The head of MI6 has said it will continue to work to “strengthen our indispensable security ties in Europe” amid Brexit.
Alex Younger also warned Russia and other rogue states not to underestimate the UK’s capabilities as he underlined the need for a new era of spying amid emerging threats.
Speaking to students at his alma mater the University of St Andrews on Monday, the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) described how intelligence agencies are developing a “fourth generation of espionage” as adversaries take advantage of the “blurred lines” between the cyber and physical worlds.
He said: “The implications of the Brexit debate have been set out by Ministers. For our part as SIS, we will always work with our sister agencies to strengthen our indispensable security ties in Europe.
“We also work with other partners across the world, to disrupt terrorist activity and counter other serious threats – but always on our terms, and based on our laws and our values as the United Kingdom.
“When you consider these concentric circles of partnership, and the breadth of skill, experience and trust that they encompass, it is not surprising that adversaries seek to offset their relative disadvantage through hybrid means.”
In only his second public speech since becoming “C” four years ago, Mr Younger warned of threats from enemies who regard themselves as being in a state of “perpetual confrontation”.
He singled out Russia and the “flagrant hostile act” of the Salisbury nerve agent attack.
Mr Younger described how MI6 helped expose the perpetrators said to be behind the attack, and how it helped co-ordinate the expulsion of Russian diplomats.
He said: “We exposed the perpetrators and co-ordinated the largest ever collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from NATO and partner states, significantly degrading Russian intelligence capability.
“When faced by these kinds of attacks, our approach with our allies is to seek to attach a cost to the behaviour.
“Our intention is for the Russian state to conclude that, whatever benefits it thinks it is accruing from this activity, they are not worth the risk.
“We will do this in our own way, according to our laws, and our values. We will be successful nonetheless, and I urge Russia or any other state intent on subverting our way of life not to underestimate our determination and our capabilities, or those of our allies. We can do this to any opponent at any time.”
Mr Younger also said the UK draws on unparalleled partnerships overseas, including its Five Eyes allies the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and its “close and historic security” relationships across Europe.
He highlighted how working with other intelligence services had disrupted “multiple” planned attacks by Isis overseas, though said he would not hide the fact some MI6 agents “have paid the ultimate price”.
He said: “Our country and our allies owe them a debt they can never truly know and never fully repay.”
Mr Younger also told students the UK is “well equipped” to counter those who launch attacks on Britain in ways that fall short of traditional warfare, such as cyber attacks and the spreading of disinformation.
He said: “The era of the fourth industrial revolution calls for a fourth generation espionage: fusing our traditional human skills with accelerated innovation, new partnerships and a mindset that mobilises diversity and empowers the young.”
And in a direct appeal to students, Mr Younger highlighted the need for diversity in MI6, saying: “I want to speak to young people who have never seen themselves in MI6. It doesn’t matter where you are from.
“If you want to make a difference and you think you might have what it takes, then the chances are that you do have what it takes, and we hope you will step forward.”