Reality Check: Russia Is At War With The UK
By the end of November 2017, I had reached burn out.
You can't fight when you're exhausted, not even for yourself. Not for your life. So I rested. I stopped and rested.
All the while, though, I knew the world was still staring down the barrel of a loaded weapon. And that makes for an uneasy sleep.
“I fell into a strange world of psychometric voter targeting, data laundering, espionage-led infiltration of the far-right, and hybrid warfare. There's little to be done to prepare a person for that”
Having started 2017 still recovering from life after whistleblowing, I fell into a strange world of psychometric voter targeting, data laundering, espionage-led infiltration of the far-right, and hybrid warfare. There's little to be done to prepare a person for that, let alone one who is chasing that particular white rabbit on a limited amount of crowdfunding and with little more than social media to get people reading the articles.
The pressure of racing time itself, and of having taken on the pro-active Russian state and its actors while trying to wake anyone in our own Parliament or the over-stretched - and sometimes negligent - security services and enforcement agencies, was immense. I was utterly exposed. Became the victim of increasing levels of trolling – including from the Russians themselves – and suddenly became overwhelmed by the sense it was pointless.
As the birth of my twin daughters approached I became listless, irritable. Saw myself as having failed the people who had read and shared the articles. Those who were, for the want of a better word, Woke.
I've been there before, several years ago as my time at Scotland Yard came to its end, but this time I recognised the symptoms for what they were: a warning to back away and regroup. To take my lumps on the chin and try to reboot, because I'd gotten to the point where there was not only too much output but too much input as well. When faced with a world as insane as this one had become, it was inevitable.
It turned out, however, the ears listening weren't so deaf after all.
“The truth had finally been written on the wall, for all to see, and the British media took the opportunity to do something for the greater good and painted the damn thing grey instead.”
On the 21st of December 2017, the Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament, led by the MP Dominic Grieve, released its annual report. Fireworks. Though you would be hard pushed to see the display by the way it was reported in the British media.
The Financial Times carried a story on page 3, under the headline ‘Spymasters speak out over Russian threat,' while The Times ran on page 2 with: ‘GCHQ: British cyber weapons could paralyse hostile states.'
While I admire the optimism of GCHQ in their own ability, not only is it not the answer, but they are the least trustworthy intelligence service in the West.
The Times piece ended up reading as Brexit marketing puff, not least displayed in the quote by Andrew Parker, director-general of MI5. He told The Times: “My life has got more difficult since the referendum because of the need to invest reassurance time with our European partners. Half of Europe is scared of terrorism and the other half is scared of Russia, and both halves want us to help them.”
I spent much of last year investigating the Russian threat and can say without doubt the EU is much more advanced in their response to Kremlin activity. Across the board, from fighting fake news and disinformation, to protecting the integrity of elections, to preparing for the increasingly probable worst with a joint defence initiative.
The Times' comment from Parker, their headline, all of the reporting led me back an assessment I made in Alternative War, which was published last August in the public interest. At the end of one chapter, discussing the success of Russia against the West, I wrote: “...the tactics for waging this war include using organised crime as an instrument, and this is the face Western intelligence agencies – in particular the UK, with its genetic code of private education and subsequent non-exposure to criminality – simply failed to recognise. The hybrid conflict we find ourselves in is, in part, a war of the old ways and this new hybrid. The dead languages versus the modern. If you really want to know how all of this came down so hard and fast, I believe the answer is traditional privilege met contemporary criminality and couldn't recognise it for what it was: sharper than Latin.”
The Financial Times did only marginally better, writing: “SIS informed us that ‘All three Russian intelligence services are tasked with carrying out information operations [which] goes beyond promulgating the Russian perspective and includes the creating and propagation of forgeries and falsehoods’. One obvious area is Ukraine, where ‘Russia conducts information warfare on a massive scale. An early example of this was a hugely intensive, multichannel propaganda effort to persuade the world that Russia bore no responsibility for the shooting down of MH-17 (an outright falsehood: we know beyond any reasonable doubt that the Russian military supplied and subsequently recovered the missile launcher)'.”
The truth had finally been written on the wall, for all to see, and the British media took the opportunity to do something for the greater good and painted the damn thing grey instead.
When I wrote the book early last summer, the problem of the media was also firmly on my mind: “I took the time to sit and review everything I’d uncovered so far and decided there was nothing so easy as a simple financial trail which would expose this global mess. Those days of investigative journalism were clearly dead, along with stories compacted to fit headlines and column inches. We were dealing with such a complex problem I still think the whole truth may never be known.”
With my twin daughters brought into the world as 2017 ended, I found my energy had returned and burnout had passed. The annual report needed real reporting. Proper analysis. We still all deserve better than we have had.
I may not have all of the answers, and definitely not the resources, but I stand by what I said at the very start of last year's book: “I didn’t know any of this in 2016. Like everyone else, I thought the world had simply fallen victim to a deceitful bus and some idiotic, gun-toting rednecks. I was wrong, I’m not ashamed to admit. We all were. But from that mistake arose what I see as a collective duty, to at least try and put things right and make sure it never happens again.”
“What the report fails to grasp in terms of international terrorism is the Kremlin, resulting in flawed assessment and understanding of the threat.”
The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) is a statutory parliamentary body, formed under legislation first in the 1990s and last reformed in 2013. Their remit is broad and according to their background introduction, they oversee: “the intelligence and security activities of the UK, including the policies, expenditure, administration and operations of the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). The Committee also scrutinises the work of other parts of the UK intelligence community, including the Joint Intelligence Organisation and the National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Office; Defence Intelligence in the Ministry of Defence; and the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism in the Home Office.”
Routinely given access to highly classified material, the nine members of the Committee are taken from both Houses of Parliament. They elect their own chair from the membership and set their own agenda, collating evidence from the Government and the security services. Every year the report back on the year.
The Annual Report for 2016-2017 is comprehensive but shows something significant: open source research provides the same information, and more, also doing something the committee does not: informing the public in real time.
The current threat to the UK is broken down into a limited a number of headings.
“It's apparent from reading the report in detail the British security services are dealing with patching plasters on the resultant problem, rather than the Kremlin-led operation to sap their resilience at dealing with the primary threat. Strategically, this is a huge success for Russia.”
The threat to the UK from international terrorism:
“The threat from international terrorism in the UK is currently SEVERE – reflecting that an attack is highly likely. In 2017, between 23 and 26 May, the UK threat level was briefly raised to CRITICAL (an attack is expected imminently) for the first time since 2007, following the improvised explosive device (IED) attack on Manchester Arena.”
“The scale of the current threat facing the UK and its interests from Islamist terror groups is unprecedented,” the report adds.
According to the Committee, the ISIL threat in Syria and Iraq is the primary driver and they are focused on what the intelligence services call ‘external operations’ focused on the incitement of violence through propaganda campaigns. What the report fails to grasp in terms of international terrorism is the Kremlin, resulting in flawed assessment and understanding of the threat.
It was established in 2017 that Russia had been supplying weapons across the threat region, via Iran. The intelligence community and media including CNN found the weapons had been shipped directly to the Taliban in Afghanistan for use against ISIS, but were, in fact, also being used against allies.
Meanwhile, Cyprus based FBME, which was pushed out of the US due to it being a nefarious money laundering operation for the Russian underworld, was exposed by Buzzfeed as funnelling Russian mafia money and also sending $33 million dollars to Syria from the Kremlin. Crucially, millions were found to have been channelled through a company later found to be supporting ISIS fuel trades.
The report fails to recognise the link between Russia and Turkey, and Turkey and Syria as a migration base, feeding refugees and returning foreign fighters into Europe. It also omits the crucial fact that Russia was actively engaged in sending its own extremists our of the Federation and into the region to fight with ISIS.
The report also fails to capture the link between Russia and terror attacks across Europe, which have been used to drive Russia's far-right linked disinformation operations.
NATO and the EU, including Sweden which I visited last year are alive to a situation the UK is apparently not: Russia's strategic deployments in the region extending from Turkey are designed to function in two ways.
Firstly, they create a functional funnel by which extreme levels of migration impact upon Europe and enhance the domestic narratives of extremism on both the ISIL and Far-right sides - a known Russian operation and objective.
Secondly, they also enhance Russia's strategic positioning in gas and oil fields, which allows further pressure to be added to Europe and the UK. Qatar has been a key example of this, with Russian regional interference resulting in a redirection of fuels and the signing of a defence and supply deal in a country which hosted a significant US regional base.
It's apparent from reading the report in detail the British security services are dealing with patching plasters on the resultant problem, rather than the Kremlin-led operation to sap their resilience at dealing with the primary threat. Strategically, this is a huge success for Russia.
This is depressing, and no less so because the report highlights the need for enhanced European co-operation at a time the Government is leading the UK out of the union based upon a referendum which was specifically targeted by Russia – from social media manipulation to fake news, to direct infiltration of Leave groups, to denial of service attacks on the voter registration website.
Sadly, the report identifies a known puzzle piece in the different section on cyber threats and fails to make the link. This is an inter-agency intelligence failure.
“the agencies then abjectly fail to set this in the context that Russia is not only supporting ISIL and creating the perfect storm which enhances its existence, but is also masquerading as it online. This includes some of the disinformation and online radicalisation activity driving the very terror attacks sapping their resilience. A lack of imagination has trapped the British establishment in a vicious cycle.”
Hostile State Activity and The Cyber Threat
Under the hostile state summary, the report says: “Hostile foreign intelligence services continue to conduct espionage against a broad range of UK interests, seeking to obtain government and military secrets, intellectual property and economic information, and to conduct operations designed to influence UK policy and public opinion. They engage in a wide range of activity, encompassing the recruitment of human agents with the ability to acquire sensitive information (both protectively marked and unclassified) and, increasingly, the use of cyber in order to target the British Government, the UK’s Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) and UK businesses.”
It goes on to say: “Cyber threats fall broadly into two categories – information/data theft and disruptive attacks. They can be conducted by a range of actors, from hostile states to criminals. The sophistication, complexity and potential impact of a cyber attack will vary depending on the level of access the actor has to resources and technology. A state actor may seek to integrate encryption and anonymisation into malware to penetrate a strategic target undetected. More commonly, far less sophisticated malware can be developed to target networks and systems to steal data. Systems are also vulnerable to insider threat, whereby the operator either knowingly or unknowingly facilitates access.”
While the report identifies the traditional risks arising from hostile state activity, thankfully it does also mention the risks to Critical Infrastructure – such as power grid attacks like those Russia have been testing for years in Ukraine, and those such as Wannacry which can shut down logistics and health services, again launched by Russia under a North Korean code and network mask despite claims to the contrary.
The services, thankfully. Have woken up to the denial of service capability provided by insecure domestic items (what is referred to as the Internet Of Things).
The report specifically notes that ISIL's capability does not extend beyond online radicalisation, and this is the known puzzle piece which represents the biggest failure within the report.
They correctly identify the Russian cyber attack on France's TV Monde 5, saying: “the more substantial attack against TV5Monde in April 2015 – have been ‘false-flagged’ as Islamist extremist attacks.157 It is possible that Russia is ostentatiously flexing its muscles towards the West under a deliberately thin blanket of deniability, or these may simply be providing a useful public cover for the Russian agencies’ practice runs.”
The report and the agencies then abjectly fail to set this in the context that Russia is not only supporting ISIL and creating the perfect storm which enhances its existence, but is also masquerading as it online. This includes some of the disinformation and online radicalisation activity driving the very terror attacks sapping their resilience. A lack of imagination has trapped the British establishment in a vicious cycle.
This gets worse as the report goes on.
Russia is identified as the top threat facing the UK. It is acknowledged that Russia has targeted and continues to target democracies across the West with hacking and disinformation, cyber weapons, and data theft. It even specifically identifies that elections can be targeted down to individual constituencies. However, the report then all but dismisses the Russian threat in favour of building ties and sharing intelligence on the grounds of...Syria.
The Committee writes: “Whilst Russia clearly represents a major threat, there are also areas of mutual intelligence and security interest – most notably around counter-terrorism and Syria.”
This is infuriatingly cock-eyed and confirms an absolute failure in understanding the issues faced, which in turn prevents the security services in the UK from providing any functional response to a live hybrid war.
“I have deliberately ignored the WMD section of this report as the UK has proven unreliable in its assessments.”
Northern Ireland-related terrorism:
MI5 state they are currently deploying 18% of their resource to sustain a minimal threat in “Sustain Mode”.
More generally, the report fails to identify the growing Russian-led threat surrounding upcoming referenda and growing narrative from Russia-linked figures surrounding reunification and exit from Europe.
Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)
I have deliberately ignored the WMD section of this report as the UK has proven unreliable in its assessments and this will be covered in more depth around North Korea's current situation. (Also, see above regarding the incorrect attribution of Wannacry to North Korea.)
“the UK is under-equipped, outclassed, outdated, and overwhelmed at a time when the world is staring down the barrel of a loaded weapon. While it confirms every ounce of energy spent in 2017 worth spent on the right punches, it presents a dark picture of a failed and ineffective system of defence, based on an absence of knowledge and a mudstuck approach to a global shift which left the former empire behind.”
The annual report leaves something undeniable in public view: the UK is under-equipped, outclassed, outdated, and overwhelmed at a time when the world is staring down the barrel of a loaded weapon. While it confirms every ounce of energy spent in 2017 worth spent on the right punches, it presents a dark picture of a failed and ineffective system of defence, based on an absence of knowledge and a mudstuck approach to a global shift which left the former empire behind.
After a year screaming into the wind, the end of 2017 saw the true state of Russia's threat to the United Kingdom acknowledged for the first time by the security services. And because of unresolved failures in the media which helped the Kremlin achieve its strategic objectives in the first place, nobody batted an eyelid.
Entering the new year, the world of 2018 has passed the tipping point and the dead kitten bounce appears to be all that awaits. But I think we can still come back from this.
We aren't blindly trying to work out what the hell happened and who did it. We know. We aren't in a position where we need to 'wait for someone official to say it too.' They have.
And now, thanks to this report, we aren't scrabbling around to understand where the gaps in our defences exist. We can see them clearly.
All of this means we are equipped to do something about it. To focus. To stop trying to punch everything and hit only what matters. It's easier to fight that way, even when you get tired.
That's hope, right there.