back to article Ex-MI5 boss: People ask, why didn't you follow all these people ... on your radar?

Former MI5 boss Stella Rimington says complex communications "make it very difficult for our intelligence services" to keep pace against "hideous ideologies" whose sole aim is to kill, while cyber espionage is something "no one really knows effectively how to deal with". It was a bleak picture she painted of the threat …

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        "There were several bombs left by the IRA in public places where they warned the police in advance of the explosion so people could get out of the way."

        I assume that you weren't involved in trying to identify the appallingly burned bodies from La Mon House. I was. I assume you don't remember all the arbitrary killings of protestants such as the Darkley shootings. Or the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen. Or Omagh. This is not to say there weren't atrocities perpetrated in the opposite direction - Greysteel and Cappagh spring to mind as examples.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          I should have added the booby traps. They were intrinsically no-warning devices although not likely to cause so many casualties. I had a lucky escape from one of those.

    1. PatientOne

      "At least with the IRA,... they were not anxious to kill a lot of people,"

      Birmingham Pub Bombings, shootings and bombings in NI, targetted attacks against London and other cities... no, the IRA were not out to kill a lot of people. They were, however, unconcerned by how many they did kill: They wanted attention. If people died during those attacks: That was fine. So technically she might be correct, but that doesn't mean the IRA didn't kill a lot of people.

      1. Chris G Silver badge

        The IRA had huge stashes of weapons, including on the British Mainland, if all they had wanted to do was kill Englishmen including civilians it would have been easy. But they didn't, they wanted to highlight a centuries old grievance . Even in Ulster the casualties were far less than they could have been if the bombers and gunmen had gone all out. That doesn't make everything ok but the troubles could have been a lot worse.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

          1. Shugyosha

            Terry Christian's let himself go.

      2. macjules Silver badge

        At least with the IRA, they had a mission and they were not anxious to kill a lot of people," she told delegates.

        A totally disgraceful thing to say. The fucking bitch should be horsewhipped through the streets for that.

        Europa Hotel



        Hyde Park Corner



        Enniskillen (as the 'peace' talks were ongoing)

        And several thousand more cases.

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      And add to the list the RAF (the German lot), Italy's Red Brigade and ETA.

      The RAF definitely were keen on indiscriminate murder because they felt the whole society was evil, definite parallels with the current lot of extremists, and ETA and the IRA also had their moments. Manchester in 1996 very nearly was a bloodbath, in the end "only" 200 people were injured.

      Ideological conflicts often have multiple causes: the Israeli/Palestinian mess is certainly one but the various "regime changes" for oil haven't helped. And, of course, the Americans created their very one by setting up madrasas in Pakistan and supplying guns to the Mujaheddin. But you also get nutters like Breivik who need no reason for reaping havoc.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @Dr Syntax.

      Quite so. The IRA weren't suicide bombers, and were certainly trying not to kill themselves.

      Yes, they sometimes left warnings, but not always. I don't recollect any warnings on the day that Mountbatten and 18 soldiers were murdered. Inniskilling, anyone?

      And all that was done by people who aren't actually insane, but just very violent. And don't have any empathy. Eventually, even they (well, their leaders, anyway) realised that this wasn't getting them anywhere, they joined in the secret peace talks, and now it's relatively peaceful. It's worth noting that the MI6 people who dealt with Martin McGuiness said they couldn't help liking him, and also that he always kept his word.

      Your average jihadi, on the other hand, can appear perfectly normal in day to day situations, but can be thought of as being 'secretly insane'. He actually wants to die and take a lot of people with him.

      What makes them do it? As the saying has it 'Evil people do evil things, but to make good people do evil things you need religion'.

      That is obviously true but can't be the whole story. Can you imagine a roly poly lady from Red Squadron, 22nd WI Regiment, dashing onto a station concourse, pulling a concealed ripcord and releasing 200 very sticky buns, in the hope that her enemies (T. Blair, etc.) would eventually die of diabetes?

      Is it just a middle eastern (or should I say- non western) mentality? The Palestinians aren't like it, but then they're fairly secular, and generally well educated.

      Why can a young non western person be convinced to do something that any reasonable person would consider insane?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "Why can a young non western person be convinced to do something that any reasonable person would consider insane?"

        Three words: Death Before Dishonor. Or IOW, "Life is Fleeting, Honor is Eternal." It's a mentality that actually IS more prevalent in the East than it is in the West because they value some notable things higher than life itself (such as honor, family, the kingdom); the West doesn't have that kind of emphasis; most people are worth sparing, which is why respecting a surrender was IINM part of the code of Chivalry.

    4. gandalfcn Silver badge

      I was intending to post something similar, my take was that they had every intention of killing as many people as possible, as did the Unionists.

    5. Mark Dempster

      >"At least with the IRA,... they were not anxious to kill a lot of people,"

      That's not what it seemed like at the time. MI5 weren't involved in day-to-day murder investigations so she might not have noticed.<

      To be fair to them, although they were pretty brutal in Ireland they did give warnings for *most* (not all!) of their mainland bombings, meaning the buildings could usually be evacuated. Looking back at it now it seems almost civilised, in terrorist terms at least.

      And that is NOT to say I condone their actions, or those of any other groups.

  1. frank ly

    Stella Rimington ....

    .... is a former _spymistress_.

    If you're going to use gender specific terms then please get them right.

  2. Chairman of the Bored

    Not trying to kill a lot of people...

    ...well intensity of combat is relative. If you are safe and secure in a DC or London HQ I guess all combat looks pretty low intensity. I can assure you, though, that when you are actively being shot at the notion of 'low intensity combat' is BS. Suppose that must have been the experience for in Belfast...

    1. DMSlicer

      > Suppose that must have been the experience for in Belfast...

      It's interesting how much Belfast has been portrayed as a "War Zone" in international news over the years, but I can say that growing up here has been a vastly different experience.

      I was born in the very early 80s in East Belfast. I remember hearing bombs going off and there being a security fence around the pedestrian precinct in the City Center.

      Occasionally I heard bangs in the background (one or two a year perhaps?) and later on I might see the front of a building lying in rubble and/or being rebuilt. But generally any violence I saw was more just young thugs chucking bricks at each other - which happens in most cities but at least in Belfast you could tell what side they were on by which football top they were wearing.

      There were security mesh/bars on the windows of most public buildings to stop them getting a brick or petrol bomb thrown through them. My Mum used to get her handbag searched going into shops in the City Center until they took down the security fencing, and during parade season every July there were a slew of buses + cars being stolen and burnt out to block a road and we had to go home via a different route.

      Apart from that, life pretty much just went on - aside from developing a rather black and sarcastic sense of humour, myself and most of my friends that grew up all over Belfast weren't too badly affected by the "Troubles". I had two school classmates die, but neither was related to the violence - one was due to a congenital illness and the other was a teen suicide.

      Once you got further outside the City Center into the suburbs, it was very rare for there to be any trouble. At least in East/Southeast Belfast which was predominantly Loyalist (and I assume also Northwest Belfast which was predominantly Republican...) where the only trouble you heard of tended to be infighting between different Paramilitary groups. If you went further out into towns/villages it was rare to find a "mixed" town - you could tell what the town's political stance was by the flags and the colour of paint on the kerbstones, and things were generally quiet as long as nobody stirred up any trouble.

      The various paramilitary groups had pretty much cornered the market on crime, so much so that you never really heard about anyone selling drugs in the schoolyard or pedophiles pulling kids into cars because the Paramilitary groups put the fear of God into anyone that looked remotely shifty. During the late 80s and early 90s I walked home from primary school and got the bus to/from town regularly and never had any trouble - the place was probably safer for a civilian than it is today.

      Most of the province was even fairly receptive to outsiders (unless you had an Irish/English accent and were in the "wrong" part of the city). Although understandably there were very few foreigners that actually wanted to come to Belfast... I think I only saw a single person with black skin my entire childhood - he was the much-loved owner of a local Corner Newsagents/Sweet shop.

      Over the years as the peace process developed, most of the hatred just seems to have been redirected. Young thugs are now more likely to target a local Asian or Polish family than their traditional "other side"... and heaven help you if you're non-white and Islamic with a foreign accent.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        "The various paramilitary groups had pretty much cornered the market on crime"

        I was told that at least in the early days - presumably the late 60s and early 70s - most of those involved were already known to the police as local criminals. I sometimes remember that when I read accounts of those involved in the current outbreak.

        "Although understandably there were very few foreigners that actually wanted to come to Belfast."

        Just before I started work at QUB the department had had a Sikh research student (this would have been early to mid '60s). I often wondered what the population of rural South Down made of a turbaned Sikh peddling round on a cycle with a set of Hiller borer rods tied to the cross-bar.

      2. Glenturret Single Malt

        Despite my reassurances along these lines (after speaking to a friend who had just been working there for two years), my wife totally refused to accompany me if I accepted a job offer in Belfast in the early 70s. So, we didn't go and I still have never been back to Northern Ireland.

  3. c1ue

    Interesting what is left out

    For example:

    British involvement in Iraq - including the WMD justification for Saddam removal



    Really hard to give a lot of positive credit for an institution, if not the specific person, who supposedly should know better.

    Then again, those of us laboring in the trenches know full well that titles don't make for ability - they primarily denote politics.

    1. SkippyBing

      Re: Interesting what is left out

      I believe they were all after her time as DG of MI5 so she may have felt it wasn't her place to discuss that.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Interesting what is left out

        MI6 were responsible for the WMD 'scare' not MI5. Post Rimmington's time, I believe, but I saw reports of 6 being chucked out of 5s premises (over rendition I seem to remember)

  4. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese


    Drawing parallels with the IRA seems somewhat artificial to me. The IRA acted as a politically-motivated organisation with a clear goal, i.e. a united Ireland for the Irish.

    The more recent terror operations seem a bit more open-ended, i.e. kill anyone who isn't one of us

    Like a software engineering problem, it gets harder to work towards a tangible solution when the requirements are less well-defined

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: IRA

      Drawing parallels seems artificial? Well, it rather depends on how short your memory is.

      The names behind it, the reasons behind it, might have changed, but if you are on the receiving end of half-a-pound of nails delivered courtesy of a lump of Semtex, you're not going to be going to pieces over how clearly defined the motivations behind your imminent death are.

      I think the IRA are far from finished, however. I still pick up news of killings perpetrated in the cause of Irish nationalism. That moment where Sarah Connor is sitting at the gas station watching the boys fight... that.

    2. Rob Crawford

      Re: IRA

      Had the IRA got 36 counties the next target would have been the Irish government as they were essentially a Marxist organisation that would not have tolerated Irish governments of the time.

      As has been shown they would not have given up the power and control of their communities or the lucrative "community worker" status

      1. Fortycoats

        Re: IRA

        32 counties, not 36 :-)

        But you're right on the rest. Though I don't think they're targeting the Irish government. Their target is to be IN the next Irish government. The main political parties have each proved they're useless and can't run the country, so I fear the Shinners will do rather well at the next election. Taoiseach Gerry? Ugh!

    3. JimC

      Re: IRA

      The big difference was that the IRA had a very limited supply of would be terrorists who were generally intended to survive their missions in order to execute another one. By contrast the Islamists have a more generous supply of prospective terrorists and their leaders positively prefer them not to survive.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: IRA

    "At least with the IRA, they had a mission and they were not anxious to kill a lot of people"

    Really? Tell that to the 3700 civilians, police and soldiers the IRA murdered in its 3 decades of mayhem. They were not noble saints straining against a corrupt establishment, they were murdering criminal shits who brought terror and chaos to NI, Eire, the mainland and at a local level their own communities. Eg: How is blowing up 11 army bandsman in Hyde Park ANY different on a moral level to murdering an army musician with knives In Woolwich?

    But the IRA didn't deberately target civilians some say. Didn't they? Imprecise bomb warnings with too little time to clear the area allowed them to shift responsibility and blame the authorities for any deaths but it wasn't by accident that the warnings were frequently vague. The only difference between NI dissidents and Islamists is that the former had some sort of vague dream about a united ireland whereas the Islamists just seem to be a nihilistic death cult, but thats about it. The end result is often the same.

    1. Noel Morgan

      Re: IRA

      Just to point out that not all 3600 deaths in the troubles in N. Ireland were caused by the IRA. (I am no friend of theirs, they almost killed my mother and did manage to kill some friends)

      Of the approx 3500 deaths - 2000 were killed by the IRA. The other 1500 were killed by the people opposing them.

      They also had a lower casualty rate among civilians than the Loyalists and surprisingly the British Army.

      Republicans 35% civilian casualties

      British Army 51% civilian casualties

      Loyalists 85% civilian casualties.

    2. Primus Secundus Tertius

      Re: IRA


      the Islamic terrorists do have a stated aim: to establish a world-wide caliphate. But the vision gets lost in the torrents of blood.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: IRA

        Actually, for some, the torrents of blood are REQUIRED for the worldwide Caliphate. They WANT to trigger Armageddon or the Muslim equivalent since that's the condition for the Twelfth Imam to appear who will then miraculously end all the fighting and install the Caliphate.

  6. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    An inconvenient question with no attractive answer.

    What sort of intelligence service is duty bound to server and suffer the intelligence of crass wannabe leaderships of politically inept Parliamentarians?

    Who would ever think it a smart move in such an horrendous state, to join forces and share sources with such a conspiring enterprise, other than all of those Walty Mitty types blissfully content to suck at the teat of the public cash cow, which is a magic money tree?

    1. PickledAardvark

      Re: An inconvenient question with no attractive answer.

      This is a fascinating argument. In past times, I suppose some spooks signed up to serve the Crown. To what do they agree today? To serve the Nation? For some, it is a job; for others, it is a purpose in life.

      Every intelligence service has to employ non-nationals. Much of the intelligence service spends its time looking for ringers -- nationals or non-nationals -- within itself. The less time it wastes looking for intruders, the more it has for useful work.

      When amanfromMars1 suggests that spooks suffer from "politically inept Parliamentarians", I don't know what he means. To become a Parliamentarian, you have to be quick with wits, well advised, adept.

      The Walter Mitty stories were about a man who fantasised about catching criminals and going into space, whilst his wife went shopping.

    2. Uffish

      Re: An inconvenient question with no attractive answer.

      I posted above arguing precisely that an intelligence service should suffer under crass Parliamentarians. I agree with you though that there are difficulties and drawbacks involved. I think the relevant laws permit "following your nose" for a limited time before legal oversight is required.

      "At the bot­tom of all the trib­utes paid to democ­ra­cy is the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or volu­mi­nous dis­cus­sion can pos­si­bly dimin­ish the over­whelm­ing impor­tance of that point". —Winston Churchill, House of Com­mons, 31 Octo­ber 1944

      1. Uffish

        Re: An inconvenient question with no attractive answer.

        Point of order: I do not think amanfrommars deserves downvotes - I think he makes very valid points, but I think that Parliament (and the Sovereign I suppose)) is/are sovereign, not the spooks.

        1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

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  7. Mike Shepherd

    I'm shocked, *shocked* to find that spying is going on in here

    'The former MI5 chief said...she went to Moscow to make "first contact" with the KGB. "I found myself facing a long line of KGB officers in their headquarters".'

    The surprise must have ranked with that of visiting a nudist camp and finding it full of naked people.

  8. Potemkine Silver badge

    A suggestion

    Instead of trying to spy everybody everywhere anytime, what about putting the resources on people already identified as dangerous because they were identified as wannabe terrorists by TV shows or because they were signaled as such by other european agencies?

    As the War Nerd wrote it, "They should just drop the façade and call military intelligence the Department of “Whoops!”"

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A suggestion

      Perhaps a better question to ask would be, "WHO were you following so intently that you couldn't devote time to someone for whom you received a specific threat?" If they can't give you a straight-up and immediate answer, the assumption will become they weren't following ANYONE, meaning they were either incompetent or (worse) complicit. Either way, there will soon be a call to nuke 'em.

    2. Mister Fluffy

      Re: A suggestion

      Military Intelligence may be an oxymoron.

      See Singapore WWII, or thereabouts.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "That is a debate going on now. How much should we sacrifice our privacy, our human rights, in order for the government to be able to look afterwards?"

    Frankly, it's in the current government's interests to have the occasional atrocity. Keep everybody scared and they get to pass laws consolidating their power base without too much squawking from the public.

    So. None. No privacy or human rights should be sacrificed.

    1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

      Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Then you're saying the human race is actually incapable of ruling itself...?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Donald Trump is POTUS. It's not looking good, to be honest.

      2. harmjschoonhoven

        @Aladdin Sane

        Franklin's quote on Liberty and Safety was taken from a letter he wrote about a tax dispute between the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the family of the Penns, the proprietary family of the Pennsylvania colony who ruled it from afar. And the legislature was trying to tax the Penn family lands to pay for frontier defense during the French and Indian War. And the Penn family kept instructing the governor to veto. Franklin felt that this was a great affront to the ability of the legislature to govern. And so he actually meant purchase a little temporary safety very literally. The Penn family was trying to give a lump sum of money in exchange for the General Assembly's acknowledging that it did not have the authority to tax it.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: @Aladdin Sane

          Do you really think Franklin was likely to express an opinion about a specific matter in terms suggesting a general principle without meaning it to be the latter?

  10. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

    Privacy versus Security

    The security services need to protect their access with more jealousy. Reading our e-mails for the purpose of uncovering terrorist plots might be tolerated by a portion of society. Might.

    But once granting these powers and they are used to see who might be looking at other people's naughty bits, we get the feeling that we were being lied to.

  11. Mage Silver badge

    IRA: not anxious to kill a lot of people


    Indiscriminate bombings, mostly of civilians. The shootings and beatings were more targeted... mostly at their own community. Look at the figures.

    From 1969 to about 1998:

    More than 3,500 people were killed in the conflict, of whom 52% were civilians, 32% were members of the British security forces, and 16% were members of paramilitary groups.

    More people were killed in the Irish Civil War than War of Independence: Previous incarnation of IRA.

    Most attacks on security forces were ambushes.

    Though from 1916 to the GFA, reacting with force, executions, internment, shooting at protesters etc, only created followers.

    Though contrary to much media reporting, unlike current terrorism, it was purely about politics, not religion. It was just historical accident that the two sides mostly belonged to two different denominations.

    What is this person thinking?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Purely political?

      The "political" aspect appeared most of all like a convenient cover that gave them a veneer of honour among their supporters, including those US citizens who chose to donate to "the cause".

      Underneath that cover their real motivation seemed to be mostly indulging criminality and sadism.

      There were many incidents worthy of note for their depravity, but two that spring to my mind are Gerry Adams crouching down behind a small child during the Milltown Cemetery grenade attack, and the bombing of the Fermanagh school bus, which detonated after the protestant children had got on at one of town, but before the catholic children boarded at the other, nominally because the driver was a part time UDR man.

      Absolutely disgusting.

  12. tfewster Silver badge

    Outdated, yet still pushing bullshit

    "In a democracy, it would not be acceptable to have a security service police force that is so enormous that it can follow everyone around."

    But that's precisely what they want to do, using computers instead of agents. And she still avoided the question of why they didn't "follow a small number of known hostiles around"

    1. Deckard_C

      Re: Outdated, yet still pushing bullshit

      What is the "small number of known hostiles" you are talking about? The ones which have committed there act and now dead? We don't know how many get highlighted and need following.

      We can find out how many get arrested for terrorism related offences in the UK. Which is 255 for 2016 and 317 for 2015. Less than half of those even get charged So that's a starting point for known. You could guess a lot more than that will be followed but haven't got enough on them to be arrested yet. Probably a lot more again which get highlighted by the public.

      Doesn't take much planning to hire a van and get a knife, those sort of attacks will always be very hard to stop. So where do you want to be on the scale of a free society to police state. I think we more on the free society end than say Iran.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Outdated, yet still pushing bullshit

        "We can find out how many get arrested for terrorism related offences in the UK. Which is 255 for 2016 and 317 for 2015. Less than half of those even get charged"

        Largely friends and family of the attackers. The paucity of the charges is a good indication of what's happening - they're just arresting bystanders and hoping a few don't prove to be innocent.

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