Iran tried to assassinate British residents 10 times this year, MI5 chief reveals

MI5 Director General, Ken McCallum, gives a speech at Thames House in central London - Yui Mok/PA
MI5 Director General, Ken McCallum, gives a speech at Thames House in central London - Yui Mok/PA

Iran has plotted the assassination and kidnapping of at least 10 British residents it accuses of being “enemies of the regime”, the head of MI5 disclosed on Wednesday.

In his annual speech on the threats facing the UK, Ken McCallum, MI5’s director general, said Iran’s “aggressive intelligence services” had crossed over into launching terrorist attacks on British soil.

In a wide ranging assessment, Mr McCallum said Russia’s spy network had been “struck the most significant blow… in recent European history” as a consequence of consolidated international opposition to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

He said 400 Russian spies had been ejected from European countries since the start of the war and that the UK alone had refused 100 Russian diplomatic visa applications on “national security grounds”.

Mr McCallum said that since the summer when he issued a chilling warning over China’s “game-changing strategic challenge” to the UK, MI5 had seen “yet more concerning activity” that included the “harassment and assault” of Chinese dissidents living in Britain.

Mr McCallum also disclosed that eight “potentially deadly” terrorist plots by both Islamist and Right-wing extremists had been thwarted in the past 12 months.

A quarter of MI5’s counter terrorism work now involves investigating and disrupting extreme Right-wing plots compared to a fifth of its case load a little over a year ago.

Iran’s intelligence services ‘a sophisticated adversary’

Mr McCallum’s warning over Iran follows the disclosure last week that two Anglo-Iranian journalists working for an independent Persian language television channel, based in the UK, had been targeted for assassination by the Tehran regime.

Mr McCallum said Iran was the “state actor which most frequently crosses into terrorism” labelling Tehran’s intelligence services “a sophisticated adversary” .

The current wave of protests had prompted the regime to “resort to violence to silence critics,” said Mr McCallum, adding: “Iran projects threat to the UK directly, through its aggressive intelligence services.

“At its sharpest this includes ambitions to kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.

“We have seen at least 10 such potential threats since January alone.”

Chinese using 'all means at their disposal'

Mr McCallum said Chinese authorities were using “all the means at their disposal to monitor - and where they deem necessary intimidate - the Chinese diaspora”.

“This takes place all over the world, from coercing and forcibly repatriating Chinese nationals to harassment and assault.”

He said the intimidation tactics were “brought home recently… when a pro-democracy protester appeared to be the subject of violence outside the Chinese Consulate in Manchester”, in reference to an incident last month when an opponent of Xi Jinping's regime was dragged off the street and beaten within the grounds of the consulate.

A man is pulled at the gate of the Chinese consulate after a demonstration against China's President Xi Jinping, in Manchester - Matthew Leung/Reuters
A man is pulled at the gate of the Chinese consulate after a demonstration against China's President Xi Jinping, in Manchester - Matthew Leung/Reuters

Mr McCallum said that China was using “front organisations” to “apply pressure to those challenging the regime’s core interests” and added: “We can expect it to increase further as president Xi consolidates power on an indefinite basis.

“To intimidate and harass UK nationals or those who have made the UK their home cannot be tolerated.”

‘UK must be ready for Russian aggression for years to come’

Mr McCallum derided as “silly” Russia’s claim that Britain was responsible for the attack on the NordStream pipelines in September this year, but said “the serious point is that the UK must be ready for Russian aggression for years to come”.

“Some of that will be covert aggression, for MI5 to tackle and defeat. But much of it, as currently with energy levers, will be overt.”

Warning that Russia’s “covert toolkit” includes cyber attacks, disinformation, espionage and interference with Britain’s democratic process, the MI5 chief said: “We’ve continued to work intensively to make the UK the hardest possible operating environment for Russian covert action.”

He specifically highlighted the threat from “Putin-aligned oligarchs” who may be used as “tools for influence” in the UK.

Using a football analogy, he said: “Russia thinks nothing of throwing an elbow in the face and routinely cheats to get its way.

“We’ve had success in getting some of their players sent off and for now they’re a bit distracted by the blame game in their own dressing-room, but they will keep attacking us.”

Right-wing terror evolves

While terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology still accounts for about three-quarters of MI5’s terrorist caseload, the number of investigations conducted into extreme Right-wing suspects now accounts for a quarter of its work, said Mr McCallum.

He said security services are seeing growing attempts by Right-wing extremists to “acquire weapons”, particularly firearms, “well in advance of any specific targeting intent developing”.

Ken McCallum - Yui Mok/PA
Ken McCallum - Yui Mok/PA

The extreme Right-wing landscape has continued to evolve away from structured, real-world groups such as National Action, to a diffuse online threat.

From the comfort of their bedrooms, individuals are easily able to access Right-wing extremist spaces, network with each other and move towards a radical mindset.”

He warned of an increase in the number of attempts by Right-wing extremists to acquire weapons, with guns in particular being highly sought after, including through the use of 3D printers.

Growing numbers of Right-wing extremist “influencers…fuel grievances and amplify conspiracy theories,” said Mr McCallum, adding: “This problem feels like it will endure.”

He said the “horrible petrol bomb attack” on a migrant processing centre in Dover was the latest example.

In response to questions from journalists after the speech, Mr McCallum said the youngest individual investigated by MI5 as a potential Right-wing extremist, was just 13 years old.

Mr McCallum said the problem of growing numbers of Right-wing extremist influencers was “a widespread phenomenon”, adding: “What we see is a really complex picture…a confused soup of hate.”

He said Islamist terrorism “remains the larger problem” but that “much of the volume is self-radicalised terrorists seeking to conduct low-sophistication attacks”. He stressed that such attacks did not mean “low impact” and pointed to the “appalling murder” of Sir David Amess, the Conservative MP, a little over a year ago.