Dissident Irish republicans could attempt to mount a new wave of terrorist attacks on Britain, the head of MI5 has warned.
Jonathan Evans, the director-general of the British Security Service, said there had been a “persistent rise” in “activity and ambition” by dissident groups in Northern Ireland in the last three years.
While they did not have the capacity to return to the levels of violence caused by IRA at the height of the Troubles, he said they still represented “a real and rising security challenge”.
His warning came after the Real IRA publicly threatened to target banks and other financial institutions in the City of London, accusing them of “financing Britain’s colonial and capitalist system”.
Speaking last night to Worshipful Company of Security Professionals in the City, Mr Evans said while MI5’s “main effort” remained focused on international terrorism, it had been necessary to reinforce its presence in Northern Ireland to deal with the heightened threat.
In a wide-ranging address, he highlighted the way the al-Qaida threat had diversified – with new centres of extremism emerging in Somalia and Yemen – and the potential that terrorists could target the 2012 London Olympics.
Mr Evans also cautioned that it was “nonsensical” to believe the terrorist threat could be “abolished” and any incident which did occur was the result of a “culpable government failure”.
On Northern Ireland, he acknowledged the recent rise in activity by dissident republicans had not been foreseen, having been assumed just three years ago to be “low and likely to decline further”.
“Perhaps we were giving insufficient weight to the pattern of history over the last hundred years which shows that whenever the main body of Irish republicanism has reached a political accommodation and rejoined constitutional politics, a hard-liner rejectionist group would fragment off and continue with the so called ’armed struggle’,” he said.
Since the start of the year, however, there had been more than 30 attacks or attempted attacks on national security targets by dissident republicans, compared to just over 20 for the whole of last year, he said.
At the same time there were increasing signs of co-operation and co-ordination between the various groups, deploying a greater variety of attack techniques with improved weapons capability – including Semtex explosives associated in the past with the Provisional IRA who are now on ceasefire.
“While at present the dissidents’ campaign is focused on Northern Ireland we cannot exclude the possibility that they might seek to extend their attacks to Great Britain as violent republican groups have traditionally done,” he said.
Ultimately, however, he said the dissidents had done little to develop a “credible political strategy” the way the Provisionals and Sinn Fein did, and many combined terrorism with organised crime, including trafficking drugs.
On the wider al-Qaida-inspired extremist threat, Mr Evans said MI5 was receiving “several hundred” potential new leads every month, while at any one time there was likely to be a “handful” of investigations under way into plots believed to involve the “real possibility” of an attack.
However the need for MI5 to prioritise its resources on those leads which appeared to be the most serious, meant there was always a risk other “very significant” information may receive only “limited scrutiny”.
As a result, while the threat of a successful attack could be reduced, it could never be eliminated altogether.
“In recent years we appear increasingly to have imported from the American media the assumption that terrorism is 100% preventable and any incident that is not prevented is seen as a culpable government failure,” he said.
“This is a nonsensical way to consider terrorist risk and only plays into the hands of the terrorists themselves. Risk can be managed and reduced but it cannot realistically be abolished and if we delude ourselves that it can we are setting ourselves up for a nasty disappointment.
“Counter-terrorist capabilities have improved in recent years but there remains a serious risk of a lethal attack taking place. I see no reason to believe that the position will significantly improve in the immediate future.”
Mr Evans pointed to the growing number of extremists convicted of terrorist offences in the nine years following the 9/11 attacks who had served prison sentences and were now coming out of jail and who – in some cases – were likely to return to their terrorist activities.
And at a time when the British Government is carrying out a review of the use of control orders, he stressed the need for measures to be able to deal with those who “for all sorts of good reasons” could not be brought before the courts.
“The Government cannot absolve itself of the responsibility to protect its citizens just because the criminal law cannot, in the particular circumstances, serve the purpose,” he said.