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Britain's Former Spy Chief Talks Terrorism, Mass Surveillance

Britain's head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) John Sawers arrives for a national security meeting on the situation in Syria at Downing Street in London, Aug. 28, 2013. (Alastair Grant/AP)
Britain's head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) John Sawers arrives for a national security meeting on the situation in Syria at Downing Street in London, Aug. 28, 2013. (Alastair Grant/AP)

Sir John Sawers led MI6, the United Kingdom’s government intelligence agency from 2009 to 2014. Now chairman of Macro Advisory Partners, Britain’s former top spy talks with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about terrorism, mass surveillance and geopolitics.

Interview Highlights

On the U.K.’s terror threats

“Certainly a big concern of us in the U.K. are young people going out to places like Syria, joining what they might see as an uprising against a tyrannical regime, but falling in with a terrorist organization, going along with their extremist narrative, and being sent back to the U.K. or to other European countries, to commit attacks. Obviously you get some homegrown terrorists, people who become self-radicalized through what they read on the Internet or what they watch on YouTube. But I think the biggest problem is this link between communities here in Europe and U.K. and extremist organizations in places like Syria. There’s a lot of naivety and idealism in these people. Some well organized groups encourage people to go, channel young impressionable people who may be showing signs of frustration that they can’t get a job, that they have split identities – they may have gone to school in the U.K. but have origins in Pakistan and find they don’t have a clear identity. And what fundamentalist religion can do is give people an identity that they otherwise lack. I think some of these terrorist organizers build on that and exploit it.”

Will improving the standard of living in at-risk communities fix radicalization?

“I’m not sure it’s the economic aspects that are the biggest driver here. I remember talking to a counterpart in Saudi Arabia saying that, of the hundreds of young extremists they’ve had to arrest because of their involvement with terrorist organizations, over 90 percent came from good families, were going to good universities, or were in good jobs. It wasn’t a problem driven or created by impoverishment or unemployment. I think it’s more a question of how much people feel they have a stake in their society, a professional role, some satisfaction, and a sense of belonging in the community of which they are a part. And frankly, some of us in Europe have done less well on this than you in the United States have done. We do have large immigrant communities here. Some of them have integrated well – the Jewish community integrated very well 100 years ago – we’ve had Indian communities and others who have integrated well. But the Muslim community tends not to be as straightforward to assimilate in our society and I think that’s a big part of the problem.”

Are you worried about the influx of Syrian refugees becoming a security threat?

“There’s that possibility – I think the overwhelming majority of these refugees coming to Europe are genuinely fleeing the horrors of civil war and the bombings that are being inflicted on them by the Assad regime. They’re genuinely seeking a new life. Is it possible that one or two of them may turn to extremist organizations? You can’t rule that out. But I don’t think there are cells in there that have been deliberately planted. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think there are. In many ways the biggest problem comes years down the road when these new families settle in their new countries and new homes, and it’s the second generation and the third generation which have real dilemmas and real tensions as to where they belong and where their allegiances lie. Islam is a religion with a very strong culture, very strong rules, very strong behavioral guidance, and it’s at odds with some of the freedoms we have in Western societies and I think that does cause young Muslims in particular real stresses.”

Do we need boots on the ground abroad to ensure safety on the homeland?

“Well we’ve learned from experience in the last 15 years that there are no easy choices. We in Britain, alongside our American colleagues and many others, put troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and the results were not perfect, a lot of our people died, it cost a lot of money, and we didn’t leave behind the stable societies that we were looking to do. But equally when we don’t’ intervene, as in the case with Syria, or only half intervene, as we did in Libya, well the situation can be even worse. I don’t think Western military intervention is going to solve these problems. I think we have to take a longer term approach – there’s a huge humanitarian crisis we have to deal with on the ground. But ultimately there’s going to have to be a political initiative that resolves these conflicts. I welcome the first signs in Yemen that the parties are committed to get together and negotiate a solution. It’s a good way forward. In Syria, that’s a bit of the way off because of the complications caused by Russian intervention and by very deep divisions in society that’s been racked by four years of civil war.”

What is the right balance between security and privacy in society?

“I don’t think you can say exactly where the line of privacy and security comes. No society can have 100 percent privacy, because if you do, with no power of intrusion at all, it empowers all the people who want to do evil – whether it’s pedophiles or criminals or terrorists. Equally, you can’t have 100 percent security, you can’t have a society that’s completely controlled and excludes all possibility of people letting off a bomb or committing a crime. So what our politicians have to do is find a way to maximize privacy and maximize security, maximize the two together. Obviously that’s getting more difficult with new technology, we have to adapt it to new technology but I don’t think the fundamental principle has changed.”

What keeps you up at night?

“Well, when I was with MI6, the prospect of risky operations going wrong and my operatives paying the price of that. Likewise, a failure of intelligence that led to innocent people being killed in streets of Britain. I think now, I have longer term concerns. They don’t keep me awake at night but I do worry about our ability to manage Russia as it declines as a great power but nonetheless is still bristling with modern armaments, and has a leader in Putin who easily takes offense and wants to be treated as a great power in the world. I think that’s a challenge. I think the other big challenge in the world is how we exist with two great powers, U.S. and China, alongside one another in a world where previously there’s been one major power. In the 19th century it was Britain, in the 20th century it’s the U.S. In the 21st century, we’re going to have to get used to it being two powers, America and China, and we’re going to have to find a way to coexist without war and conflict, but without compromising the values of our side in that process.”


  • Sir John Sawers, chairman of Macro Advisory Partners. He was chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) from 2009 until 2014. He was the British permanent representative to the United Nations from 2007 to 2009.

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