The Arab Spring has given Al-Qaeda new arenas in which to rebuild, increasing the chances of home-grown terrorist attacks in Britain, the head of the country’s domestic intelligence agency warned on Monday.
Instability in the region has created “a permissive environment for Al-Qaeda”, Jonathan Evans, director general of MI5 said in a rare speech last night – his first in almost two years – in the inaugural Lord Mayor’s Annual Defence and Security Lecture in London.
There is evidence British “would-be jihadis” were known to be travelling and receiving training in the likes of Libya and Egypt, mirroring what has already happened in Yemen and Somalia Evans indicated. Adding, “Some will return to the UK and pose a threat here,” in what is “a new and worrying development and could get worse as events unfold.”
“We will have to manage the short-term risks if there is to be a longer-term reward from the Arab Spring,” he said.
“Al-Qaeda’s influence was shifting away from Afghanistan and Pakistan and towards Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel . . . We appear to be moving from a period of deep and focused threat to one where the threat is less monolithic but wider,” he added.
Figures last year suggested more than 100 Britons had received training by terrorist groups in Somalia and it is feared that this trend is set to continue, as many are now being prepared for terrorist attacks across Yemen, Egypt and Libya. Evans in his speech indicated there could be a steady stream of new recruits in the UK. “In back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here,” he said. “We see them regularly in our intelligence investigations. And others in various parts of the world have the same ambitions.”
The MI5 director also raised the spectre of Iran actively sponsoring terrorism around the world. He highlighted recent attacks against Israel and the attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in America. “So a return to State-sponsored terrorism by Iran or its associates, such as Hezbollah, cannot be ruled out as pressure on the Iranian leadership increases,” he said. That, coupled with Iran’s nuclear intentions, also raised the chilling prospect of a dirty bomb attack he noted.