People who suspect their neighbours may be extremists should inform the security services because “the enemy is everywhere”, the former head of MI5 has said.
Tom Whitehead and Hannah Furness
10:00PM BST 27 May 2013
Dame Stella Rimington invoked the wartime spirit as she said the public had a duty to act as the “eyes and ears” of the security services in combating terrorists.
She made the plea as she warned that MI5 could not be expected to spot every danger and that further attacks were likely unless Britain wanted a “Stasi” state where everyone was monitored.
However, Dame Stella, who was Director General of MI5 from 1992 to 1996, said she supported the Conservatives’ plans to give the police and spy agencies the power to monitor every phone call, email and web visit.
She also warned against using drones to gather intelligence saying they should only be “weapons of war”.
Dame Stella, MI5’s first female chief, was speaking at The Telegraph Hay Festival in the aftermath of the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby by alleged Islamist fanatics in Woolwich last Wednesday.
The 25-year-old soldier was allegedly hacked to death by Michael Adebolajo, 28, and Michael Adebowale, 22, in a suspected anti-Western attack.
It was the worst apparent terrorist atrocity on UK soil since the July 7 London bombings in 2005.
It emerged today that Mr Adebolajo made a second attempt to travel to Somalia to join extremist groups after failing in 2010, and the former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, warned that threats to ban extremist preachers from television would act as a “recruiting sergeant” for extremists and damage democracy.
Meanwhile a 10th man was arrested in connection with Drummer Rigby’s death while three others previously detained were released on police bail.
The atrocity has raised serious questions for MI5 after it emerged both suspects were known to them for up to a decade. Mr Adebolajo had been detained in Kenya in 2010 trying to join the al-Shabaab terrorist group in neighbouring Somalia. Friends claimed MI5 tried to recruit him as an informant when he returned.
The parliamentary intelligence and security committee is now conducting an inquiry to examine whether there were any intelligence failings that could have prevented the atrocity.
Dame Stella, 78, who was at Hay to promote her latest spy novel, The Geneva Trap, revived images of the Second World War when she urged the public to do their bit. She said it was impossible for the security services to spot every risk, especially amid the growing threat of people radicalising themselves over the internet.
The former spy master said: “The community has the responsibility to act as the eyes and ears, as they did during the war … where there were all these posters up saying the walls have ears and the enemy is everywhere.” She said: “There have often been indications in the community, whether it’s Muslim or anywhere else, that people are becoming extremists and spouting hate phrases.”
Dame Stella said the alleged ideology behind the Woolwich killing made it a “terrorist attack”. She said the nature of the al-Qaeda threat, whose strongholds in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been weakened, meant such ideologies had become “rooted in certain parts of society”. That was more difficult to deal with, she said.
She defended her former service and said the public had to accept there was a risk people would slip through the net. There were “thousands” of people being radicalised in the UK, which meant MI5 had to prioritise the greatest dangers. The alternative was to have a “police state”.
The former MI5 chief also warned against the expanding use of drones, saying: “Drones are a weapon of war and at the moment they’re being operated by security services.”
She also revealed how she and her family had to be moved to a secret address after a member of an active IRA cell in London was found with a copy of her home address in his pocket.