British spy chiefs warn: Al-Qa'ida could gain access to Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons

Extremist elements in Syria were assessed by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee to represent 'the most worrying terrorist threat'

Al-Qa'ida elements fighting with the rebels in Syria could gain access to the regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons with potentially “catastrophic” consequences, British spy chiefs have warned.

The parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which oversees the work of the intelligence agencies, said extremist elements in Syria were assessed to represent "the most worrying terrorist threat" to the UK and its allies.

In its annual report, the committee said there was "serious concern" about the security of the "vast stockpiles" of chemical weapons amassed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

They are thought to include sarin, ricin, mustard gas and VX - described as "the deadliest nerve agent ever created".

MI6 chief Sir John Sawers told the committee there was the risk of "a highly worrying proliferation around the time of the regime fall".

The committee said: "There has to be a significant risk that some of the country's chemical weapons stockpile could fall into the hands of those with links to terrorism, in Syria or elsewhere in the region. If this happens, the consequences could be catastrophic."

Prime Minister David Cameron disclosed last month that al-Qa'ida-linked elements in the opposition movement had attempted to acquire chemical weapons for probable use in Syria.

The ISC said there is now a risk that extremist elements in Syria could take advantage of the "permissive environment" there to plot attacks on targets in the West.

"Large numbers of radicalised individuals have been attracted to the country, including significant numbers from the UK and Europe," the report said.

"They are likely to acquire expertise and experience which could significantly increase the threat posed when they return home.

"Furthermore, there is growing concern about the risks around extremist groups in Syria gaining access to regime stocks of chemical weapons."

The report also highlighted the growing threat of attacks by "lone actors", such as the stabbing of Labour MP Stephen Timms while holding a surgery in his east London constituency in 2010.

It said the risks are inherently much more difficult for the security services to manage as, by their nature, lone actors are much harder to detect - something al-Qa'ida appears determined to exploit.

One Home Office official told the committee: "There is no doubt that the more sophisticated people in al-Qa'ida recognise that groups are, in some ways, a thing of the past; and that encouraging lone acts of terror is exactly the way forward."

The ISC also expressed concern that the agencies were struggling to find projected efficiency savings due to be completed by 2014-15 - potentially putting frontline services at risk.

It highlighted a forecast £59 million shortfall in the £220 million savings that the agencies - MI5, MI6 and GCHQ - were supposed to have achieved through more collaborative working.

While the agencies said they were "fairly confident" that the targets set by the Treasury would be met, the committee said it "does not fully share that confidence".

"We recognise that, during the run-up to the Olympics, operational requirements were, rightly, prioritised over efficiency savings but time is running out - we are already over halfway through the spending review period in which these savings must be found," it said.

"It is essential that real and sustainable efficiencies are delivered if frontline capabilities are to be protected. More needs to be done urgently."

The committee also highlighted the threat to the UK of cyber attacks which GCHQ said is "at its highest level ever and expected to rise further still".

While foreign states continue to pose the greatest threat - the report highlighted the alleged involvement of China and Russia - the committee said there is evidence of some countries turning to private groups to carry out state-sponsored attacks.

"These state-affiliated groups consist of skilled cyber professionals, undertaking attacks on diverse targets such as financial institutions and energy companies," the report said.

"These groups pose a threat in their own right, but it is the combination of their capability and the objectives of their state backers which makes them of particular concern."

It said Government departments are being targeted through attacks on industry suppliers which might hold Government data on their systems.

Such cyber espionage has resulted in the theft of Ministry of Defence data, with "both security and financial consequences for the UK".

Cyber spies seeking sensitive commercial and technical information are also said to be increasingly targeting lawyers and accountants who often hold a lot of their clients' data but whose defences against cyber attack may not be as strong.

Alternatively, GCHQ has warned that spies are targeting overseas subsidiaries of British firms "then swimming up the network on to the UK network".

"The threat the UK is facing from cyber attacks is disturbing in its scale and complexity. The theft of intellectual property, personal details and classified information causes significant harm, both financial and non-financial," the ISC said.

PA

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform