Britain’s spy chief has warned that ISIS is reforming to pose new security threats with the return of its foreign recruits endangering the public.
In a rare briefing at the Munich Security Conference, Alex Younger, the head of MI6, said the loss of its last pockets of territory in Syria should not be seen as the end of the Islamist group. Any temptation to step back from combating the group could be an act of hubris.
Commenting on a plea to come home by Shamima Begum, the pregnant 19-year old who fled to ISIS territory four years ago, Mr Younger said those seeking to return were unlikely to reconcile with their homelands.
“They are likely to have acquired both the skills and connections that make them potentially very dangerous and also experienced extreme radicalisation,” he said. “That fact needs to be uppermost in our minds as we approach this admittedly extremely complex and difficult problem. Public safety is the first thing that we will consider.”
Mr Younger said returnees would face questioning and possible prosecution when they returned home.
“The reality is this is a societal, generational problem that we face in the West and it can only be addressed at that level,” he added.
“The military defeat of the ‘caliphate’ does not represent the end of the terrorist threat. We see it therefore morphing, spreading out ... within Syria but also externally ... this is the traditional shape of a terrorist organisation.”
Mr Younger said Al Qaeda was on the rise in areas where ISIS had been beaten back. "Al Qaeda, which has always been in a rivalry, and almost zero sum relationship with [ISIS], has, I think, undergone a certain resurgence as a result of the degradation of [ISIS]," he added. "It is definitely not down and out."
The leading US senator Lindsay Graham quoted President Donald Trump’s declarations that ISIS had been smashed, even if other leaders were more circumspect about what this would mean.
“It is dead and has been destroyed,” he said. Senator Graham unnerved some Europeans by suggesting a buffer zone for the Syrian Democratic Forces after the US withdrawal.
Patrick Shanahan, the acting US secretary of defence, said the battle had changed not ended and that outside commitments were still needed.
“While the time for US troops on the ground in northeast Syria winds down, the US remains committed to our coalition’s cause—the permanent defeat of ISIS,” Mr Shanahan said. “I, for one, envision an even bigger and stronger coalition going forward.”
The German defence minister was also cautious in her assessment. “It remains to be noted that ISIS is currently changing its face, goes deeper underground and builds networks there with other terrorist groups, partly in an underground global network that they are trying to build,” said Ursula von der Leyen.
Just as pressing for many Western nations, including Britain, is the threat posed by Russia.
Gavin Williamson, the British Defence Secretary, told the conference that an old adversary was back in the game.
He accused the Kremlin of orchestrating a broad spectrum of attacks on countries including his own.
“[It is] operating without rules using espionage, military, political, cyber, economic and even criminal tools to undermine its competitors,” he said. He added the growth of proxy and mercenary forces had allowed the Kremlin to deny the “blood on its hands”.
Mr Younger said Britain had to stress its resilience and that of its allies in the face of the Russia activities. “We’ve been really, really clear with them that whatever they think they are trying to achieve with this concerted campaign of covert and overt action to denigrate the quality of our institutions and alliances, it’s not going to work,” he said. “It’s going to come at too high a cost.
“The Russian state is intent on breaking up the links and alliances that exist between us and I think they are wrong to do so. And I am intent on attaching a cost to the campaign of subversion, overt and covert, they are carrying out to that end. Don’t forget we are the ones with the alliances, that is our vital advantage.”
Mr Younger said there was very little that was off limits to his counterparts in Russian intelligence.
Opening the conference, the Munich forum's founder Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador, appeared on stage in a blue hooded top emblazoned with 11 of the 12 stars of Europe. The outfit was a clear, if barbed, reference to the British decision to leave the EU at the end of next month.
However he and other speakers said the British exit should not diminish security cooperation between the two sides. “Even with the Brexit conundrum and even with its uncertain outcome, the United Kingdom, and I think that’s a given, will continue to be a crucial element of anything connected to the security, defence and foreign policy of Europe,” Mr Ischinger said.
“Britain will be part of this European security and defence community, either within the European Union or from the outside, in the closest possible fashion imaginable.”