MI5 Spy Chief Says Russia, China, Iran Top Threat List to UK

LONDON—Britain faces major security threats from the trio of Russia, China, and Iran, which all use coercion, intimidation, and even violence on foreign soil to pursue their interests, the UK’s domestic intelligence chief said Wednesday.

Ken McCallum, director-general of MI5, added to mounting warnings from British authorities about Russia’s aggression and China’s growing coersion. But he singled out Iran as the state “which most frequently crosses into terrorism,” saying UK authorities have uncovered at least 10 “potential threats” this year to “kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.”

He said Iran’s intelligence services “are prepared to take reckless action” against opponents, both on Western soil and by luring people to Iran.

Last week, the UK government summoned Tehran’s top diplomat in London for a dressing-down, accusing the Islamic republic of threatening journalists working in Britain. UK-based Farsi-language satellite news channel Iran International said British police had warned two of its journalists about “an imminent, credible, and significant risk to their lives and those of their families.”

In a speech outlining the major threats to the UK from both hostile states and terror groups, McCallum said there is a risk Russia, China, and Iran could help one another, “amplifying their strengths.”

“We are facing adversaries who have massive scale and are not squeamish about the tactics they deploy,” he said.

He said Russia’s espionage capabilities had been dealt a “significant strategic blow” since the invasion of Ukraine from the expulsion of more than 400 spies working under diplomatic cover at Russian missions in Europe. He said Britain has expelled 23 in recent years, and has refused visas for more than 100 other suspected Russian spies posing as diplomats.

But, he said, British spies are still facing a “Russian covert toolkit” that includes assassination attempts, cyberattacks, disinformation, espionage, and interfering with democracy.

“The UK must be ready for Russian aggression for years to come,” he said.

McCallum cast China as an even longer-term problem, saying “the activities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pose the most game-changing strategic challenge to the UK.”

Using a sports analogy, McCallum said “Russia thinks nothing of throwing an elbow in the face and routinely cheats to get its way.”

“The Chinese authorities present a different order of challenge,” he said. “They’re trying to rewrite the rulebook, to buy the league, to recruit our coaching staff to work for them.”

McCallum accused the CCP of monitoring, intimidating, coercing and “forcibly repatriating Chinese nationals to harassment and assault.”

He also said Chinese authorities were playing a long game, trying to shape British politics by “seeking to co-opt and influence not just prominent parliamentarians across the political landscape, but people much earlier in their careers in public life, gradually building a debt of obligation.” He said local-authority councilors and prospective parliamentary candidates were among those in Beijing’s sights.

He said such activities were likely to grow as Chinese leader Xi Jinping “consolidates power on an indefinite basis.”

At a Group of 20 summit in Indonesia this week, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the CCP posed “a systemic challenge to our values and interests and it represents the biggest state-based threat to our economic security.”

Last month, the head of Britain’s cyberintelligence agency, GCHQ, called the CCP’s growing aggressiveness the “national security issue that will define our future.”

Speaking at MI5’s high-security London headquarters, McCallum said Britain still faces a terror threat from both self-radicalized lone actors and terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS, which he said “are down but definitely not out.”

He said MI5 had disrupted 37 “late stage” attack plots since 2017, eight of them in the past year.

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