MI5 chief warns "we cannot stop every UK terror threat"

The head of MI5, speaking after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, describes Britain's vulnerability.

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Speaking after the terrorist attack on the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in France, the head of MI5 has warned of Britain's vulnerability to terrorist threats. He referred to the events in France as, "a terrible reminder of the intentions of those who wish us harm".

Parker, who leads the UK's domestic security service, said that the threat of terror attacks in the UK is escalating and that the authorities cannot hope to stop every plot. He pointed out that around 600 British citizens have now travelled to Syria, and that a "significant proportion" of them have gone to join Jihadi fighters in Islamic State (also known as Isis). He added that the UK is facing, "more complex and ambitious plots" from extremists.

He admitted, "my sharpest concern as director general of MI5 is the growing gap between the increasingly challenging threat and the decreasing availability of capabilities to address it".

Specifically, Parker referred to "mass casualty attacks against the West" that he knows a group of al-Qaeda extremists in Syria have planned, but cautioned that MI5 cannot be expected to know about, and foil, every plot: "We cannot be complacent. Although we and our partners try our utmost we know that we cannot hope to stop everything." 

He added:

The going is getting tougher but there are good reasons for confidence in our enduring ability to respond. It's well-understood that we can't guarantee to stop everything, but we continue to strive to get as near to that as we can.

Parker's message is a grim one, particularly in the aftermath of the terrifying murder of magazine staff in Paris. It implies that something involving mass casualties could well happen in the UK, and also signals further debate on the role of privacy in our society. Parker was careful to mention the danger of privacy being "so absolute and sacrosanct" in our country "that terrorists and others who mean us harm can confidently operate from behind those walls without fear of detection". This strongly suggests that future conversations are on the way about our private lives, and how far the government can observe – and intervene.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.