The professional head of Britain’s internal security and intelligence agency MI5 has recounted the feelings within the organisation as 9/11 unfolded, including colleagues immediately recognising the work of Osama Bin Laden.
Ken McCallum, the chief of MI5 — a name harking back to its roots as a British wartime military intelligence bureau, although it is now known more formally as the Security Service — told British public broadcaster the BBC on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks how the organisation he now leads reacted as the scene unfolded in 2001.
Saying that he was at that time an agent runner of just five years’ service then, McCallum told the broadcaster:
On 9/11, at lunchtime, as it was in the UK when the first plane struck the Twin Towers, we turned on the television in the corner of the room. As the second plane struck, a colleague quietly said ‘Osama Bin Laden’. And someone else said, ‘I guess we all know what we’re doing for the next ten years of our lives’. And so it proved.
In the 20 years since we’ve faced wave after wave of terrorism from extremists seeking to cause mass casualties, and prepared to give up their own lives in the act. It is a horrifying reality, but it is also — by the same token — a deeply motivating mission for my organisation.
… We had been watching the rise of these Islamist extremist threats for some time [in 2001]. Obviously, al-Qaeda had struck the American embassies in East Africa in 1998 [and] something that’s often forgotten is in the UK [is that] ten months before 9/11 we foiled — with the police — a bomb plot in Birmingham. Not formally by al-Qaeda the organisation, but this wave of terror was already coming towards us.
While the citizens of 77 nations were killed on 9/11, citizens of the United Kingdom accounted for the second-largest national group after the United States, with 67 British fatalities.