I have today laid before both Houses a copy of the final annual reports from the Intelligence Services Commissioner, the Interception of Communications Commissioner and the Chief Surveillance Commissioner. These reports are the last reports to be completed under the previous system of judicial intelligence oversight. On 1 September 2017 the Investigatory Powers Commissioner assumed responsibility for oversight of the use of investigatory powers by public authorities.
These three annual reports demonstrate that the security and intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies and other relevant public authorities show high levels of operational competence combined with respect for the law. The introduction of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, as created by the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, will only further strengthen the system of oversight and the world-leading level of transparency that these reports represent. I would like to place on record my thanks to the Commissioners and their staff for their work.
I would also like to thank the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, which has published its 2016/17 Annual Report today. This is a thorough Annual Report covering threats to national security, the Committee’s assessment of the UK’s approach to counter-terrorism and cyber security and in-depth scrutiny of the resources and expenditure of the Agencies and Government Departments. The level of detail contained in the report, obtained through the Committee’s regular access to written material and evidence sessions with the Heads of Agencies and Secretaries of State is testament to the quality of UK Parliamentary intelligence oversight. The report includes twenty-six conclusions and recommendations, many of which the Government supports and is already implementing, such as continuing efforts to tackle the extremist narrative, working with the technology industry to promote secure operating systems in smart devices, attracting technical specialists into Agency roles and ensuring that the strongest possible European security cooperation continues post-Brexit. The Government is committed to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Agencies and will consider the Committee’s recommendations about administration and expenditure as part of those wider Government efforts.
Finally, I would also like to respond to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on targeted airstrikes which was published on 26 April 2017 before the General Election. On 7 September 2015, the then Prime Minister informed the House that on 21 August 2015, an RAF remotely piloted aircraft targeted and killed Reyaad Khan, a UK national, in the Raqqah area in Syria in an act of UK self-defence. Two other individuals, both Daesh associates, were also killed. On 29 October 2015, the Intelligence and Security Committee announced that it would be investigating the intelligence basis for the airstrikes and the threat that Reyaad Khan posed.
The Intelligence and Security Committee concluded that there was “no doubt that Reyaad Khan posed a very serious threat to the UK”. The Committee reviewed classified intelligence reports that showed how Reyaad Khan and his associates had encouraged multiple operatives around the world to orchestrate attacks, including at high profile public commemorations in the UK in 2015. They had offered instructions for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices and locations of possible targets. The intent to murder British citizens was clear and the Intelligence and Security Committee concluded “it is to the Agencies’ credit that their investigation of Khan’s activities revealed these plots which they were then able to disrupt, thereby avoiding what could have been a very significant loss of life.”
A precision airstrike against a British citizen is one of the most difficult decisions a Government can take. It is the last resort in a host of counter-terrorism measures to prevent and disrupt plots against the UK at every stage in their planning. These include powers to stop suspects travelling, to pursue terrorists through the courts and to assist coalition partners in counter-terrorism activity overseas.
However, if there is a direct threat to UK citizens like that posed by Reyaad Khan, I, like my predecessor, will always be prepared to take action. In August 2015, there was no alternative to a precision airstrike in Syria. There was no government that the UK could work with, and no military on the ground to detain Daesh operatives. There was also nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would desist from his desire to murder innocent people in the UK. The Government had no way of ensuring that all of his planned attacks would not become a murderous reality without taking direct action.
As the then Prime Minister informed the House in September 2015, a rigorous decision-making process underpinned the airstrike. A direct and imminent threat was identified by the intelligence agencies and the National Security Council agreed that military action should be taken. The Attorney General was consulted and was clear that there would be a clear legal basis for action in international law. For the reasons outlined above, an airstrike was the only feasible means of effectively disrupting the attack planning and so it was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK. On that basis, the Defence Secretary authorised the operation, which was conducted according to specific military rules of engagement that complied with international law and the principles of proportionality and necessity.
The UK continues to thwart terrorist attacks. Countering the threat has always been a crucial part of the work of this Government. We have introduced measures to disrupt the travel of foreign fighters, passed the Investigatory Powers Act which ensures the police and security and intelligence agencies have the powers and tools they need to keep the public safe, and increased counter-terrorism budgets. We continue to work with technology companies to remove terrorist material online and to share UK intelligence with international partners to track down terrorists. But sadly this year has shown that the threat from terrorism cannot always be contained. Too many innocent families’ lives have been ruined across the UK from international terrorist attacks. The Government will continue to do what is necessary to keep citizens safe.