British Intelligence: How Spies Locate And Stop Terror Threats



How do spies collect the intelligence to deal with threats to the UK? Can we even trust that the intelligence is real? Is defending the realm just a high-risk guessing game?


Define this: what is “British Intelligence”?

A man in black and white holding binoculars. British Intelligence

Credit: Edith Soto Flickr

The term “British Intelligence” covers all the UK’s various spy agencies. The top three to know are:

MI5 AKA the Security Service.
MI5 operates within Britain to stop threats to the UK.

MI6 AKA the Special Intelligence Service (SIS).
MI6 operates abroad providing information about potential threats to the UK. FYI, if James Bond was real, he’d work for MI6.

GCHQ monitors communications across the UK and works alongside MI5 and MI6.

MI5’s motto is to protect the “defence of the realm”. This requires collecting intelligence or “Intel” on potential enemies of the state. Intel is information of military or political value and there are many different types. Of course, defining what intelligence is of value is subjective. For example MI5 once spied on Beatles singer John Lennon for the FBI. The Americans wanted to deport Lennon out of the USA after he campaigned against the Vietnam War. Talk about priorities.


How is intelligence gathered?

British Intelligence; scene from "Mission Impossible" with Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt  hanging from the ceiling

Credit: Flickr

Surprise, surprise – the security services are notoriously secretive. Especially when it comes to their methods. MI6 didn’t admit that it existed until 1994! Yet today the MI5 website outlines some of the methods used to gather Intel.

HUMINT is Human Intelligence. This is information collected by someone actually on the ground, in the location. Spies receive HUMINT from Covert Human Intelligence Sources (i.e. agents). An agent is a ‘human source able to provide secret reporting on a target of investigation’. Agents are not actual employees of British Intelligence but are recruited to feed information back to their MI5 handlers.


Suspects are put under “directed surveillance” which is being followed and watched. British Intelligence also intercepts SIGINT, or Signals Intelligence. This includes communications data – who you contact, how and when. With signed permission from the Home Secretary in the form of a warrant they can also listen in on your calls and read your emails. Also requiring a warrant is “intrusive surveillance”. This is spies bugging your car or house to see what you’re up to.

There are strict regulations on what spies working for British Intelligence can and can’t do. Campaign group Liberty outlines the authorisation needed for various types of surveillance. The problem? Technological advances mean many of these regulations are out of date. The government’s proposed Investigatory Powers Bill will update what’s legal. Some say it grants too much power to spies and call it the “snoopers’ charter”.


Isn’t this a bit of a guessing game?

British Intelligence. :Intelligence Division Passenger Report, Martens from 1918

Credit: Wikipedia

Erm…maybe. You’ll know that scene which crops up in every spy film. The hero arrives for a mission briefing. “We’ve picked up intelligence that [insert villain here] will be in [insert glamorous location] in two days”.
In real life things are never certain. Analysts spend large amounts of time determining whether to trust a piece of information. US President Barack Obama once said that ‘one of the things you learn as president is you’re always dealing with probabilities.’

There are multiple accounts of how the USA hunted down Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda extremist behind the 9/11 attacks. The official story says it all began with one small piece of Intel. A name mentioned in an interrogation was eventually identified as bin Laden’s messenger. Tracking the messenger led to bin Laden’s location. This process took over eight years. Even when the troops were sent in officials were only 55% certain that bin Laden was at the location. Some were only 30% sure.

Gambling on Intel doesn’t always pay off. In 1988 British Intelligence services received Intel which suggested the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were planning a bomb attack on the island of Gibraltar. Known IRA members had traveled to the island under false identities. Soldiers killed three IRA members but it turned out that they were unarmed. No bomb was found in the car they were travelling in.

The UK’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq war was also based on Intel which turned out to be untrue. Reports suggested that Iraq had developed “weapons of mass destruction” which could be launched within 45 minutes. To cut one of the biggest political scandals of the 21st century short: turns out Iraq didn’t have these weapons. Was this a case of bad Intel, or was there a bit of “artistic licence” with the facts?  The Chilcot Report into the Iraq War will be published in 2016.


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