MI6 is recruiting agents in the “most dangerous organisations in the world” to combat Al Qaeda’s ambition for mass-casualty terrorism, the service’s chief has said.
Richard Moore said the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks is seeking to rebuild bases in Afghanistan to launch international strikes.
In his first public speech, the Chief of the Security Intelligence Service, highlighted the threat to world stability from Russia, China and Iran as well as from artificial intelligence.
Praising the bravery of his officers, many of whom operate in foreign countries running special agents at great risk to both, Mr Moore said he needed better technology and more people to tackle Al Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups.
“We retain an intense focus … to degrade existing terrorist groups, prevent their spread and identify unknown threats. To do this, MI6 continues to recruit agents in the most dangerous organisations in the world.”
There was no doubt the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August had emboldened international terrorists and that in Afghanistan both Al Qaeda, he said, and ISIS were now seeking “to increase their foothold and to rebuild their ability to strike Western targets”.
“Their affiliates and imitators retain an undiminished appetite for violence and the inflicting of mass casualties,” he told the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London.
“The world still presents fertile ground for radicalisation.”
Unable to base his own officers in Afghanistan after this year's Taliban victory, the intelligence chief said they would work from the outside “to identify and disrupt any threats from a resurgent Al Qaeda”.
Their key mission was to stop the re-emergence of large-scale, international terrorist operations from the Taliban-controlled country.
At the same time Britain and others were engaging with the Taliban and considering their willingness to co-operate. Agents would seek “to illuminate this murky scene”.
But Mr Moore issued a clear warning to Taliban leaders if they did allow terrorists to thrive. “With our allies, we will be ready to disrupt Al Qaeda if the Taliban renege on their promises not to allow Al Qaeda to rebuild external operations capability and to tackle the threat from Daesh [ISIS].”
While praising Iran as a country that had “unparalleled depths of history and culture”, he condemned the current regime for its campaign of assassinations and for training gangs to “murder those who seek to uphold the law”.
Iran had also built a “substantial cyber capability” which it was using against its regional rivals as well as Europe and America.
“We continue to work to contain the threat posed by Iran to the UK directly and to our allies in the region,” said the MI6 chief. “That includes contesting Iran's development of nuclear technology, which has no conceivable civilian use.”
China’s intelligence services were labelled as “highly capable” but were conducting “large-scale espionage operations against the UK and our allies” at a time when the world was facing other emergencies.
“We face transnational challenges from climate change to pandemics, which create an entirely new level of need for global co-operation,” he said, then urged: “Co-operate on these issues, even when we compete fiercely elsewhere.”
He voiced concerns over a confrontation. “Beijing believes its own propaganda about Western frailties and underestimates Washington's resolve. The risk of Chinese miscalculation through overconfidence is real.”
Controlling advanced technology will be crucial in the struggle for domination between world powers, he said in an earlier interview with the BBC. “I think that, in the contest for influence and power through the 21st century, those who command the key technologies will have an advantage.”
Mr Moore, 58, called for more people from diverse backgrounds to apply for MI6 via its website. “Come and join,” he said. “There is no more important or, I believe, more exciting time to work for MI6.”
Traditionally, it has been understood that every letter or order written by “C” has been in green ink. Mr Moore confirmed this to the BBC and that all his computer correspondence is also in green font.
He lamented, however, that his official car was not a James Bond-style Aston Martin.