qaeda, and noted that the power vacuums in countries such as Egypt and Libya had created a fertile operating ground for Al Qaeda in the Middle East.
Evans observed, “Today parts of the Arab world have once more become a permissive environment for Al Qaeda. This is the completion of a cycle – Al Qaeda first moved to Afghanistan in the 1990s due to pressure in their Arab countries of origin. They moved on to Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban. And now some are heading home to the Arab world again. And a small number of British would be jihadists are also making their way to Arab countries to seek training and opportunities for militant activity, as they do in Somalia and Yemen. Some will return to the UK and pose a threat here. This is a new and worrying development and could get worse as events unfold.”
Evans went on to point the finger at Iran and Hizbollah when referring to recent attacks on Israeli targets as well as the failed attempt to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US, saying, “So a return to State-sponsored terrorism by Iran or its associates, such as Hizbollah, cannot be ruled out as pressure on the Iranian leadership increases.”
Anyone who believed that the commendable ideals of the secular, modern, educated youth of the Arab World would bring about a new dawn of democracy and tolerance in igniting the revolutions that have been commonly referred to as the Arab Spring, now know, (with the sinister rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), that unfortunately such an ideal is far-fetched, fanciful Walter Mitty thinking.
The fact that the head of MI5 felt compelled to ‘go public’ and spell out in no uncertain terms the real and present dangers emerging from the Arab Spring in an attempt to shake the British public out of their complacency and foolhardy belief that jihadists won’t return to repeat the devastation of 7/7 or 9/11, is in itself a measure of the seriousness with which the British, (and doubtless many other national and international security services), view the situation in the Middle East and much closer to home.
It is rare indeed that someone as respected as Evans, whose words are so carefully chosen, goes into such detail about the work of his organisation. The spy master is clearly desperate to ensure his hands are not tied by ‘politically correct’ legislation that could reduce the effectiveness of his agency. He urged the British government not to succumb to those who would naively hand would-be terrorists a critical advantage by refusing to allow MI5 to use all necessary means to monitor suspicious activity.
Evans insisted, “It would be extraordinary and self-defeating if terrorists and criminals were able to adopt new technologies in order to facilitate their activities, while the law enforcement and security agencies were not permitted to keep pace with those same technological changes.”
Israel has long led the fight against Islamic and jihadist terrorism in the Middle East and warned the world that this is a scourge that will eventually come to haunt them as well. With this landmark statement Jonathan Evans has acknowledged publicly what many have understood in our ‘tough neighbourhood’ for a long time. He has underscored the essential need for vigilance and a pro-active counter-terrorism policy, and highlighted that this particularly fight is now central to the security and wellbeing of the British public and the wider European region.