The UK Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – otherwise known as MI6 – conducts secret overseas operations and gathers intelligence to help protect UK interests.
The MI6 works closely with a number of other foreign intelligence and security services, including the Security Service (MI5) and the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters).
While the MI5 has more of a domestic focus in protecting UK interests, the MI6 is responsible for gathering intelligence outside the UK in support of the government’s security, defence, foreign and economic policies.
We explore the key activities of the MI6 and look at a case study of their intelligence in action, as detailed on the MI6 website.
What are the key activities of the MI6?
The MI6 helps to protect the UK National Security by countering international terrorism, combating weapons proliferation, supporting stability overseas and securing the UK’s cyber advantage.
Counter weapons proliferation
The MI6 plays a key role in helping the UK to combat the international proliferation of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Weapons (CBRN), through gathering intelligence and disrupting operations.
Working with key national and international partners, MI6 also helps to ensure that UK weapons exports don’t get into the hands of terrorists.
The MI6 helps to protect the UK from terrorist threats through:
- Gathering and assessing intelligence
- Conducting investigations and disrupting terrorist activity
- Preventing people from becoming terrorists
- Protecting critical national infrastructure and crowded places
A key activity involves recruiting foreign agents who provide intelligence on terrorist plans and organisations.
Cyber threats are one of the key security risks to the UK, with the potential to impact individuals, organisations and governments. Cybercrime is an increasingly complex and global crime, which can be committed from anywhere in the world.
The MI6 provides secret intelligence to help protect the UK from current and emerging cyber threats from a range of adversaries such as hostile states, terrorists and criminals.
Instability and conflict overseas
Instability and conflict overseas create weak governments and poor national security, creating an environment in which terrorists and organised crime groups can thrive. Through the work of its secret agents, the MI6 provides intelligence to the UK Government and provides early warning indications of potentially hostile threats. The intelligence provided can also help to inform policy and decision making, often leading to early political intervention to prevent prolonged instability.
Intelligence in action: Case study
When picturing the work of the MI6 in action, it is inevitable that one may conjure up images portrayed through the James Bond franchise of films. While the day-to-day work of the MI6 may be a bit less action-packed than this, it is still very complex and interesting to explore. The following is a summary of a real case involving the collaboration of the MI6, MI5 and GCHQ.
- An MI5 source used to run a small business with a friend, Sami, who now lives in East Africa. Sami mentions in an email that he has contacts linked to DAESH, and the MI5 operative passes this information to MI6.
- Working with MI5 and GCHQ, MI6 conducts research into Sami, determines that he may be willing to cooperate, and sets up a meeting.
- The MI6 intelligence officer begins to build a relationship with Sami, who tells her that his nephew was exploited by DAESH to act as a courier for money and explosives. Sami agrees to help the officer.
- Sami contacts the MI6 intelligence officer and advises that his DAESH contacts have asked him for help. Together, Sami and the officer conduct a risk assessment and determine that the meeting can proceed.
- Sami attends the meeting one week later, and reports back to the MI6 intelligence officer: present at the meeting were his DAESH contacts and a stranger, who spoke both English and Arabic and used a mobile phone and a tablet. One of the DAESH contacts handed the stranger an envelope, saying it contained “information for the brothers in the United Kingdom that will cause carnage across London”.
- MI6 shares this intelligence with GCHQ and MI5
- GCHQ investigates the phone activity and associated internet service account of one of Sami’s DAESH contacts, who’s already known to them. They have potentially identified who the stranger is, and pass the details to MI6 and MI5.
- The MI6 intelligence officer starts to investigate the stranger, what possible contacts he may have in the UK, and his current location. It’s not the end of the investigation, but significant progress has been made towards preventing a potential terrorist attack.