UK Spy Boss on Afghan Disaster: ‘A Psychological Boost, a Morale Boost to Extremists’

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The strategic failure by Joe Biden to withdraw from Afghanistan in an orderly fashion and the subsequent collapse of the expensively groomed Afghan state will give a confidence shot to “lone wolf” terrorists in the West, the director-general of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency has said.

MI5 Director-General Ken McCallum spoke to British public broadcaster the BBC on Friday, the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack to discuss not only his reflections and memories on that terror attack, but also new and persisting threats facing the West, and Britain in particular.

McCallum outlined that, broadly, there are two kinds of terror threats facing the United Kingdom: high-sophistication attacks planned and directed from abroad — like 9/11 — and low-intensity lone wolf style attacks inspired by, but not directly controlled by, extremist ideological organisations.

The spy boss admitted that the origin of these threats was “mainly” from radical Islamism.

While at the time of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks there was some optimism in the West’s handling of the ‘War on Terror’ — a label McCallum rejects as needlessly glorifying terrorists as soldiers, rather than criminals — because bin Laden had been recently been killed in Pakistan, today the same did not hold true. Indeed, the botched Western withdrawal from Afghanistan will have given succour to terrorists in Britain.

McCallum said:

[M]ake no mistake, events in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, have an effect on the streets of the UK… overnight you can have a psychological boost, a morale boost to extremists already here or in other countries…

[W]e’ve seen the growth of ‘inspired’ terrorism, the so-called Islamic State achieved something that al-Qaeda did not, in that it managed to inspire lots of people with no direct connection to the Islamic State to take their online inspirational material and instructional material and attempt much smaller-scale plots, which are by their nature much harder to detect. So the number of plots that we disrupt nowadays are actually higher than came at us after 9/11, but are on average smaller plots of lower sophistication… [T]here’s no doubt the events in Afghanistan will have heartened and emboldened some of those extremists…

During the interview, the MI5 director-general also described the intensity with which the Secret Service, as MI5 is formally known, works to detect future terror attacks and stop them. Beyond the baseload of extremists plotting and planning, he said MI5 had disrupted a large number of more mature plots, what he described as late-stage attack plots:

So we do face a consistent global struggle to defeat extremism and to guard against terrorism. It’s a real problem. In the past four years — working with the police — my organisation has disrupted 31 late-stage attack plots… including mainly Islamist attack plots, but also a growing number of attack plots from extreme right-wing terrorists. Even during the pandemic… we’ve had to disrupt six late-stage attack plots, so the terrorist threat to the UK — I’m sorry to say — is a real and enduring thing.

Appropriately, the Director-General also spoke about the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when he was a lowly “agent runner” at the spy agency he now leads.

“On 9/11, at lunchtime, as it was in the UK when the first plane struck the Twin Towers, we turned on the television in the corner of the room,” he recalled.

“As the second plane struck, a colleague quietly said ‘Osama Bin Laden’. And someone else said, ‘I guess we all know what we’re doing for the next ten years of our lives’. And so it proved.”

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