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MI5 - Three Deadly UK Terror Plots Foiled

09 January 2015 | Updated 01 January 1970

Andrew Parker, the Director General of the Security Service (MI5) has given a speech to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on the challenges that MI5 faces in 2015 and beyond offering reflections on some of the significant events that have shaped and will shape the UK’s national security. Here is an edited version:


The Threat

"I wanted to say something about the dreadful events in Paris.  It is too early for us to come to judgements about the precise details or origin of the attack but it is a terrible reminder of the intentions of those who wish us harm.

"In describing the overall threat, it would be surprising if I didn’t focus first on the ongoing and increasing challenge from Syria.  It has continued to expand and to morph, not least with ISIL coming to the fore. Around 600 extremists are among the many Britons who have travelled there. A significant proportion have joined ISIL.

"ISIL has large numbers of fighters and substantial resources in parts of Syria and Iraq. Its propaganda repeatedly names Britain as an enemy but how is it a threat to the UK?

"Well, there are three ways, all of which we have already seen in practice:

a. The senseless and brutal murder of innocent Britons in the region. b. They are trying to direct terrorist attacks in the UK and elsewhere from Syria, using violent extremists here as their instruments. c. They are seeking to provoke individuals in the UK to carry out violent attacks here.



"Despite its medieval tactics, ISIL is a terrorist phenomenon of the modern age. It makes full use of the modern social media and communications methods through which many of us now live our lives. By these means it spreads its message of hate directly into homes across the United Kingdom – both to those seeking it and those who may be susceptible to its distortion and glamorisation of horrific acts.

"Not all British extremists who have travelled to Syria will want to mount attacks in the UK when they return. But some do have that intent. Some have already tried to carry out acts of terrorism here and elsewhere. Outside Iraq and Syria, we believe that since October 2013 there have been more than 20 terrorist plots either directed or provoked by extremist groups in Syria.  Let me remind you of a few: "Four people were shot dead in Brussels last May by a French returnee from Syria; in Canada, a soldier was killed in a hit and run attack and another shot dead outside the parliament building; in Australia, the hostage-taking at a cafe in Sydney led to the deaths of two hostages; in France, a knife attack on police.

"Other attacks have been foiled – for example, early in 2014 police in France seized improvised explosive devices from a flat linked to another Syria returnee.

"We know that terrorists based in Syria harbour the same ambitions towards the UK – trying to direct attacks against our country and exhorting extremists here to act independently.

"Strikingly, working with our partners, we have stopped three UK terrorist plots in recent months alone. Deaths would certainly have resulted otherwise. But we cannot be complacent.  Although we and our partners try our utmost we know that we cannot hope to stop everything.

"Nevertheless, when it comes to the UK, as the near-daily media reports show, such extremists must expect to be arrested and prosecuted. In England and Wales, terrorist-related arrests are up 35% compared with four years ago. Since 2010, more than 140 individuals have been convicted for terrorism related offences.

"We and the police are necessarily focused on preventing the terrorist threat associated with these extremists.  But it’s an even greater success when individuals faced with ISIL’s propaganda turn away from its twisted message. We have seen the human misery that results from the opposite choice: bereaved and broken families, ruined lives, suffering and heartbreak.  



"Meanwhile, other Islamist terrorist threats persist. Al Qaeda continues to provide a focus for Islamist inspired violence and a significant driving force for extremists to plot terrorist attacks against the West. British Islamist extremists still travel out to South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and other theatres to try to obtain terrorist training. And terrorist groups in parts of Africa also pose persistent threats.

"So, in summary, we face a very serious level of threat that is complex to combat and unlikely to abate significantly for some time. From the totality of this picture, two aspects are worth noting.

"First, the number of crude but potentially deadly plots has gone up.  Last year’s attacks in Canada and Australia were examples. Such attacks are inherently harder for intelligence agencies to detect.  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.

"Such people often act alone.  But even when violent intent is solely the work of one individual and they share their specific plans with no one else, it is almost always the case that someone, a member of the public or a friend, has had some prior insight into the dangerous direction they are moving in and the violent destination they are hoping to reach.  So, as we go forward into 2015, we will need more help from the public in these sorts of situations.  Such assistance will be invaluable when it comes to enabling MI5 and the police to save lives. 

"The second aspect worth nothing is that, alongside this greater volume, 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. We know, for example, that a group of core Al Qaeda terrorists in Syria is planning mass casualty attacks against the West.

"It was primarily the rising threat from Syria – not just ISIL – that led the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre to raise the threat level for international terrorism from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’ last summer. ‘Severe’ is an evidence-based judgement meaning that an attack on the UK is highly likely."


George Osborne

Tackling terrorism is the UK's 'national priority' and security services will get all the resources they need to keep the country safe, Chancellor George Osborne has told the BBC as he ploughs an extra £100m into monitoring Britons going to Syria and Iraq. Osborne also told BBC Breakfast the UK was facing the threat of a more complex plot.


Jeff Little, security expert

Whilst the twin hostage situations continue to hold attention in and around Paris, the comments MI5 Director Andrew Parker made last evening should be of concern to UK business.  MI5 is again stretched to deal with the number of threats now facing the UK and despite their best efforts, the disturbing message is that one is likely to succeed.  A number of groups including Islamic State and al-Qaeda are even now plotting mass casualty attacks on Western Europe and Britain is undoubtedly high on their hit lists. The attack scenarios reach from lo-tech, crude lone wolf style shootings using basic weapons to more sophisticated operations perhaps employing multiple terrorist armed attack (MTAA) as seen in Mumbai and Kenya.  Such tactics require heavy firepower to be deployed very quickly if they are to be defeated.

Parker reports at least 3 viable attacks have been foiled in the past 3 months.  Future attacks are likely to be 'more complex and ambitious' said the intelligence chief as he increased to estimate of those Britons travelling to Syria to about 600.

The bottom line is that no matter how high the alert state or how many police officers are deployed on the streets, it is impossible to stop every plot.  However, businesses can help by creating an awareness of the dangers amongst their staff, spotting hostile close target reconnaissance by terrorists and employing basic security precautions to protect staff, clients and the public.  The use of simple deterrent devices, improved lighting, surveillance cameras, better access control measures and staff vetting procedures will all contribute towards creating a safer, more secure environment.  There is no need for panic and the situation is certainly not unmanageable.  However, the threat will exist for a number of years, perhaps a generation, and business continuity measures now need to become part of everyday management processes.


Previous reporting

As anyone following the news on Wednesday afternoon will be aware, 12 people have been killed in a terrorist shooting in Paris. We have the initial thoughts of two renowned security experts (who have been predicting this type of Lone Wolf attack) and warning messages for businesses in cities around Europe and the World.


Dr Sally Leivesley of Newrisk Ltd is an Advisor on Terrorism and Public Protection to companies and governments. She is a Member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators and a Member of the Register of Security Engineers and Specialists. She has kindly provided ThisWeekinFM with her initial notes (which have been edited).

Dr Sally Leivesley says: This is a Mass Casualty Terror Attack. It is designed to have maximum News impact. In this instance, the attack on journalists creates a heightened sense of media shock. It is also is intended to control media statements on future radical issues.

Charlie Hebdo Magazine has courted controversy with caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed which has placed it under threat but the world's media should not think that    this is can be considered an isolated incident.  There is a clear threat to media organisations around the world.



We have recently seen a Marauding Gunmen attack at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Nairobi where the assailants were prepared not just to do harm to innocent civilians but also to fight their way from the scene - or take hostages. The Lone Wolf attack in Paris has seen a different type of organisation - where the attackers have acted at speed and planned an escape. The use of automatic weapons (and possibly a rocket launcher) gives superiority over first police response. And although Paris has military Rapid Response units on the streets, they patrol near high-risk, high-visibility locations. I believe Charlie Hebdo had a strong security presence - but clearly it was overwhelmed.


Trained returnees

It is clear the two attackers have had training  - not just the efficiency of the attack but the grouping of shots at police vehicles shows marksmanship. The two could possibly have previous experience of combat and might be 'returnees' from overseas.

The Paris shooting WILL assist recruitment to terror causes in Iraq and Syria and encourage home attacks by ‘want-to-be’ radicalised persons.



France like other countries has had an upsurge in actual and threatened violence by radicalised individuals. (Members of the public were run down by a van in one attack prior to Christmas attack whilst 3 police officers were stabbed in another incident.) Some of those involved have proven to have mental health issues - but that is not to say they have not been recruited as 'gun fodder' by malevolent groomers.

It is no coincidence that the recent Sydney siege took place right opposite the Channel 7 New headquarters (where the cameramen shared the same view as the police snipers) The attacker had the World's attention  for 16 hours prior to the brutal ending.


News observations

Having followed news reporting, Dr Sally Leivesley says the attack comes after threats to the magazine that have been ongoing since 2011 when it was fire-bombed having 'insulted the prophet Mohamed.

There are 12 dead including 2 police officers and 4 seriously wounded. Initially it was thought that there were two gunmen involved - witnesses now put the figure at 3.



Attacks in Sydney, New York, Ottawa and now Paris are reinforcing a sense of siege amongst the general public and serving as recruitment adverts for the Islamic State. Although governments and the security forces are working tirelessly to hold back what seems like an endless stream of potential attacks, it is up to businesses in the main to review their security planning and procedures to bring them into line with the realities of 2015 threat.


The thoughts of security expert, Jeff Little

Wednesday’s attack in Paris was of a completely different scale of violence than recent more amateur attacks and represents the sum of all fears as far as a clinical, para-military Jihadi  group, attacking a designated target are concerned.  The gunmen were clearly trained, effective shots who were calm during the action and even during their escape from the scene.  The incident follows an escalation of attacks over the past few weeks – and again illustrates the vulnerability of an open, democratic western city.

The attack was entirely predictable as the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine had previously been fire bombed and their cartoonists had been under police protection.  This was a low tech, simple, cold-blooded attack by men who appear to be professional killers quite comfortable with their weapons and quite comfortable with murdering people in cold blood.

The operation was ruthless and one has to ask whether the terrorists had previously fought in Syria or another theatre of war and had returned to their homeland blooded and battle hardened.  If so, then we can expect similar events in the UK in the near future.  It is essential that business of all sizes and shapes review their security measures and plans and take expert advice on how they can protect their staff, their clients and the very existence of their business.


Matter of urgency

Even with higher national alert states the police will never have sufficient officers to prevent or deter such groups and the authorities will be increasingly reliant upon the business community to assist and reduce the effect of such groups.  Such measures are now not simply optional but must form part of the business planning process and be reviewed as a matter of urgency.

Whilst one understands civil rights campaigners worries over intrusive CCTV surveillance, these systems can play an important in the protection of premises – but too often their imagery is of poor quality and not up to the evidential standards required to ensure a successful prosecution.  Operators and owners should now review their cameras and if necessary upgrade their equipment to HD level – the prices of such equipment has reduced significantly and is not in anyway excessive.

Business owners should review their contingency and business continuity plans also – even if their premises are not directly involved in the incident then subsequent security force cordons and investigations may negate re-entry to their premises for many days.

Whilst we are at an early stage of the Paris incident, it should serve to focus our attentions upon our security provision and plans.  The threat is very real, the writing is on the wall and the business community must respond.  


Jeff Little OBE MBA CGIA FICPEM  FSyI. m. 07885 772488 or email

Article written by Brian Shillibeer | Published 09 January 2015


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