Cameron pledges $1.7b to boost spying operations

Cameron pledges $1.7b to boost spying operations
British Prime Minister David Cameron.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is shifting more funds to the country’s intelligence agencies and special forces amid growing concern about the terrorist threat spilling over from the civil wars in Syria and Iraq.

He announced yesterday the allocation of an extra £800 million (S$1.7 billion) to surveillance and intelligence operations, a move that bucks the trend of cuts in spending under his government.

In comments made during a visit to the Farnborough air show, Mr Cameron also pledged another £300 million for various special units of Britain’s commando troops.

The British government makes no secret of its worries about the changed nature of the global terrorist threat.

Officials in London are watching anxiously as the number of British-born and other European nationals volunteering to fight in the Middle East trouble spots continues to rise.

Current estimates suggest that at least 2,500 European volunteers have joined jihadist fighters in the region and, even if only a fraction of them eventually return home, they could pose a grave threat to domestic security.

To make matters worse, a competition appears to be developing between Al-Qaeda and newer terrorist offshoots, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, over which one of them is more successful in attracting new extremists.

And that, intelligence services fear, may result in a race to launch new spectacular attacks against Western targets, perhaps with the use of new technological devices, such as miniaturised explosives.

United States Attorney-General Eric Holder flew to Europe over the weekend in order to discuss this new threat with his counterparts, while European intelligence officials are fanning out throughout the world on a similar mission.

In an effort to stay ahead of the threat, the British government is rushing through Parliament this week new legislation allowing its spying agencies to continue monitoring and intercepting suspect electronic communications and phone calls.

The current announcement of additional cash for intelligence and surveillance operations is designed to beef up these efforts against the “unseen enemies” who “hatch terrorist plots thousands of miles away”, as Mr Cameron put it.

His move to boost spending on elite military fighting units such as the British Army’s Special Air Service and the Royal Navy’s Special Boat Service, and on the purchase of drones and other surveillance aircraft, is also significant.

Mr Cameron is blurring the distinction between old traditional military roles of defending territory and new missions requiring small, agile forces skilled in insurgency warfare.

These forces could be deployed anywhere in the world on short missions, either against terrorist hideouts, or to protect British citizens, property or interests.

This move is likely to prove more controversial, largely because military chiefs are arguing that, given the current crisis in Ukraine, Britain cannot afford to rule out entirely a showdown against Russia in Europe, and therefore needs to retain a substantial ground force, as well as artillery and armour.

Yet at least for the moment, Mr Cameron seems to have overruled their arguments. Britain’s army is therefore scheduled to shrink to its lowest number of troops in two centuries, and will operate just 227 tanks, fewer than tiny Switzerland which has not waged any war in more than 150 years.

Britain has chopped defence spending over the past four years as part of its austerity drive to whittle down a record budget deficit.

Mr Cameron said the extra money for security will come from the savings from past defence cuts.

He has already promised that mounting bills for hardware as well as broader questions about Britain’s military posture will be tackled in a forthcoming government defence review.

But the review will not be launched until after the general election, which is due by May next year.

In an effort to stay ahead of the threat, the British government is rushing through Parliament this week new legislation allowing its spying agencies to continue monitoring and intercepting suspect electronic communications and phone calls.


This article was first published on July 15, 2014.
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