LONDON (Reuters) - Russian spying against Britain remains at Cold War levels, diverting intelligence resources that would be better devoted to fighting al Qaeda, the head of the MI5 intelligence agency said on Monday.
Jonathan Evans said espionage by a number of countries, also including China, was a distraction from countering militant Islamists who were growing in number and now targeting children as young as 15 in Britain.
“Since the end of the Cold War we have seen no decrease in the numbers of undeclared Russian intelligence officers in the UK -- at the Russian embassy and associated organizations conducting covert activity in this country,” Evans said.
“So despite the Cold War ending nearly two decades ago, my service is still expending resources to defend the UK against unreconstructed attempts by Russia, China and others to spy on us,” he added in his first public speech since taking over as head of MI5, the domestic spy agency, in April.
Evans said a number of countries were still actively seeking to steal sensitive civilian and military technology, political and economic intelligence, including via sophisticated electronic attacks on computer networks.
“It is a matter of some disappointment to me that I still have to devote significant amounts of equipment, money and staff to countering this threat,” Evans said.
“They are resources which I would far rather devote to countering the threat from international terrorism -- a threat to the whole international community, not just the UK.”
His singling-out of Russia underlined the poor state of relations between the two countries’ governments and between their security agencies.
Each expelled four of the other’s diplomats in July in a row over Moscow’s refusal to extradite the chief suspect in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent turned Kremlin critic who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London a year ago. The two sides have also suspended cooperation on counter-terrorism.
In his speech, Evans said MI5 knew of at least 2,000 British-based individuals who posed a direct threat to national security because of their support for terrorism, “and we suspect that there are as many again that we don’t yet know of”.
A year ago, his predecessor put the figure at about 1,600.
“As I speak, terrorists are methodically and intentionally targeting young people and children in this country,” Evans said.
“They are radicalizing, indoctrinating and grooming young, vulnerable people to carry out acts of terrorism. This year, we have seen individuals as young as 15 and 16 implicated in terrorist-related activity.”
Several British militant conspiracies have featured links to al Qaeda in Pakistan, including suicide bombings that killed 52 people in London in 2005.
But Evans said plots were now being driven from an increasing range of overseas countries, including Somalia. He noted the emergence of a new al Qaeda arm in North Africa, and said the network’s Iraqi branch was also intent on promoting attacks outside Iraq.
“This sort of extension of the al Qaeda brand to new parts of the Middle East and beyond poses a further threat to us in this country,” Evans said.
He said Britain could expect more attacks. “I do not think that this problem has yet reached its peak.”