Extreme right-wing terrorism is “sadly here to stay”, the boss of MI5 warned as he revealed agents are investigating teenagers as young as 13.
The threat has “grown and morphed quite substantially over the last five to 10 years”, with a “high prevalence of teenagers” and tackling it needs “new expertise, new sources, new methods”, director general Ken McCallum said.
MI5 took over the lead responsibility for countering extreme right-wing terrorism just over a year ago.
Of 29 late-stage attack plots disrupted over the last four years, 10 have been extreme right-wing.
In a speech from the security agency’s Thames House headquarters in London on Wednesday, Mr McCallum said: “We are progressively finding more indicators of potential threat.
“Extreme right-wing terrorism is sadly here to stay, as a substantial additional risk for MI5 to manage”.
He later told reporters there are cases of “teenagers presenting potential terrorist risk to their community”, adding: “The case that I’m currently aware of, of the youngest person who has featured within our investigations, was a young individual who was 13 years old.”
But he said he was clearly not saying that “all 13-year-olds present a risk”.
In his annual address, the second since he took over the top role in April last year, Mr McCallum said extreme right-wing terrorism comprises a “substantial minority slice of the risk we’re managing” – about one in five of MI5’s counter-terrorist investigations in Britain.
After highlighting the case of neo-Nazi former Army driver Dean Morrice, who was jailed for 18 years last month after stockpiling chemicals to make explosives, Mr McCallum said the right-wing threat has some “challenging characteristics”, including a “high prevalence of teenagers”, an “obsessive interest in weaponry” and “always the online environment, with thousands in extremist echo chambers exchanging hate-filled rhetoric or claiming violent aspirations to impress each other”.
Asked how fast he thinks the threat is growing, he said it was “genuinely quite difficult to know right now” if it was “still spiralling in absolute terms” or was more on a “plateau”.
“We must all keep an open mind and respond to the facts as we find them,” he added.
He told how the presence of teenagers is a “rising trend in MI5’s counter terrorist case work” and is becoming more so in extreme right-wing investigations.
Although suggesting some teenagers can be “swept up with this toxic ideology for a period” due to its huge presence online, he warned: “It is already the case that in quite a range of our investigations we do sadly see teenagers, minors, under the age of 18, some under the age of 16, presenting sharp risk.”
While some youngsters pose a terror threat, others are a risk to themselves and “clearly in all such cases there is an important child protection angle that has to be factored in also”, Mr McCallum added.
Asked why teenagers might be drawn to this ideology, he suggested that in some cases it may be a “piece of rebellion as teenagers find their way in the world” and described the threat as an almost “cult-like phenomenon”.
Although there are “rallying” and “iconic” figures, this was not a coordinated threat with a “coherent driving group”, he said.
Turning to other threats, Mr McCallum said terrorists “will seek to take advantage” of the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, while he also warned that “regular people” were being targeted by “foreign spies” as he urged the public to be as alert to the dangers posed by hostile states.
Reviving earlier calls to social media companies to change course, he said end-to-end encryption of messaging services will “hand a gift” to terrorists and child abusers and that we are “drifting towards danger” with the move.
Meanwhile he heaped praise on the England football team for the way they “conducted themselves” during Euro 2020, as he branded racism a “toxic issue”.