The head of Britain’s domestic spy agency MI5 warned on Thursday that Islamist militants in Syria were planning “mass casualty attacks” in the West and that intelligence services may be powerless to stop them.
“We know… that a group of core al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria is planning mass casualty attacks against the West,” Andrew Parker told journalists in London a day after an Islamic attack in Paris claimed 12 lives.
“Although we and our partners try our utmost, we know that we cannot hope to stop everything,” he added.
Parker said that fighters returning to the West from the civil war in Syria were in danger of bringing with them a “twisted ideology” that could lead them to carry out attacks on famous landmarks at home.
Although Islamic State (IS) presented the most obvious threat, fighters aligned with the core of al-Qaeda were also a danger.
“We still face more complex and ambitious plots that follow the now sadly well-established approach of al-Qaeda and its imitators attempts to cause large-scale loss of life, often by attacking transport systems or iconic targets,” he said.
The MI5 director general earlier said the attack against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was a “terrible reminder” of the threat facing Western nations, revealing that his agency had helped stop three terror plots “in recent months alone”.
Parker called for wider powers to identify and monitor suspects, following a backlash against the security services after the extent of their snooping was exposed by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.
He said if MI5 hadn’t foiled the terrorist plots, “deaths would certainly have resulted”.
He said the number of “crude but potentially deadly plots” MI5 was facing had also increased, especially those by “lone wolf” terrorists.
“Such attacks are inherently harder for intelligence agencies to detect,” Parker said.
“They are often the work of volatile individuals, motivated by terrorist propaganda rather than working as part of sophisticated networks.
“They often act spontaneously or after very short periods of prior planning.”
As we go forward into 2015, we will need more help from the public in these sorts of situations.’
In his first public speech, in October 2013, Mr Parker warned of the huge damage done to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ by fugitive CIA worker Edward Snowden.
Snowden revealed to terrorists sensitive intelligence-gathering techniques, making it easier for them to avoid detection.
The head of MI5 said last night his ‘sharpest concern’ was the ‘growing gap between the increasingly challenging threat and the decreasing availability of capabilities to address it’.
His speech, given to an invited audience at Thames House, was planned before the ‘dreadful’ Paris attacks took place.
He said: ‘It is too early for us to come to judgments about the precise details or origin of the attack but it is a terrible reminder of the intentions of those who wish us harm.’