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Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism$

Richard English

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265901

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265901.001.0001

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date: 11 July 2020

What Should be the Limits of Western Counter-Terrorism Policy?

What Should be the Limits of Western Counter-Terrorism Policy?

(p.57) 4 What Should be the Limits of Western Counter-Terrorism Policy?
Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism

David Omand

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

How governments understand and thus come to conceptualise and explain current and future threats and the calibration of their response across all the levers open to government at home and abroad is seen as key to sound strategy. The prevailing approach to domestic security planning after 9/11 as part of the British counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, is seen as heavily influenced by the growing application of risk management as a planning tool in government generally and is contrasted with the US approach. The influence of unrelated external events, including the revelations of Edward Snowden, is examined as a factor disturbing the domestic calculus of the ‘thermodynamics’ of counter-terrorism: how the government can best exercise its primary duty to protect the public in the face of a severe terrorist threat and yet maintain civic harmony and uphold democratic values and the rule of law at home and internationally. This chapter argues that the overall challenge for the future is to maintain public confidence that it is possible for government having absorbed such lessons to discharge its responsibilities for public safety and security whilst behaving ethically in accordance with modern views of human rights, including personal privacy, in a world where deference to authority and automatic acceptance of the confidentiality of government business no longer holds sway.

Keywords:   terrorism, counter-terrorism, al-Qaida, 9/11

THERE IS NOW A WEALTH OF EXPERIENCE to draw on concerning Western counterterrorism efforts since the attacks by al-Qaida on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 (9/11), capable of illuminating the relationship between public security, civil liberties and human rights. In the light of the lessons from that experience, some learnt the hard way, it is time to consider what should be the limits of future counter-terrorism policy and of the intelligence effort to support it.

The fundamental dilemma for public policy is clear: how can a government best exercise its primary duty to protect the public in the face of a severe terrorist threat and yet maintain civic harmony and uphold democratic values and the rule of law at home and internationally? A comparison of British and US experience illustrates what could be described as the ‘thermodynamics’ of counter-terrorism. There is a relationship between the vigour of security measures, taken domestically and overseas, both to protect the public directly and to obtain intelligence to prevent future attacks, and the level of confidence among all sections of the community in the government’s commitment to protect the liberties and rights of the citizen, including the right to life in the face of murderous terrorism and the right to privacy for personal and family life. As with the thermodynamic relationship between the volume, pressure and temperature of a gas, too sudden an application of force to compress it and the temperature may rise dangerously to explosive levels; too little pressure applied and the gas is uncontained and will expand out of control. The best approach may well be to cool things down as the pressure is gradually built up, and certainly not to do things that heat the gas up unnecessarily–the impact of the occupation of Iraq after 2003 comes to mind. There is, after all, no such thing as a risk-free world and experience shows that attempting ever-higher levels of security will become oppressive and counter-productive.

(p.58) The analogy is best not pushed further–the point to be registered is that there has been an inter-relationship between counter-terrorism efforts, their effect on the spread of the violent jihadist ideology and their effect on civic harmony, civil liberties and human rights. In that respect, there are some important new lessons to be learnt by governments from the last decade, and a much larger number of old lessons to re-learn. In the former category, by way of example, falls the impact that must now be expected from the spread of digital technology. On the one hand there has been the use of the internet and social media by terrorists and their associates to communicate and propagandise and on the other hand the exploitation of digital technology by the security and intelligence authorities to derive information on their suspects, as revealed in the documents stolen by Edward Snowden from the US and UK intelligence community and published in the media. In the latter category would, for example, come the following:

  • The choice of counter-terrorism strategy–especially the selection of the strategic aim–is crucial to getting the thermodynamic judgment right.

  • The need to understand and apply consistently the classic principles of risk management in order to mitigate the threats facing the public.

  • The value to the counter-terrorism effort of having an intelligence community–spanning domestic and overseas services–that can generate pre-emptive intelligence to forestall attacks, cooperating closely and harmoniously with law enforcement.

  • The value when terrorist attacks occur of having previously invested in building up national resilience to enable rapid recovery, especially in the critical national infrastructure supporting the fabric of everyday life.

  • The importance of the narrative governments choose to tell their publics to explain what is going on based on their assessment of the threat and of the effects of the response, direct and indirect, and thus the enduring value of having an informed public that believes government is listening to its concerns and that therefore is prepared to support its security policies even when these inconvenience the citizen.

As an illustration of the importance of the strategic narrative consider the way that the surprise attack by al-Qaida on 9/11 reinforced a growing opinion in government circles in both the US and the UK that not only should states be prepared to use armed force to defend themselves against external attack by other states but they have a responsibility to their citizens to anticipate trouble brewing and to act before it is too late. In the face of such a catastrophic scale of terrorism, that responsibility would justify intervening in (p.59) countries harbouring terrorism or that might support them in future by providing weapons and support. The terrorist weapons on 9/11 were box cutters, kinetic impact and burning jet-fuel but the question rightly imposed itself on the policy-makers: what if it had been a nuclear device, a dirty bomb or a biological weapon? If terrorists acquired such means, the argument ran, they had just shown by their fanaticism that they would use them, being fully prepared to give their own lives in the process if necessary. If that happened in any modern city then the core of our civilisation–the ability of very large numbers of people to be able to live together in cities without fear–would be called into question. It was no longer responsible policy to wait until the enemy was at the gates, or even inside the city. Action had to be considered before the threat crystallised, which of course would mean relying on pre-emptive intelligence.

The audacity of the 9/11 attacks, the symbolism of the targets and the instant availability of literally stunning visual coverage by the media provided unprecedented global media impact. The fear that it could be the first of many such attacks, and the realisation that al-Qaida with its base in Afghanistan had the capability to inspire and mobilise networks capable of further such attacks, came as a highly unwelcome surprise to Western governments. Applying the logic of pre-emption and ‘never again’, it was inevitable–and fully justified–that the UK government immediately supported the US intervention in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 to overthrow the Taliban and destroy the al-Qaida support structure they were protecting.

The way the threat was subsequently framed has to be seen as part of the wider narrative then current about the nature of the post-Cold War world. While in opposition before 1997, New Labour had condemned the international community for ignoring the warnings of massacres in Rwanda. New Labour had also criticised perceived weakness of resolve during the Bosnian war, and the way that a deep policy rift had been allowed to develop between the political classes of the US and the UK. The US Senate had refused to support the actions of the Royal Navy enforcing the UN arms embargo on the Bosnians, arguing that the Serbs were committing genocide whilst Europe refused to allow the Bosnians to be armed to defend themselves. The Senate had even passed a resolution cutting off intelligence cooperation with the UK on enforcing the arms embargo. In the end, the lesson had been drawn that it was only UN acceptance of the role of air and military power provided by the US and its NATO allies that enabled the international community to uphold its will.

The lesson does not seem to have been lost on Tony Blair as Labour Party leader. Later, as Prime Minister, he was the leading international figure arguing for the NATO intervention in Kosovo to protect the Albanian minority. (p.60) One month into the Kosovo war, on 22 April 1999, Blair made his speech in Chicago setting out his ‘Doctrine of the International Community’, later referred to by the media as the ‘Blair doctrine.1 In it he argued that the post-Westphalian order of sovereign states entitled to order their internal affairs as they pleased within their own borders was over. The international community had not only the right, but the duty–if certain conditions were fulfilled–to intervene inside sovereign states when the government concerned was unable or unwilling to protect its own population or to enforce international law. The Kosovo operation was then followed in 2000 by Prime Minister Blair authorising the military intervention by the Royal Marines in Sierra Leone, a highly successful use of the ability to project force.

It is an irony of history that the general lesson of the importance of preemptive action, reinforced by the shock of 9/11, came to be applied to the very different circumstances of Iraq, given the fear of the threat that Saddam’s Iraq might pose if sanctions were lifted with the no-fly zone stood down and he became free fully to pursue his WMD ambitions. Not that the UK authorities ever believed at any level–as did some in Washington–that there was collusion between Saddam’s Iraq and leading figures in al-Qaida–the British Government’s chain of logic was an indirect one, that the UK must support the US in taking anticipatory action to deal with future dangers. The US decision to invade Iraq with questionable UN authority and with inadequate preparation for the consequences now seems a major error of judgment and an overreaction to the perceived threat at the time, let alone to what is now believed to have been the actual state of Saddam’s WMD programmes. The intervention made the al-Qaida radicalisation threat worse, as the UK Joint Intelligence Committee before the Iraq war had warned the government it would.2 The long and bloody occupation campaign in Iraq after the invasion hardened attitudes in sections of the British Muslim community against the US orientation of UK foreign policy and made the US brand more toxic internationally, as subsequently recognised by the decisions of the Obama administration to alter aspects of counter-terrorism strategy.

It really matters how threat and response are framed in strategic terms at the outset of any campaign. Facing terrorism, time and effort must be afforded at the outset to judge the underlying nature and potential gravity of the future threat. Only then can leaders be in a position to calibrate the response appropriately and proportionately across all the levers open to government at home (p.61) and abroad. Such an assessment will never be an easy undertaking, especially in the face of public outrage after an attack, and there cannot be a ready-made heuristic to apply. Attention will understandably be focused on achieving successes at the operational and tactical level. The experience of the last decade on both sides of the Atlantic shows, however, that the importance of establishing the appropriate strategy cannot be over-estimated. It really does matter how governments understand and thus come to conceptualise and characterise the threat and their response to it.

At such a moment governments need careful strategic intelligence assessments judging the situation based on the best evidence that can be gathered, that identify the best explanation of events that can be devised consistent with those facts and draw on our historical understanding and interpretation of the motivations of those posing the threat, leading in turn to careful predictions of how the threat might develop and how all those involved and affected might respond to the measures we and our allies might take. With the benefit of such strategic assessment, modelling may be possible to examine the ‘what ifs’ corresponding to the policy choices open. For some purposes, governments need to analyse what might be the worst case they could face, even if far from the most likely, so as to be able to consider how best to protect the public.

The overall level of risk represented by such low probability/high impact cases, as they are known, has to be mitigated by sensible security investment. Thus, stockpiling smallpox vaccine effectively removes the risk of terrorists trying to obtain and spread that disease; having heavily armed guards at nuclear sites similarly makes a successful attack with catastrophic consequences vanishingly unlikely. Such investment can only be afforded sparingly. Nor is the worst-case scenario usually what we forecast as the most likely outcome. This poses an obvious problem for public communication. Ministers have to communicate a sense of the general level of risk to which the public is likely to be exposed, and the rationale for the measures taken and expenditure and inconvenience incurred. Honest reassurance can, for example, convey the sense that the individual risk to a citizen of being caught up in a terrorist incident remains low, for example relative to other everyday risks such as accidents, but also not disguise the fact that not all attacks can be expected to be pre-empted by the authorities. Given terrorists have the initiative there may be from time to time unwelcome surprises. It is also necessary to explain how it is planned that the authorities will manage the unwanted consequences of security and intelligence measures and counter-terrorism legislation, for example effects on individual privacy, freedoms, liberties and human rights. Like the thermodynamic relationship between volume, pressure and temperature, (p.62) actions taken to affect one variable have consequences for the others, with not always desirable consequences.

In developing its preferred strategy for reducing the threat to the public, government will have to have some feel for what the public can be brought to tolerate by way of risk of continuing terrorist activity as counter-terrorist effort builds up. That sense of risk appetite, as it is called, is key to the pace and intensity of the measures that government authorises to get a grip on the situation. At one extreme of national danger, it is possible to envisage a state of emergency being declared with draconian powers, justifying derogation from human rights obligations.3 At the other extreme, for example after a single ‘lone-wolf’ attack, there can be the expectation of a swift arrest and prosecution of the perpetrator under existing powers, no doubt with a public inquiry to follow into the circumstances.

Parliament, public and the media will also have (vivid) ways of expressing their often conflicting and inconsistent risk appetites. In the aftermath of some atrocity these are unlikely to be the same as those of the security authorities. To return to the main lesson, only with a strategic and explicable view of the nature of the threat and the consequences of possible responses can the different considerations be brought into an acceptable equilibrium that the public will accept in the circumstances.

Looking back, a strong case can be made that the relevant UK risk judgments in the period after 9/11 have been shown to be broadly correct in the light of hindsight, although with some hard lessons learnt on the way. But the experience of recent years provides a warning against too stark a caricature of the mantra that ‘terrorism is a matter for criminal justice alone’ on the one hand, and the extremes of the Bush ‘War on Terror’ on the other hand. The criminal justice paradigm is indeed a necessary condition but by no means a sufficient condition for success. The ability to mount a successful prosecution of the terrorist is important but will not by itself sufficiently protect the public, especially when the terrorist is prepared to be a suicide bomber.

The magnitude of the shock of 9/11 came as a complete tactical surprise. For most observers outside the intelligence community the capability of al-Qaida to plan such a complex attack had also come as a strategic surprise. The public had not been prepared for the possibility of an atrocity on such a scale, least of all in the American homeland. What the mass murders of 9/11 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania did, therefore, was to crystallise for (p.63) the first time an understanding at the political level that the al-Qaida movement was a major threat to domestic public security. The global terrorist campaign against the US and its allies that bin Laden had announced several years before was finally hitting its target. Al-Qaida now appeared a very different kind of terrorist organisation in comparison with other earlier terrorist groups in terms of ambition, ingenuity, reach, suicidal fanaticism and intended lethality.

It should not perhaps have taken the attacks of 9/11 to produce a sense amongst political elites of the real and present danger from al-Qaida given the openly declared desire of bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri to attack the US and major European countries, for example in their fatwa of 1996. Bin Laden was already a major intelligence target after the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi and the attack on the USS Cole in Aden in 2000, but despite the publicity surrounding the US bombing of al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan that followed those attacks violent jihadism had not entered public and political consciousness as a significant domestic threat. In 2001 the position was scarcely different in the UK, where security and intelligence effort and funding remained at their reduced post-Cold War level.

Some differences between US and British interpretations of the situation created by 9/11 were to be expected. The Provisional IRA campaigns, including the detonation of massive bombs in the City of London in 1992 and 1993 and again in 1996 in London Docklands and in Manchester, had hardened British attitudes to the personal risk from urban terrorism. The UK policing, security and intelligence community was used to assess risk. The UK entered the campaign against jihadist terrorism with a security and surveillance infrastructure around urban centres far more advanced than then existed in the US or most other European partner nations. The Northern Irish experience may well thus have helped London arrive at a more balanced assessment of the al-Qaida threat than Washington. The suicidal nature of the 9/11 attack, however, forced the British authorities to recognise the vulnerability of international aviation and its use as a terror weapon, and the openness of much critical infrastructure and of UK public life generally to suicide terrorism carried out without warning, with no specific demands and with the intent to cause mass casualties, characteristics not associated with Irish terrorist campaigns.

The merits of adopting the law enforcement ‘police primacy’ approach had been learnt the hard way through the experience of using the army on the streets in counter-terrorism duties in Northern Ireland and the dire consequences of emergency measures such as internment without trial (from 1971 to 1975) and the use in 1971 of coercive interrogation methods (later condemned by the European Court of Human Rights as inhuman (p.64) and degrading although falling short of torture). Portraying al-Qaida terrorism as simply a criminal act ran the risk, however, of under-estimating the ideological component of the al-Qaida message and the power of its religious wrapping to radicalise elements of the domestic population to be part of a global movement. The ready assumption in British security circles that working within the law was the natural basis for any counterterrorist strategy in a democracy may also have helped blind the authorities in the UK to the way that President Bush, in order to uncover and destroy al-Qaida, was prepared to authorise extraordinary extra-legal measures in highly secret (NOFORN) Presidential findings not released at the time to the UK.

A further speculation about perceptions of threat may be justified. Older members of the British population may have retained an unconscious feeling from the long Cold War of being unavoidably vulnerable to potential attack and a pride in the historical record of the Second World War blitz spirit. The British population had also experienced PIRA terrorist bombs, and seen how the pattern of everyday life returned to normal. Although 9/11 brought the largest loss of British lives (67) ever from a terrorist incident, the psychic shock of 9/11 in the United States was clearly deeper precisely because of a longstanding sense of continental invulnerability. President Bush’s response echoed the message from President Truman in founding the Central Intelligence Agency, ‘No more Pearl Harbors’. For the US public, Congress and the Administration in 2001 the attacks on 9/11 were regarded as those of a foreign enemy who had dared to conduct a sneak attack and with whom the US was therefore in an armed conflict to the finish.

US intelligence officers, along with special forces, became active hunters rather than passive gatherers of intelligence including using extraordinary extra-legal rendition, coercive interrogation including techniques that amounted to torture, and extra-judicial targeted killing of identified high-value al-Qaida leaders, most notably using guided weapons launched from remotely piloted drones. At the same time, massive sums were made available to build up the defence of the US itself against external attack through a new Department of Homeland Security. Looking back, we can see how the conceptualisation of the threat also carried the risk of overlooking signs of domestic radicalisation and under-estimating extremist reaction to US counter-terrorist behaviour overseas.

In Europe, by contrast, the threat from outside represented by al-Qaida was being mirrored on the inside of society as support for jihadist violence could already be found in small networks within European Muslim communities, and these feelings heightened with the increasing insurgent and terrorist (p.65) violence following the occupation of Iraq. What was being diagnosed in the UK by 2003 could be described as a growing disease of the body politic, resulting in the presence in the UK of a small number of violent radicalised individuals in loose overlapping networks alienated from society and actively supporting the aims of al-Qaida. At first their activity may have been mostly propagandising, for example over Kashmir, collecting funds and organising volunteers in the UK to pursue jihad overseas, but later–especially as the news from Iraq worsened–it included planning to attack targets in the UK itself.

Just over a year after 9/11 the Bali nightclub bombing killed 202 people, including many young Australian and British students, and re-ignited public concerns over the effectiveness of counter-terrorist measures. The danger was growing of domestic jihadist extremists inspired by the al-Qaida ideology, with radicalising material easily accessible through the internet as well as through personal and familial ties overseas. The effort against PIRA and its British bombing campaigns had already led to important prevention of terrorism legislation being on the UK statute book. After 9/11, measures were rushed through in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security (ATCS) Act 2001 and further counter-terrorist Acts then passed every year defined new offences, gave new powers to the authorities and provided new penalties for the Courts.

The creation in 2002 of the Cabinet Office Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator post was another recognition that in the face of the al-Qaida threat more senior central effort on the coordination of government counter-terrorist effort was needed. As Coordinator, I quickly came to feel that such was the nature of the al-Qaida threat, spanning as it did domestic and overseas spaces with the ever-present risk of a catastrophic attack on the UK itself, that a broad strategy was needed that would engage to the greatest extent possible all our national civil and military resources, and harness all our national inventiveness and talent from government, academic and private sectors. In October 2002, therefore, I launched an inter-departmental team, under the acronym CONTEST, short for COuNter-TErroriSm sTrategy. The term CONTEST quickly became the shorthand for the strategy itself as it emerged early in 2003 and was presented to and accepted by the Cabinet.

Having a simple enough strategic intent was particularly important given the many different organisations involved from national and local government, law enforcement, the private sector and civil society not under central command. A clear strategic goal was felt to facilitate devolved decision taking, allowing each organisation to contribute towards a shared objective. Clarity of strategic aim can also help guard against the natural tendency for the cumulative effect of many tactical decisions, each correct against their (p.66) own logic yet together leading further away from the strategic goal. The right aim also helps moderate the natural argument emanating from the front line to be allowed to take the gloves off, almost always at the expense of creating adverse propaganda opportunities and setbacks in public support. It helps too to have a compass bearing on where you want to head when the winds of the red-top media are blowing fiercely demanding ‘something must be done’.

CONTEST was couched as an interim strategy, only looking five years ahead. At that stage there were too many unknowns–not least how the intervention in Iraq would change the international situation–to make long-term planning possible. There was, however, confidence in the strategic logic of the approach taken in CONTEST–and that has been borne out by the fact that the strategy remains in force now some twelve years after its initiation and is on its third major iteration and third Prime Minister. The value of such continuity in basic policy in terms of maintaining effective counter-terrorist effort is itself an important lesson.

The intelligence assessments supporting the development of CONTEST did correctly identify the al-Qaida attacks on 9/11 and subsequent plots as following a strategy that Fawaz Gerges later vividly characterised as the al-Qaida leadership attacking ‘the far enemy’:4 only by directly terrorising Western populations and demonstrating the incapacity of their governments to protect the public would the US and its allies cease to support what al-Qaida characterised as pro-Western, apostate and corrupt regimes in the Islamic world. Without such Western support, Islamist revolutions would then eventually install Islamist regimes that would follow strict sharia law, and thus contribute to the long-term goal of the restoration of the Caliphate across the Islamic world.

US policymakers seem to have drawn from this common intelligence analysis the primary importance of eliminating as quickly as possible the senior al-Qaida operational leaders who were assessed to be likely to be working on further major attack planning against the US. UK and European policymakers had an additional concern drawn from the historical lessons of revolutionary action5–the logic of the deed–of the danger of being provoked into disproportionate reaction, thus justifying the revolutionary narrative in the eyes of the communities from whom the terrorists sought support. In particular, the al-Qaida strategy relied upon building amongst disaffected young European Muslims a sense of primary loyalty to their membership of the umma, the global Islamic community, and their perceiving that community as under (p.67) attack by the West. And terrorism could then be justified in their eyes as the fulfilment of the duty to take part in a defensive jihad.

The European historical experience reinforced the understanding that to be successful terrorists must disturb normality and destroy a sense of security on the part of citizens, business and the community to the point where governments feel pressure to concede to the terrorist agenda. The British strategic intent in CONTEST was thus chosen to be the maintenance of normality. Success would be achieved if the terrorists were denied what it was assessed they were most seeking, namely attacks that would destabilise confidence in the ability of government to protect the public, and would radicalise their support base.

It is, therefore, possible now to see more clearly than was possible at the time why the US and European governments were led to construct different strategic counter-terrorist narratives. That was despite the traditional patterns of cooperation on intelligence, defence science and technology and homeland security, applying to such measures as border control, fitting strengthened cockpit doors on aircraft to make hijacking difficult and introducing security arrangements for sea freight. Tensions came later, for example as the British government learnt of the detention of British residents in Guantanamo and US extraordinary rendition policies. A change of administration in Washington in 2009, together with the recognition that the US itself has to deal with ‘homegrown’ violent extremists active inside the US, has of course now brought transatlantic thinking closer on these issues.

Casting the CONTEST intent in terms of normality was, therefore, a fundamental policy choice. The aim was formally stated as to reduce the risk from international terrorism so that people can go about their normal life freely and with confidence. By ‘freely’ was meant without having to suspend the rule of law and interfere with individual liberties; by ‘with confidence’ would mean visitors coming to the UK, markets stable, people still travelling by air and using the underground.

A further important feature of the UK CONTEST approach was that it embodied risk-management principles, trying to reduce each factor in the risk equation that measures the level of threat from a terrorist attack as the product of the likelihood of an attack attempt × vulnerability to the type of attack × immediate impact should the attack succeed × duration of the disruption caused by the attack. For each of those factors government could deploy a number of policy instruments:

  • The likelihood of an attack can be reduced by significantly expanding intelligence and police efforts and bringing terrorists to justice (the Pursue campaign of CONTEST).

  • (p.68) The length and depth of the terrorist campaign can be shortened by measures to counter the terrorist narrative and reduce the level of violent radicalisation in the community and tackling its roots overseas (the Prevent campaign).

  • The vulnerability of the public can be reduced through measures such as aviation/transport security and safeguarding infrastructure essential for normal life (the Protect campaign).

  • The impact of an attack can be mitigated by equipping, training and exercising the emergency services together to respond quickly when (rather than if) terrorists succeed in mounting an attack; and the duration and intensity of disruption can be reduced by building up national resilience so as to restore the essentials of normal life (the Prepare campaign). This investment in emergency services response and in national resilience has, of course, value in dealing with many other kinds of civil emergencies.

This British CONTEST strategy with its ‘4P’ campaigns was subsequently exported to other nations, including forming the basis of the EU’s own counter-terrorism strategy.

Managing the risk down to allow normal life to continue rather than adopting a ‘War on Terror’ metaphor is, however, an approach that involves reassuring the public that the major risks are being satisfactorily managed but without the false promise that life can be made risk-free. It may lead to media accusations that the government believes there is an ‘acceptable’ level of violence and inevitably carries the implication that sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, there will be tragic attacks. For the general British public (although not to the security authorities) it seems to have come as a great shock that the attacks on London transport on 7 July 2005 (7/7) were perpetrated by radicalised young British Muslims attacking their fellow citizens and declaring that their victims were legitimate targets in their suicide videos. It was not until 2006, a year after 7/7, that the British government published a white paper describing its strategy (CONTEST) for countering international terrorism6 but with only a few sentences of explanation as to what lay behind the al-Qaida movement. The French government published its own white paper on counter-terrorism around the same time7 and dealt at length with the origins of al-Qaida and its ideology.

(p.69) Good intelligence is needed to uncover networks, forestall attacks, identify potential vulnerabilities and as evidence in court. If the authorities are to risk pre-emptive action then sound intelligence is essential on which decisions can be based over when to intervene and when to leave alone. In the UK, external and domestic intelligence services improved their ability to work with the police as a single counter-terrorist community, and with allies and partners overseas developing the use of digital technology to track individuals and their identities, movements, finances and communications around the world. Two notable innovations were the creation of JTAC, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre spanning all the dimensions of policing and intelligence, both civilian and military, and the CPNI, the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure within the Security Service–bringing technical security and policing expertise together to improve protective security advice to government and industry.

Another advantage of having adequate pre-emptive intelligence is that by making it easier to manage the level of threat, political pressures are relieved that otherwise would build up on government to take more draconian measures so as reassure the majority.

At the 7/7 inquest Christopher Coltart QC, representing seven of the victims’ families, claimed the state may have breached its obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) to protect the lives of its citizens because if more action had been taken to put more suspects under close surveillance prior to July 2005, ‘it may have been possible’ that the attacks could have been prevented. That was an extreme argument, but reflected the position that the citizen has a right to expect that the security authorities will be allowed to use all lawful and reasonable means to manage the risks from such dangers. It also supports the contention that public security requires the authorities to balance rights, such as the victims’ right to life–the right not to be blown up–and the right to privacy and family life. The balancing act required is within the framework of human rights, not imagining that security and rights are in opposition. Indeed, where there is no security there will be no rights.

Since 7/7 it has been estimated that up to a dozen terrorist plots against the UK have been uncovered or have otherwise failed in their intent. That is a remarkable tribute to the efforts of the security and intelligence authorities. Pre-emptive intelligence has been critical in delivering a higher chance of terrorist networks being identified in time and individuals brought to justice. Without it, the pressure would have been to resort to cruder measures–the bludgeon of state power–to try to protect the public. Such measures applied to minority communities are likely to disrupt civic harmony and increase a sense of alienation, feeding in to the narrative of the extremist.

(p.70) The revelations from the intelligence documents stolen in 2013 by Edward Snowden revealed much about how since 9/11 the US and UK signals intelligence community have exploited the rapid advances in electro-optics, cheap data storage, digital global communications networks, the internet, mobile personal devices and the massive use of social media. Bulk access to digital information has enabled the NSA in the US and GCHQ in the UK to supply information about the communications, location, movements, contacts, spending and beliefs of terrorist-related suspects and organisations of legitimate interest to the authorities.

A vocal minority have equated the Snowden revelations with state monitoring of the population and the advent of a surveillance state, fear that resonates especially in nations that have been subject to foreign occupation or to totalitarianism. Such critics often make the category error of not distinguishing bulk access to the internet–which the US and UK certainly do have, for example through underwater cables–and so-called mass surveillance which they do not conduct.

Mass surveillance is about pervasive observation or monitoring of the entire population or a substantial sector of it. Observation implies observers, human beings in the security authorities who are examining the thoughts and actions of the population. No such mass surveillance takes place on the UK population, and it would be comprehensively unlawful if it did. On the other hand, there is sophisticated selection by computer from the massive volumes of traffic on the internet of the very small percentage that is of legitimate intelligence interest. Even if the exaggerated fears of the Panoptic State have been shown to be misplaced, certainly insofar as the work of British intelligence is concerned,8 the challenge for the future remains that of maintaining public confidence that these powerful tools in the hands of the intelligence authorities will not be misused.

A further lesson to be learnt from the last decade is about getting better at handling issues of responsibility and avoiding a blame game for operational decisions made in good faith: we need to learn that sometimes, inevitably, operational decisions do not pay off. Stuff happens in everyday life as it does in sport. We want our football team to win every game. They set out to win every game. But mistakes get made and sometimes the opposition is just too clever. It would be quite unreasonable to have the expectation that the team, and their manager, will never lose a game.

What everyone is searching for is how to redefine for the modern digital age the implicit contract between people and government under which in (p.71) return for a reasonable assurance of protection, including protection of human rights, the people empower government with coercive means, including armed forces equipped with technologies such as the drone and security and intelligence agencies equipped with bulk access to the internet.

Such an understanding might take the form of a series of lessons from the last decade representing a balance of the competing principles and interests involved.

All concerned–government, its agencies and the public–have to accept that maintaining security today remains the primary duty of government and they will have the necessary call on resources. But the public should be invited to accept that there is no absolute security and chasing after it does more harm than good. Providing security involves applying consistently the classic principles of risk management in order to mitigate the threats facing the public.

The thermodynamics of security and intelligence activity has to be better understood if civic harmony is to be maintained at an acceptable level of public security. It makes a difference where on the threat spectrum a threat is situated by government. At one extreme, it could be just one more serious modern risk to be managed by the authorities, along with other threats to the citizen such as from organised crime or from natural hazards such as pandemics or extreme weather; and, at the other extreme, an existential risk, challenging the very existence of the democratic state, the safety of our cities and our long-term prosperity and quality of life. Great care is needed to select and apply appropriate responses that will be proportionate to the assessment of each of these very diverse threats.

The choice of counter-terrorism strategy–especially the selection of the strategic aim–must be reflected in the narrative governments choose to tell their publics. Clear explanation is needed early on based on assessment of the threat and of the likely effects of the response: direct and indirect. There is enduring value in having an informed public that believes government is listening to its concerns and that therefore is prepared to support its security policies even when these inconvenience the citizen. There is considerable value when risks to the public arise of having previously invested in building up resilience at national and local levels to enable rapid recovery, especially in the critical national infrastructure supporting the fabric of everyday life.

As part of the strategic narrative, the public should be reassured that terrorists will be treated as criminals and dealt with under the law but reminded that pre-emptive secret intelligence is an essential means to reduce the risk from terrorism, so that normal life can continue. There will always be intelligence gaps and ambiguities, but overall the work of the intelligence and security services shift the odds in the public’s favour, sometimes very significantly.

(p.72) Effective counter-terrorism effort requires the support of an intelligence community–spanning domestic and external services and with overseas liaisons–that can generate pre-emptive intelligence cooperating closely and harmoniously with law enforcement to forestall attacks and uphold the rule of law. If the secrets of terrorists are to be uncovered, therefore, there will be inevitable intrusions into privacy. These intrusive methods are powerful and they get results.

The public must accept that there is no general ‘right to know’ about intelligence sources and methods, but the public has a right to oversight of the work of intelligence agencies by cleared parliamentary representatives on the public’s behalf, and should expect judicial oversight of the exercise of statutory intelligence gathering powers, with independent investigation of allegations of abuse.

So public trust that the security and intelligence machine will only be used for public protection against major dangers will continue to be essential. The policing, security and intelligence community have to accept, in turn, that ethics matter: there are ‘red lines’ that must not be crossed. So some opportunities will have to be passed over and the principles of proportionality, necessity and due authority will have to be followed. In my book9 I set down six such principles. Richard Rusbridger, the Editor of the Guardian newspaper, in his blog10 has suggested that these principles could also be applied to govern the use of intrusive investigative methods by newspapers and other media in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal by the News of the World.

The overall challenge for the future is to maintain public confidence that it is possible for government, having absorbed such lessons, to discharge its responsibilities for public safety and security whilst behaving ethically in accordance with modern views of human rights, including personal privacy, in a world where deference to authority and automatic acceptance of the confidentiality of government business no longer holds sway.


(3) Circumstances considered by the House of Lords in 2004, in the case of A and others v. the Home Secretary, [2004] UKHL 56, available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200405/ldjudgmt/jd041216/a&oth-4.htm.

(4) F. Gerges, The Far Enemy (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005).

(5) A. Camus, L’Homme Revolté, (Paris, Gallimard, 1951).

(6) HM Government, Countering International Terrorism (London, HMSO Cm 6888, July 2006).

(7) Secrétariat Général de la Défense Nationale, Livre blanc sur la securité intérieure face au terrorisme (Paris, La Documentation Française, 2006).

(8) Annual Report of the Interception Commissioner (London, House of Commons HC 1184, 2014).

(9) D. Omand, Securing the State (London, Hurst, 2010).