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Hammond hails 'brilliance' of spies

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has hit out at "apologists" for Islamist terrorism who tried to blame Britain's intelligence agencies for radicalising the man believed to be Islamic State (IS) executioner Jihadi John.

In a rare speech on the intelligence agencies, Mr Hammond mounted a strong defence of their work saying it was only their "brilliance" that had kept Britain safe in the face of the continuing terrorist threat.

He condemned critics who try to "excuse" the terrorists by pointing the finger of blame at the agencies.

"We are absolutely clear: the responsibility for acts of terror rests with those who commit them. But a huge burden of responsibility also lies with those who act as apologists for them," Mr Hammond said.

His comments appeared to be directed at critics like Asim Qureshi of the campaign group Cage, who said it was MI5's attempts to recruit Mohammed Emwazi - recently unmasked in reports as Jihadi John - as an informer that led to him becoming radicalised.

The agencies have also faced criticism over the fact that Emwazi was allowed to travel to Syria - where he is believed to have carried out the brutal beheadings of a series of Western hostages - even though he had been known to MI5 since 2008.

Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London, Mr Hammond - who is responsible for MI6 and GCHQ - said the agencies are currently facing an "unprecedented" level of challenge in the face of a wide range threats from around the world.

"The sheer number and range of cases, old and new, amounts to the greatest challenge to our collective security for decades and places unprecedented demands on those charged with keeping us safe," he said.

He said added that, while in the past they had simply had to focus on "ideologically-driven expansionist states", they now had to deal with international terrorist groups and state-sponsored aggression as well as self-radicalised, "lone wolf" terrorists.

"The emergence of groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and (IS) in Syria, Iraq and Libya simply serves to underline the pace with which the threats to our safety and security from this source are evolving," said Mr Hammond.

"It is only thanks to the dedication, and in many cases the brilliance, of our intelligence officers that we have succeeded to detect and contain these threats."

At the same time, he pointed to the renewed threat to international order posed by Russia after years of re-engagement with the West following the end of the Cold War.

"We are now faced with a Russian leader bent not on joining the international rules-based system which keeps the peace between nations, but on subverting it," he said.

"President (Vladimir) Putin's actions - illegally annexing Crimea and using Russian troops to destabilise eastern Ukraine - fundamentally undermine the security of sovereign nations of Eastern Europe."

Mr Hammond said the "clandestine nature" of the threats - from weapons systems developed in secret to covert plotting by terrorists - underlined the need for Britain to maintain a "highly effective, secret capability" to identify, monitor and act against them.

"As the range of threats gets bigger, so the pace of technological change with which the agencies must keep up is getting faster, making their central task of keeping us safe ever more demanding," he said.

"We must respond decisively and positively to the public and parliamentary debate about the powers required by our intelligence agencies to do their job in a changed technological environment - and in doing so draw a line under that debate so that the agencies can get on with the job of keeping this country safe."

Answering questions following his speech, Mr Hammond warned that British citizens who travel to Iraq and Syria to fight against Islamic State could face prosecution if they return.

Asked what the authorities' response would be to Britons who take up arms against IS, the Foreign Secretary said: "The simple, legal answer is that anyone conducting irregular fighting activity overseas is subject to British legislative sanction.

"That is unlawful activity and can be dealt with on their return to the UK."

Mr Hammond said that parents and schools have a responsibility to help prevent young people from travelling abroad to take part in the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

The parents of three London schoolgirls believed to have entered Syria with the aim of joining IS - Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and 15-year-old Amira Abase - are later due to appear before the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, alongside the ambassador of Turkey.

Mr Hammond said he had spoken to Turkey's foreign minister on Saturday about what action can be taken to stop would-be jihadists from Western countries crossing the country's border with Syria in order to sign up with Islamic State.

"Turkey is doing huge amounts and I would like to record publicly our appreciation of the support we get from the Turkish authorities, but we are all learning as we go and I think this particular case of the three schoolgirls from east London has identified some weaknesses and things we can improve," said the Foreign Secretary.

"But it's also identified some steps that people in the community could take to keep us safe as well.

"Parents have responsibilities, schools and community workers have responsibilities, as well as the authorities and airports and airline operators.

"It's about coming together in this case to protect children - minors, juveniles - who must be protected from themselves, going about something that will be deeply damaging to their own interests as well as our national security interests."

Prime Minister David Cameron dismissed as "nonsense" the suggestion that jihadis like Emwazi had been radicalised by their contact with security services.

Mr Cameron told LBC radio: "The fact is we face a terrorist threat in Britain. That is the opinion of the experts who advise me and set the threat level.

"Our police and security services have a very important role to play to find out about people that could do us harm and to step in and prevent them from doing that.

"Of course we need to work with communities to do that - and we do.

"But I totally reject the idea that police or security service tactics have somehow radicalised people. That is, I think, nonsense."

Mr Cameron said he believed police operated in a "sensible and sensitive way" in responding to the terror threat, adding: "We need communities to work with us as we do that."

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