The forgotten world of female espionage

When the Germans occupied northern Italy in the autumn of 1943, they were pleased with the way that young Italian women, pedalling on bicycles around the country lanes in white socks and pigtails, smiled at them. The soldiers offered to help with their loaded baskets and gave them lifts in lorries. It took some months before they discovered that these smiling girls, known as staffette, were working as couriers, spies and carriers of weapons for the Resistance, then busy forming in the foothills of the Alps. When they realised their mistake, their reaction was often brutal. If caught, the women knew they would fare no better than the men. Prison

Whose truths are they anyway?

Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s 11th novel, sees her returning to the detective fiction she honed in her series about Jackson Brodie, the haunted private eye who, after the murder of his young sister, chased the killers of girls. It also pursues some of the themes of her more recent fictions, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, which explored the ambiguities of war, and questions of chance and fate, with lives played out in multiple permutations. There is, however, no professional detective in Transcription. Instead it falls to an ordinary young woman to fathom the meaning of her life and, by extension, what it means to be caught in the

Recent crime fiction | 12 October 2017

Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (4th Estate, £12.99) has the word masterpiece emblazoned on the cover, alongside quotes from several famous authors telling us how brilliant it is. It can be difficult to see through this hype and find the true novel, but let’s try. Fourteen-year-old Turtle Alveston lives with her father, Martin, a survivalist type who’s taught her how to fire a gun and use a hunting knife from an early age. He abuses his daughter, trapping her in a circle of love and pain. When Martin brings home another young girl, Turtle at last finds the courage to confront the man who has so dominated and controlled her

A grand inquisitor

Hidden behind Kensington Palace, in one of London’s smartest streets, there is a grand old house which played a leading role in Britain’s victory over Nazi Germany. Today it’s owned by Roman Abramovich, apparently — it seems he paid £90 million for it. But during the second world war, and for a few years thereafter, 8 Kensington Palace Gardens was a secret interrogation centre known as the London Cage. This is where suspected spies (and, later, suspected war criminals) were broken down. Between 1940 and 1948, thousands of German servicemen passed through here, on their way to POW camps (if they were deemed innocent) or prison (if they were guilty).

To catch a jihadi

My taxi was about 90 seconds behind the murderers who struck on London Bridge last week. My wife and I saw their victims on the road. It made no sense until we stopped and got out. Then with horror we realised what we were witnessing. As everyone has already said, the emergency services’ response was flawless. A police 4×4 screeched up behind and two officers jumped out with submachine-guns. Within minutes, we learnt afterwards, the jihadis had been shot dead — but only after they had killed eight people, and injured scores more. Hundreds of others will have been on that bridge or in Borough Market. I suspect all of

In the digital age, terrorists have far more places to hide

We learn this morning that MI5 has launched an internal inquiry into how they didn’t catch Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber. He was reported to them five times, apparently, even by his imam – the spooks looked into him, but after a while discontinued their investigation. Perhaps we will learn that there has been an egregious intelligence failure but I doubt it. I suspect that in time, we’ll learn every detail about the case of Salman Abedi and it will likely expose the grim realities of counter-terrorism. And also that, as I argued in my most recent Daily Telegraph column, we’re about as safe as we’re ever likely to get.  Yes,

The scale of Islamist extremism is a problem for MI5

In her statement to the House of Commons, Theresa May said that the man responsible for yesterday’s attack was British-born and had previously been investigated by MI5 ‘in relation to concerns about violent extremism’. However, May stressed that, ‘The case is historic—he was not part of the current intelligence picture.’  Now, the fact that the attacker was known to the security services will lead to questions about why a closer watch wasn’t being kept on him. But there is, frankly, a volume problem here. The number of radicalised individuals is now so large — there are several thousand Islamist extremists being monitored by MI5 — that the security services have

Britain’s spy agencies could do with a woman’s touch

I always knew security agencies were missing a trick with the ladies. Currently, less than four in ten workers in MI5, MI6 and GCHQ are female, which isn’t just embarrassing, but bad for national security; because women have the potential to be great spies.  But things are about to change. Since 2015, intelligence services have been on a massive drive to get more women into the ranks, scouting around Mumsnet for older, patriotic would-be agents. GCHQ has even announced a competition to find 13 to 15-year-old girls for the industry, having realised the worth of social-media savvy young girls.  I’m surprised it took the intelligence agencies so long to recognise the

A cold case from the Cold War

It is a chastening thought that Boris Johnson’s responsibilities now include MI6. Alan Judd’s latest novel is particularly interesting about the relationship between our intelligence services on the one hand and our politicians (and their special advisers) on the other. Deep Blue is the fourth of his spy novels to have Charles Thoroughgood as its central character. (Charles also appears in Judd’s very first novel, A Breed of Heroes, but as a young army officer in Northern Ireland rather than as a spy.) He is now running MI6, a thankless job, particularly as the service is fighting for funds and (worst of all) cast out of central London to an

Listening in to the Russians

There are now enough books about Bletchley Park for it to become part of national mythology, along with the Tudors, Trafalgar, Waterloo, the Somme and Winston Churchill. Rather than rehearse the Enigma story, however, Sinclair McKay describes what happened to the organisation that became GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) during the immediate postwar years. This was the crucial period when intelligence effort was redirected from fighting a hot war against Germany and Japan to beginning a Cold War against the Soviet Union. It is a neglected period in popular history and McKay does well to bring it to life. When the second world war ended, what we now know as GCHQ

Len McCluskey warns that the security services might be trying to sabotage Jeremy Corbyn

The Labour leadership election has become even more bizarre today. Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite the Union and a key Corbyn backer, has given a Guardian interview in which he suggest that the ugly behaviour of Corbyn supporters online is actually the work of the security services. He tells Decca Aitkenhead: “Do people believe for one second that the security forces are not involved in dark practices? Decca, I have been around long enough … the type of stuff that we ultimately find out about, under the 30-year rule.” When Aitkenhead challenges him on this, McCluskey continues: “Well, I tell you what, anybody who thinks that that isn’t happening

Misadventures in Libya

If photographs of ‘the deal in the desert’ made you queasy — you remember, Tony Blair and Muammar Gaddafi shaking hands for the cameras in 2004 — imagine how you would have felt if you were in exile in London and your father under torture in Gaddafi’s cells at the time. Now Blair is not looking forward to the Chilcot report, Gaddafi is dead and Hisham Matar, who was the helpless onlooker, has published The Return, a memoir about his father and about Libya which will attract many readers and prizes. It may also help focus our ideas about whom we protect, whom we betray, and how we deal with

The prying game

One of the marks of a good Home Secretary is a healthy wariness of those in authority who come begging for ever-greater powers. The former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke failed on that score. Just over a decade ago, the police persuaded him that they needed the freedom to lock up terror suspects for 90 days without trial. The rebels who defeated the Labour plan were right: ten years later no one has presented a case of a suspect who committed an act of terror because they had to be released before the 90 days were up. Theresa May, who has confronted the police unions with such admirable fortitude, is

Escaping the Slough of despond

Most spy novels have a comfortable air of familiarity. We readers can take moles in our stride. We have grown up with cut-outs and dead letter boxes. There’s little we don’t know about angst-ridden, morally fallible spooks in raincoats and sharp-suited, gun-toting agents in casinos. Mick Herron, however, takes a different approach from most other espionage writers. Real Tigers is the third novel in his ‘Slow Horses’ series. Its predecessor, Dead Lions, won the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger as the best crime novel of the year. The Slow Horses are a department made up of MI5 rejects — officers who have committed gross errors of judgment or made enemies of

The spies we left in the cold

When a terrorist group is active in the UK — as Islamist extremists and dissident republicans are at the moment — there is no more essential figure in the prevention of carnage than an agent working for the security services. Reliable intelligence is what defuses bombs, intercepts arms caches, and apprehends suspects. Its acquisition can involve unimaginable personal risks, in circumstances of nerve-shredding tension. We should all be grateful, but most of us never get to know what to say thank you for, or to whom. An agent’s success manifests itself in nothing happening. Its continued value depends on secrecy. Is MI5 grateful on our behalf? Well, it seems that

There’s no substitute for human intelligence

Spying may be one of the two oldest professions, but unlike the other one it has changed quite a lot over the years, and continues to do so. During the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, the main preoccupation of our intelligence agencies has not been with classic espionage by the Soviet Union, or with identifying new Philbys operating on their behalf. Espionage still goes on, but it is small beer compared to the terrorist threat that commands no less than 75 per cent of our agencies’ time and resources. Stephen Grey takes us through the transformation in the recent past experienced by MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, as

Mass surveillance is being undermined by the ‘Snowden effect’

We are in the middle of a Crypto war again. Perhaps we have always been in the middle of a Crypto war. Since the 70s, the right and ability to encrypt private communications has been fought over, time and again. Here in the UK, Cameron’s re-election has prompted reports of a ‘turbo-charged’ version of the so-called ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, extending further the powers of surveillance that the whistleblower Edward Snowden described as having ‘no limits’. Two nights ago, the US Patriot Act expired. With it, at least officially, elements of the NSA’s bulk surveillance programme expired too. The law was passed in the wake of 9/11, in order to ‘strengthen domestic security’ and

The ‘Darknet’ is dangerous. It’s also deeply democratic

The ‘Darknet’ is in the spotlight. Over the past few months, stories of paedophile rings, drug empires and terrorist organisations have set pulses racing as investigative journalists have begun dipping their toes into the network. Cue stories such as: ‘Five scary things ANYONE can buy in the Darknet’s illegal markets‘. Now, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology have released a briefing. The note, entitled ‘The Darknet and Online Anonymity’, centres on Tor. Tor is an easy-to-use web browser that makes tracking a user’s online activities much more difficult. It is designed to prevent government agencies and big corporations learning your location, your identity and your browsing habits. As well as

Why the apologists for the Islamist far right must make Jihadi John a victim

Islamic State allows its adherents to be both cultists and psychopaths: an L. Ron Hubbard and a Fred West rolled into one. The reasons why young men want to travel across the world to fight its wars and lend a hand to the murder of its victims ought to be brutally and boringly obvious. Psychopaths are always less complicated, less rewarding, less interesting than their victims. They’re not hard to explain. Where is the difficulty about Abelaziz Kuwan , for instance? His case opens ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. It is a superb piece of journalism, unsparing in it analysis of the folly

Brendan O’Neill

MI5 didn’t make Jihadi John; he made himself

Poor Mohammed Emwazi. One day he’s your average ‘beautiful’ young man, nose buried in his computer studies books, looking for a job and looking for love. The next he’s being harassed by the security services, so intensely that — BOOM — he weeps and wails his way to the deserts of Syria where he changes his name to Jihadi John, dons an Islamic ninja outfit and starts chopping people’s heads off. Happy now, MI5? See what you did? Shame on you for pushing this studious, handsome London lad to become the Charles Manson of the Middle East. That, at least, is a rough outline of the script being hawked by