MI5’s new boss has said the spy threats posed by China and Russia to the UK are “growing in severity and complexity” while the terror threat from Isis and the far right “persists at scale”.
Giving his first speech as the domestic spy agency’s director general, Ken McCullum focused on risks from hostile states, including undermining “the integrity of UK research” on a coronavirus vaccine.
He said the UK faced threats “up to and including assassinations, as the Alexei Navalny poisoning reminds us; threats to our economy, our academic research, our infrastructure and, much discussed, threats to our democracy.”
He directly singled out “the differing national security challenges presented by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other actors” and said they were “growing in severity and in complexity – while terrorist threats persist at scale.”
MI5’s work has been dominated by counter-terrorism in the last two decades. The agency said in its last update that it had thwarted 27 terror plots in the last four years, including eight from the far right.
McCullum said the threat from the far right was “sadly rising” and there were particular concerns that young people are being attracted to far-right thinking – although unlike with Islamist terrorism, the movement remained fragmented with no unifying group to bring focus to terror plots.
Some in Westminster have argued that MI5 needs to refocus on countering China and Russia. Over the summer parliament’s watchdog intelligence and security committee accused the spy agencies of “taking their eye off the ball”.
In July the UK accused Russia of attempting to steal coronavirus secrets by hacking into research labs in the UK, Canada and the US. Russian activities also include efforts to discredit western vaccines on social media.
Examples of the changing threat include claims that China tried to spy on the EU by targeting a former MI6 officer, Fraser Cameron, who allegedly sold classified information to undercover operatives from Beijing. Cameron denies the allegations.
McCullum said the UK needed to proceed carefully on China because of the economic impact of total disengagement. He said Britain needed “a broad conversation across government and, crucially, beyond, to reach wise judgments around how the UK interacts with China on both opportunities and risks.”
The threat picture was complicated by the pandemic, McCullum said. This had dominated the agency’s work during 2020, and it had led to MI5 looking afresh at some of its longstanding work on bioterrorism and sharing it across government.
McCullum said MI5 had repurposed “research originally done on toxic chemicals to help understand how Covid in droplets might disperse in certain environments”. He added: “On the vaccine, we’ve been working to protect the integrity of UK research.”