For as long as humint as existed, agents have supplied it. Defectors and refugees provide human intelligence, sometimes for very long periods of time prior to their actual departure from theatre. Other human intelligence comes from what you might call infiltration, through men and women who are enticed to join target organisations, or occupy other designated areas, using real or assumed identities.
That used to be the model, anyway. Problematically, assumed identities in an age of social media are impossible. You will be found out. Somebody will see you, and remember you. State-level intelligence agencies already have some capability to run automated facial recognition programmes on all popular social media. Indeed, this is one of the key reasons why employees of MI5, SIS and GCHQ are specifically forbidden to post or update social media profiles. Direct infiltration under cover, like the Metropolitan Police were doing with protest groups in the nineties, is no longer a viable technique. You cannot live long under alias if you are on the internet.
With that in mind, let us consider the sheer volume of agents which the British intelligence community is likely to be handling. MI5 used to state in its own recruitment literature that its handling officers are expected to run between twenty and thirty agents a head (remember the vast majority of these will be using their real identities). That sort of workload is probably similar to that found in SIS. Budgets for running agents have increased dramatically since 9/11, so it is reasonable to assume that networks have been growing since then. MI5 employ around 4,000 people. Assuming it can task one thousand operational intelligence officers with Islamic extremism, the Security Service’s biggest concern, they could very easily be expected to be running somewhere between two and three thousand agents. Almost every one of these will be people using their own identities, pretending to be committed jihadis.
In 2007 Jonathan Evans, then Director General of MI5, publicly announced that his officers were monitoring two thousand potential Islamic terrorists (“potential”, nota bene). In February of this year, “highly placed MI5 sources” told the Financial Times there were now 3,000 on the “watchlist”. You will notice that both these figures bracket exactly the likely range of MI5’s Islamist agent population. And I do not think this is a coincidence.
Ponder the history of Northern Ireland, a field in which MI5 applied far less resources than it currently does to combating Islamic extremism. By the time of the Good Friday Agreement, British intelligence was collectively running not hundreds, but thousands, of agents and informers in Ulster. Military personnel I knew often complained to me that “we know who all the bad guys are, we could take them all out in one weekend” but politics made it impossible. This was partly true. We didn’t just know who all the bad guys were, we were paying them. They were agents, also known as Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS).
In Northern Ireland, collusion between paramilitaries and the intelligence community was rife. British intelligence officers bloodied their hands. They protected informants even when they killed innocent civilians, and they continue to protect them today. As astonishing as it may seem, there are many cases where operational officers knew innocents would be killed, and they did nothing to stop it. They even actively helped facilitate it. According the De Silva Report, 85% of UDA targeting was done by the British intelligence community. Although the BBC’s Panorama programme is often hyperbolic, asinine and biased, Darragh Macintyre’s Britain’s Secret Terror Deals was a superb recap of what we know.
Information about agent handling in Northern Ireland continues to drip into the public domain. The three reports of Lord Stevens are all still classified, but he has let slip some incredible revelations. During his investigations into collusion between terrorists and the British intelligence community, the former Met commissioner arrested 210 former paramilitaries.
“Of the 210 people we arrested,” Stevens told the press, “only three weren’t agents.”
Please, please ponder that statistic. Stevens’ sample shows an infiltration rate of 98.6%. At least half of the IRA were actually British informants. Now apply that ratio to the number of potential Islamist terrorist suspects mentioned above, bearing in mind that we are dedicating far more resources to this newer threat. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of jihadi suspects and jihadi agents, I suspect you would have two circles that almost exactly overlap.
The profile of Islamist terrorists supports this conclusion. There are no cleanskins. Every attempted act of terrorism, every terrorist sympathiser, everyone is already known and on file. But, we are told, the Security Services somehow overlooked them. Do you believe this? Do you believe the argument made by Evans and others, that “we simply don’t have the resources to follow everyone all of the time”? I believe the reverse is more likely. Our intelligence community is more than adequately resourced, and the vast majority of so-called jihadis have existing operational relationships with the police and/or the Security Service and/or some other branch of the intelligence community. Given the sheer scale of Britain’s agent network, mistakes in handling will be made, which explain instances like the murder of Lee Rigby (the Intelligence and Security Committee has yet to deliver its promised report on the mishandling of Michael Adebolajo).
Agents know their job requires that they break the law, and agents expect they will be protected from the consequences. This is the essence of the deal. In the words of one former Belfast agent, they “walked on water”. Some were effectively state-sponsored serial killers. Their successors exist today, paid recruits of SIS and MI5, in Iraq and Syria. I cannot and will not pretend I know that Jihadi John is a British agent, but he is the son of a former agent, and if I was a non-cleanskin Islamist agent in place I would behave exactly as he has done. Indeed, such behaviour may have been expected of me by my target, as a kind of test or induction. You could speculate on any number of reasons why Mohammed Emwazi became “radicalised”, but the most likely is surely that some intelligence agency was paying him. There is even a 2009 audio recording in circulation in which Emwazi claims he isn’t an extremist, and that MI5 are harassing him.
It is absolutely par for the course that Emwazi’s family is protected by the UK government. They have been given safe houses in Britain and Kuwait, where his father is voluntarily talking to Kuwaiti intelligence.
I think I know what will happen to the majority of UK Islamists who left to join ISIS. They will disappear, like all the Iraqi WMD scientists did. They will just vanish. They will be exfiltrated and offered new lives. It won’t be hard to get them out: the SAS are already driving around ISIS territory in fancy dress. Emwazi may already have left. Similarly, I am confident the bodies of Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin will never be found. Undoubtedly, their families have been or will be offered settlements by the government.
“We’re confident [Khan is] dead but not absolutely categoric,” tweeted Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. Of course you can’t be categoric. Very few agents can be accommodated on re-entry as comfortably as Majiid Nawaz or Tommy Robinson.
FOOTNOTE Agents who were recruited in the late nineties, before the dawn of social media, and who are still in place, will have been compelled to continue under their assumed identities. There are probably still a couple in the trade union movement. Indeed I can think of one very likely candidate, who is currently demonstrating a puzzling solidarity with Ukrainian nationalists. I doubt any of his communist/anarchist colleagues have ever met a single member of his family.