In his first public speech for nearly two years, Security Service Director General Jonathan Evans said the Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt offered long-term hope of a more democratic Middle East.
But Britain’s domestic spy chief said al Qaeda, which moved to Afghanistan from Arab countries in the 1990s and thence to Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban, was once again trying to gain a foothold in the Arab world.
“Today parts of the Arab world have once more become a permissive environment for al Qaeda,” Evans said, according to an advance text of a rare speech in London outlining the key threats to British interests.
“A small number of British would-be jihadis are also making their way to Arab countries to seek training and opportunities for militant activity, as they do in Somalia and Yemen. Some will return to the UK and pose a threat here. This is a new and worrying development and could get worse,” said Evans, a career officer who has served as head of the Security Service since April 2007.
The Arab Spring was lauded by Western leaders who hoped the revolts would usher in prosperity and freedom to the Middle East and North Africa, though Islamists have come to power in elections in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya has been racked by turmoil while al Qaeda militants are expanding their foothold in the south of Yemen. A plot by al Qaeda in Yemen to blow up an airliner over the Atlantic was foiled in May by a British spy.
British officials say one of the biggest threats to the realm is likely to come from a domestic cell of militants who have received training or support from al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen.