Rimington: Novelists fascinated by personalities, motivations of extremists

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Adam Birkan | Staff Photographer
Stella Rimington, novelist and former director general of the British Security Service (MI5), speaks Wednesday morning in the Amphitheater.

Characters that perform extreme actions fascinate novelists, much like they do the secret service.

The secret service within a democracy becomes involved in situations when radicals attempt to cause change by violence that threatens the security of the state. Novelists observe and analyze those actions and put them together in readable ways.

Stella Rimington, former director general of MI5, used her own experiences and books to explore radicalism as a security threat and in novel writing during Thursday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater for Week Eight, themed “Radicalism.”

Rimington’s lecture focused on three radical extremists encountered in both reality and in novels: spies, radical protesters, and political and religious terrorists.

Spies are the people who perform radical actions to undermine, destroy or change countries by working covertly with foreign countries, Rimington said.

“I think that’s so much more interesting than spies who merely sell secrets and just do it for money,” she said. “They’re not radical at all — they’re just greedy or selfish.”

When Rimington first began working with MI5, the biggest threat to espionage was the Soviet Union and its allies, she said. At the time, the Cambridge Five was the most famous group of spies. The group was made of five middle-class men who believed the socialist worker state was more successful than the capitalist state.

Many intellectuals shared the sentiment that the Soviet Union was creating a Golden Era.

“Very few of them saw what the results of that agricultural revolution were, which was mass starvation, deaths of peasants in the countryside,” Rimington said. “And that’s what it had produced.”

Many intellectuals became disillusioned once they began to learn about it, she said. But the Cambridge Five did not just talk about its views; it took action.

The five men provided the Soviet Union with information from within the British government’s departments and intelligence services, Rimington said.

They included Donald Maclean, who joined the Foreign Office; Guy Burgess, who joined the BBC and then the Foreign Office; Kim Philby, who joined MI5 and became head of the department; Anthony Blunt, who joined MI5; and John Cairncross, who joined the Foreign Office and the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.

By the time Rimington joined MI5, three of the five men had fled to the Soviet Union, she said. Maclean and Burgess fled in 1951, when Philby notified them that they were going to be exposed. He followed suit when he was under suspicion.

When Rimington joined MI5 in the late 1960s, the British and United States intelligence systems were still haunted by the betrayals, she said.

“There was a sense, I remember it to this day, that you couldn’t trust anybody, that nobody was who they seem to be, that anybody might be working for the other side,” Rimington said.

The Cambridge Five’s motivation, characters and similarities and differences have fascinated novelists since they were revealed, she said. It led to questions about what provoked them to betray their own country, about the society and about how their relationships with one another developed such a successful spy group.

Rimington herself based her second book, Secret Asset, on her own experiences. The motivation for the book came after she met the niece of Cambridge Five’s Cairncross.

Cairncross was the only one of the group’s members Rimington was able to meet, as he was granted immunity from prosecution if he agreed to interviews with intelligence services.

He was supposed to tell about the situation that had unfolded among the five men. The interviews took place in the early evenings inside a gloomy room of a government office, Rimington said. On those nights, it would usually rain.

“I can recall this thin, gaunt, stooping figure coming in out of the rain, looking sort of downcast and depressed and wearing a raincoat,” she said.

Rimington felt he was putting on an act, which she later found out to be true after she met his niece, Frances Cairncross. Frances did not know of her uncle’s spying, but he would stay at her house when he had interviews. Rimington and his niece compared notes about him with each other.

“She was absolutely amazed at my representation of John Cairncross,” Rimington said, “because she saw him as her rather glamorous uncle who lived in France.”

She viewed her uncle as a ladies’ man, a conversationalist and a storyteller, Rimington said.

“He was truly a man of two faces, and two faces even on the same evening,” she said.

Rimington wrote about a man who was recruited to infiltrate MI5 on behalf of the Irish Republican Army, she said. Liz Carlyle, an MI5 officer in the book, investigates in the same way MI5 did when they were investigating the Cambridge Five group.

“This theme of betrayal has provided the material for much fiction,” Rimington said. “The novelists ask, ‘Why would someone betray their country, or their colleagues or both?’”

It is the personality of the spies rather than his or her extreme ideas that provoke someone to take those actions, Rimington said. That is what interests novelists.

In John le Carré’s book Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, he believes the trigger for espionage is arrogance.

“The spy seems to draw nourishment from his sense of superiority, of self-worth, that comes from this secret life, playing a role, deceiving everybody,’ Rimington said.

Radical protesters are people who have personal grievances against their society and use violence against those they blame for their grievances, she said.

Many protesters are radical student groups, Rimington said. Though most are street protesters, the most extreme are the ones who take weapons training, learn to make bombs and learn to carry out attacks.

The Weathermen group in the U.S. was one of the most extreme, Rimington said. The group planted bombs in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York in the early 1970s.

But the most damaging group was Germany’s Baader Meinhof, which killed more than 30 people in the late 1970s, including businessmen and bankers.

“They were mainly middle-class youngsters who saw themselves as fighting a capitalist establishment where former Nazis were running businesses,” Rimington said. “And this was the grievance they had against society.”

Novelists, as they are with spies, have also been fascinated with revolutionaries and anarchists.

“The backgrounds, the different motivations, the interplay of characters within these groups provides massive material for fiction writers,” Rimington said.

In American Pastoral, author Philip Roth explores the psyche of a woman who joins the Weathermen. The main character of the book is 16-year-old Merry, the daughter of a successful family.

As a member of the Weatherman, she helps blow up the post office, which leads to the death of the local doctor. Merry goes into hiding and becomes further involved in bombings. When she returns home, she is skinny, filthy and has a veil over her face, because she has become a Jain.

The novel focuses on what Merry has done and the deaths she causes. Roth considers several questions: Are the parents so respectable and so against the war in Vietnam that this is how their daughter has turned out? Is it an American allegory? Have the parents done everything they could and should have done?

It is a book that exposes the issues in society without providing the answers, Rimington said.

Doris Lessing also covered the same theme in her book The Good Terrorist. Rimington said Lessing shows that certain people’s hopes and disappointments in life can provoke them to take action against the system or the people who have disregarded them.

There are two types of terrorists — political and religious. Political extremists want to achieve a political end, while religious extremists view a certain society as evil and want to destroy it to replace it with something better, Rimington said.

From the journalist’s perspective, terrorists are obsessed with one idea. To novelists, the question is about how terrorists have gotten to that point.

“People of such single-track obsession are actually rare when you come to think about it,” Rimington said. “And they’re not born, they’re made. So why and how?”

When Rimington was responsible for counterterrorism at MI5, she was able to meet members of terrorist organizations in Northern Ireland. She said the most interesting people in the IRA were those who were the most complicated and multifaceted.

“These people had a multitude of personalities,” she said. “They were not just brutal killers. They were much more complex than that.”

Individuals had grown up in families who had generations of men in the IRA; some had grievances; some felt they were not promoted in the way they should have been; and some did not want their children to become terrorists as well.

“They were people far more interesting and complex than the classic journalistic representation,” Rimington said.

She said the best novels are those that explore the motivation behind joining terrorist organizations such as the IRA, rather than focusing on violence.

In terms of religious extremism, Rimington said what horrifies and fascinates both the secret service and novelists are homegrown terrorists who have plotted attacks in the United Kingdom, such as the 2005 London Underground attack.

People have thought of several reasons why terrorists take part in those attacks. Some say it is the multiculturalism policy in Britain, which has created ghettos in the Midlands and northern cities. As a result, young men feel alienated and do not know to which culture they belong, Rimington said.

Youth unemployment could also be a reason, as it leads to boredom, she said. Also, some non-English imams who have been invited to preach at mosques have been able to preach about hate, because they were unobserved.

“But none of those explanations seem to me to be wholly satisfactory or to fully explain the phenomenon,” Rimington said.

Rimington based her first book, At Risk, on the knowledge of homegrown terrorists. She wrote about an Afghan who had a personal grievance and went to Britain to conduct a terrorist attack against those he blamed for what had happened to his family. An educated, middle-class British girl with a grievance against her parents helped him.

She wrote another book, titled Rip Tide, which was inspired by young British men who were in Somalia fighting with Al Shabab. Rimington began wondering how and why they were there. Her characters include a stern and traditional father, a subservient mother, a radical imam, a strong radical friend and a weak and scared young man.

“That seemed to be a mix that might credibly explain what happens in the plot and what might happen in real life,” Rimington said.

Novelists focus on more than just the issues behind why radicals and extremists partake in violent actions.

“Though radical extremists believe they’re motivated solely by issues, novelists on the whole take a different view —that it is as much in human activity,” Rimington said. “It’s personalities, background and the interplay of characters that affect their behavior.”


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity.

Q: Are American spies such as Rick Ames and British spies such as Kim Philby similar characters?

A: Ames, as I understand it, was motivated by money. So, he’s one of those people that I am not so interested in, because it seems to me his selfishness — the search for a better life, most of all — was what motivated Ames. Philby, I think, was a much more complex character as I’ve been explaining. He had a dominant father who was a Middle Eastern expert. He was — you might say — a man dominated by his father. He was a man of great arrogance who thought he knew better than anyone else, and he obviously enjoyed clutching his secret to him. He denied — even when it was pretty obvious — that he had been working with the Soviet Union. He denied it in a whole series of interviews with my service and in press interviews. You could see by the look on his face that he was getting enormous enjoyment out of it. So, I think they were different characters. I think Philby was more subtle and more interesting. Perhaps Ames was a more classic, financially motivated spy.

Q: What is your opinion on the exploits of Julian Assange?

A: My opinion is low (laughs) — as you can imagine. It is rather sickening that he is still in Britain and is using every resource of the law to prevent himself from being returned to Scandinavia where he is being charged with rape. Julian Assange strikes me as a completely diluted young man who seems to feel that it’s necessary to have total openness of everything. Which, of course, is a ludicrous concept. You cannot run any aspect of security without some kind of secrecy and some kind of confidentiality. We all do need to have some kind of security in a dangerous world. It’s mindless self-promoting, it seems to me, the way he’s gone on. I will say I do have a criticism — I dare to say — of the U.S. authorities who created what they called a secret database, which appears to have been accessible to an enormous number of people including this young man who appears to be the one who leaked stuff. Looking at any of the things that have been leaked, it’s clear that some of the stuff that was on that database wasn’t really secret at all. I do believe that if you’re going to have effective security and secrecy, you’ve got to distinguish clearly between what you need to protect and what you don’t need to protect. You mustn’t lump the whole thing together and then dish it out to thousands of people, or disaster will ensue as it has.

Q: What is the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary?

A: The two can be the same, but a terrorist is one who has resorted to killing people. A revolutionary doesn’t necessarily have to do that. You can be a revolutionary without killing people. Revolution comes in all kinds of different ways. You can promote revolution by talking, by writing, by even gathering people around you and taking political action. I think a terrorist is somebody who sets about to kill people in pursuit of their objective. I know they say that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, but I take a pretty firm view on this. I think once you start — it’s different from war, obviously — but once you start randomly killing people in pursuit of your objective, you’re a terrorist, and you’re not a true revolutionary.

Q: How do we judge the morality of agents hired to kill or use violence by states, rather than operating for non-state or anti-state organizations?

A: This is complex for me, because I come from a country where our intelligence services are not authorized to kill people. If there is killing to be done in my country, it’s done by the military. For example, when you have a situation — say, a hostage situation where people have been taken hostage by armed terrorists where it’s necessary to try to free them — that situation is taken by our special forces, the SAS. I don’t know if any of you can remember, we had an Iranian Embassy siege in London in the 1970s. It was the first time we saw our special forces operating on the television cameras as they broke into the embassy, killed those who were holding the hostages and freed the hostages. I personally have a difficult way of relating to state-sponsored killing. I know that the CIA has got the authority to kill people, and there are a lot of unmanned drones going around killing people, but as I say, in my country, we take a different attitude. We regard terrorism as a crime, terrorists to be arrested and put in the court. It’s easy to say that when you’re dealing with terrorism in your own country, but when you’re dealing with terrorism a long way away, it’s more difficult. I believe armies have to fight wars. Intelligence services don’t kill people, and I’m afraid that’s my position.

Q: To what do you ascribe the rise of Islamic extremism? Do you believe we are in a protracted conflict with such extremism, and if so, are you concerned about the ability of our society to survive and maintain its character?

A: Well, I hope we’re not in a prolonged conflict between the Muslim world and the Western world. I hope that we’re living through a period that is going to go away as other similar things have. The reasons behind all this are really very, very complex, and therefore, are very difficult to deal with. I’ve mentioned a few that I know about in my own society. I think in the broader sense there are a range of issues that we need to deal with. One, of course, is the Israel-Palestine issue. It provides a continuing running sore, really, which provides a reason for people to take terrorist action. There are other reasons: the disparity of economic progress in parts of the world, the growth of disillusioned young people looking for some kind of a cause, some sort of motive, some reason to be important. I think, particularly, you find this in Africa and countries in the Middle East. I think it’s very complex. It’s got to be dealt with on many, many different levels. One of them, of course, is the political level. There is the economic and social level, there is the intelligence level, and I think we are making progress, quite frankly. But, I think we’ve got a long way to go. The world for the moment is a pretty dangerous place. I don’t see that the end of the world is nigh, quite frankly — I think the world will roll on and things will settle down. Something else will pop up. For the moment, this will go.

Q: Does literature glorify the radical who becomes an extremist?

A: Well, I hope not. I hope the best literature raises questions rather than glorifying anybody. I don’t personally like books, thrillers etc., that portray radical extremists as almost heroes, or brutality or violence as something that we should admire, enjoy reading about. That’s not the kind of book I enjoy. I think the more sophisticated novelist is raising questions about the radical extremism and not saying this is a wonderful thing — is saying why is this happening? Rather like Philip Roth’s book — The American Pastoral is raising questions about it, and I think that’s what a novelist should be doing.

Q: Can you compare the FBI to the work of MI5? I have another question that goes to whether or not British intelligence respects the U.S. intelligence services?

A: British intelligence regards U.S. intelligence services as their closest ally, and they have been ever since the U.S. intelligence have been created, so that is a given. They are our closest ally, and we are theirs. That doesn’t mean to say that we’re not different, because we are different. We respect their ability to do what they do, but they do it in a very different way from our own. But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t share intelligence, which we do continuously every day and share information about how we’re going to tackle issues. But, stresses and strains undoubtedly arose during the war in Iraq with the use of torture for example, which is banned in my country. So, there were difficulties. There is no doubt about it about who knew what and various inquiries in my country, and there still are inquiries about our complicity in the use of torture. There are difficulties, there are differences, but that doesn’t mean to say it is true that everyday — on the ground — people are meeting each other, people are friends with each other, and they’re sharing intelligence. That is one of the defenses of all of us and that may long continue. The relationship with the FBI is very close. MI5 and the FBI are quite different in that the FBI is a police service and MI5 isn’t. We work very closely with the police, but if there is action to be taken to arrest people on the streets, then that is the job of the police service — not of MI5. MI5 is an intelligence gathering, assessment and action service, but it does not have police powers. That’s the difference. Again, we liaise extremely closely with the FBI, and we did during the Cold War, and we do now.

Q: Can you comment on the security issues during the recent Olympics that concerned you the most and your observations about how everything was handled?

A: There was a huge security operation surrounding the Olympics, and it will have been going on since the day it was announced London had been awarded the Olympics. At that moment, my former colleagues, the police, the military and all the foreign liaisons put their heads together to decide where the threat was likely to come from and how they were going to deal with it, and that’s the kind of security action that you didn’t see. Then there was the kind of physical side that the military put surface-to-air missiles on blocks of flats of London to the great horror of the city, particularly those who lived in the blocks of flats who thought it had made them a target. There was a rather large warship moored in the Thames. That was the sort of superficial thing designed to deter and reassure the citizens. Then there was the day-to-day security on the Olympic site, which is what caused a bit of a fuss when the company had got the contract to provide the people who were actually going to search your bag as you came in suddenly announced a few days before that it hadn’t been able to  recruit enough people. So, the military rather smoothly moved in and did the job in conjunction with civilians. I think the security operation went extremely smoothly. I know my former colleagues in MI5 weren’t able to take any leave for the last year. So, that was what was occupying them. It was obviously successful, but we’ve still got the Paralympics to get through, but I think they’ve got it taped.

Q: Please describe the personalities and characteristics of people who join intelligence agencies.

A: That’s an interesting one. because I think all intelligence agencies are different, as I’ve said. I can really only comment on the personalities and characteristics of people who join the British intelligence services. I think I know that my former service is looking for people who are able to be discreet, who are self-confident, who don’t feel the need to go around blabbing about what they’re doing and talking in the pub to everyone about that wonderful secret operation that they’ve just been involved in. They’re also looking for people who have two aspects to their personality. People who are bright, who are able to analyze complex information and make sense of it and who are able to use common sense to make judgments about what is likely to be true and what isn’t. That’s one aspect of the personality. The other is they’re looking for people who are able to go out on the street and persuade people to work for us — like those people within the IRA that I was mentioning — you might say no sane person would actually do that. But, they have to have the kind of personality that could convince people that this is the right thing to do, and if they work for us, they will be looked after and the information will be dealt with carefully, etc. It’s two aspects to a personality, and the third bit is you need people who actually want to work for the state, who regard it as important that the state is protected against serious threats. But, who also do not want to live in a police state, because you’ve got to have people who will obey the law, who regard it just as important that we all protect our civil liberties as we are kept safe. Those are two essential sides — it seems to me — of intelligence services and democracies.

Q: How did you balance your career and family life?

A: With difficulty, I would say. When I was working with MI5 I had and still have two daughters. Working in MI5 — particularly at the sharp end — recruiting and running human sources isn’t a 9-to-5 job, and you can’t really foresee when you’re going to be there and when you’re not. That caused some difficulties when my daughters were growing up and were looked after by a succession of nannies, and girls and all kinds of people including grannies — which I now sympathize with being a granny myself. So, it’s not easy. It was more difficult in a way, because I joined a service that was entirely male dominated where women had to fight to be allowed to have a proper career. That took dedication as well. The worst time was when I became judge general and I was made a public figure by the government. They decided the time had come to announce the name of the person who was holding this job, and that resulted in a big focus from the media particularly at a time when the IRA was very active on the streets of London. At that time, one of my daughters was at University, and the other one was still living with me and trying to do her public examinations. She suffered a lot, really. This is the mother of my granddaughter who’s here today. She suffered a lot from both the media intrusion outside the house and the fear that all this attention might bring the IRA creeping up the stairs at the back. It was difficult for her. In the end, we had to sell our house, and move and really live covertly in order to avoid the publicity that this announcement produced. We’re still friends, and I think they think on the whole it was a good thing. Although, neither of them have wanted to go into the intelligence services themselves.

— Transcribed by Grant Engle