It was my first role, and there I was, running and recruiting agents to gather intelligence on terrorist groups in East Africa. It was fascinating stuff, travelling across different countries, and meeting agents – sometimes in very strange locations. I was working closely with the Security Service – MI5 – because they were looking at UK links in terrorist organisations in the region. And GCHQ was helping the Targeting Officer in my team to identify potential new agents for me to meet and recruit.
My husband went with me and the Service gave us a lot of support in finding somewhere to live, as well as things like setting up bank accounts. And the social life was really good too. There were a few official functions, but we had lots of opportunities to go out and sample the local culture.
Being one of our Intelligence Officers gives you the chance to immerse yourself in a foreign country. To really get under the skin of the local culture. To appreciate traditions and social customs. To understand how things are done – and how to get things done.
You could be helping to identify useful intelligence, picking out and meeting potential targets, or gathering intelligence and reporting it back. It’s about understanding people – knowing what makes them tick, what motivates them, and what really matters in their life. It also requires a little creativity to find a way of meeting someone you have no obvious connections with.
Find out more about the role of an Intelligence Officer
We work closely with the other security services to protect the UK from a broad range of threats. While SIS focuses on threats from overseas, MI5 gathers intelligence and carries out investigations to counter threats from within the UK. Naturally, a lot of the intelligence that both services gather will have a direct impact on the other’s work, so we share vital data that enables us to safeguard the country, its people and interests.
Our intelligence officer begins to build a trusting relationship with Sami, who tells her that his nephew was exploited by DAESH to act as a courier for money and explosives. Sami says that he believes DAESH is a negative influence on his religion and the region, so our intelligence officer asks him if he’s willing to help, and Sami agrees.
Agents are at the heart of what MI6 does. Usually foreign nationals, they voluntarily work with us to provide secret intelligence that helps to keep the UK - and often the rest of the world – safe and secure.
One of our intelligence officers’ major roles is identifying, recruiting, and running these agents. It can be a fine balancing act – ensuring we get the intelligence we need, while making sure agents don’t feel jeopardised or threatened. So you need to be good with people, able to judge their mood, and to know when to push for more information or to understand when to stop.
Sami contacts our intelligence officer and tells her that his DAESH contacts have asked him for help. They arrange a meeting to discuss the implications. It could give Sami an opportunity to learn more about the terrorist group and what they’re planning. But there’s also a risk that he could be spotted by local intelligence organisations as he travels. To continue, Sami will need to show a great deal of courage.
As an Intelligence Officer, you need to be familiar with the law, ensuring that everything you and our agents do is legal. Today’s security threats are increasingly complex and widespread, so we need to work closely with other agencies to ensure we continue to protect the UK, its people and interests
Sami says the stranger spoke both English and Arabic and used a mobile phone and a tablet. SIS shares this intelligence with GCHQ and MI5.
It’s the information from our agents that enables SIS, MI5 and GCHQ to keep the UK safe. That’s why developing long-term, trusting relationships with them can be an important part of being an Intelligence Officer. It means we can prevent attacks and ensure those who help plan and carry out attacks are arrested and brought to justice.
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is the government’s centre of expertise in cyber security. Using its technical and analytical expertise, GCHQ provides intelligence, protects information, and informs relevant policy to protect UK society in today’s cyber world.
Working closely with both SIS and MI5, GCHQ gathers information from a variety of digital sources to support intelligence-gathering operations around the world.
As an intelligence officer you rely on your people skills more than anything else when dealing with agents. You have to consider ethical issues and think about the potential physical risks to you and your agents. If the risks are too high, we’ll find another way of achieving our objectives.
As well as employing a range of cryptographers, cyber specialists, and technical experts, GCHQ also recruits language experts and people with the ability to analyse a variety of data. They work within strict legal guidelines to intercept, analyse, and report on mobile and cyber communications involving identified targets.
GCHQ report their findings to us and MI5 as an investigative lead. Our intelligence officer starts to investigate the stranger’s suspected identity to find out whether he’s contacted anyone else in East Africa and if he’s still in the country.
MI5 begin investigations to see what possible contacts the stranger may have in the UK and whether he’s already here. It’s not the end of the investigation, but we’re a lot further down the line towards preventing a potential terrorist attack.
We work in tandem with both MI5 and GCHQ. While our expertise lies in overseas threats and opportunities, MI5 focuses on threats from within the UK and GCHQ is the government’s centre of expertise in cyber security. These three sets of skills complement each other to ensure that the UK remains safe and secure against a constantly evolving set of threats.