Breaking from more than a century of tradition, the serving head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service MI6 spoke publicly for the first time Thursday to warn that al Qaeda is increasingly plotting attacks against British targets from sanctuaries abroad.
“Precisely because we are having some success in closing down the space for terrorist recruitment and planning in the U.K., the extremists are increasingly preparing their attacks against British targets from abroad,” John Sawers told newspaper editors in London. MI6 is also known as the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS.
The assessment appears to differ from that of U.S. intelligence and Department of Homeland Security officials who have highlighted the threat to the United States of so-called homegrown plots — hatched domestically by Americans or legal residents.
On Monday, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a police conference in Florida that “the increased role of Westerners, including U.S. citizens” in terror plots meant that “a real turning point in how we approach our nation’s security” had been reached.
Mr. Sawers said al Qaeda is not restricted to the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group’s affiliates in “Yemen, Somalia and North Africa pose real threats to the U.K.,” he said, highlighting the “propaganda and terrorist instruction in fluent English” broadcast over the Internet by Yemen-based al Qaeda-linked cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen.
“We need to be steady and stand by our friends” in the Islamic world, said Mr. Sawers, even those countries that practice repression against their own populations. And pressure on Western allies in the Middle East for democratic change might be counterproductive, he said.
“Over time, moving to a more open system of government in these countries … will help. But if we demand an abrupt move to the pluralism that we in the West enjoy, we may undermine the controls that are now in place and terrorists would end up with new opportunities.”
Mr. Sawers said that more than one-third of the secret SIS budget was spent on counterterrorism and that it was “the largest single area of SIS’ work.”
However, he added, “The dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons — and chemical and biological weapons — are more far-reaching” than the threat of terrorism, and “the risks of failure in this area are grim.”
He said that “intelligence-led operations” to stop or delay Iran and other rogue nuclear states from building nuclear weapons helped create time and space for “a political solution to be found.”
Success in intelligence relies on partnerships, sometimes with undesirable individuals or governments.
“We can’t do our job if we work only with friendly democracies,” Mr. Sawers said.
Nonetheless, there were limits, and the practice of torture was a red line, he said, adding that his agency withheld information about terrorist suspects from other countries because they would be tortured if that information were shared.
“If we know or believe action by us will lead to torture taking place, we’re required by U.K. and international law to avoid that action,” he said. “And we do, even though that allows the terrorist activity to go ahead.”
To longtime observers of Britain’s secretive intelligence establishment, the speech, before a gathering of high-powered journalists and live TV cameras, was a watershed in MI6’s long history, Mr. Sawers acknowledged.