Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Countering terrorism: an international blueprint

Published date: 17 Jun 2003

The lecture by the Director General of the Security Service, Eliza Manningham-Buller, at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Conference on "The Oversight of Intelligence and Security".

I am grateful to the Director of RUSI for inviting me to speak at the opening session of this conference. Countering terrorism is an important issue, and not one limited to the intelligence agencies and the police. Conferences such as this contribute to the debate about how we respond to terrorism. I hope that I will be able to shed some light on the Security Service's view of a complex problem that we all face.

This morning I should like to cover:

  • an overview of the terrorist threat to the UK;
  • the response of my Service, and others, to the events of 9/11;
  • some personal thoughts about the future nature of the threat.


Although my duties as the Director General keep me pretty busy, I do take time to read what is being written by commentators and other writers who have a different perspective on the counter terrorism business.

I am the first to concede that security and intelligence services do not have a monopoly of wisdom on this subject. I am struck that the post 9/11 language of counter terrorism is dominated by the word "new": new groups, new threats and the need for new types of response. I agree with some of those sentiments but disagree with others. I will come back to those points later.

For practitioners, the threat from international terrorism is not a "new" phenomenon. It is a development of a threat that has been with us for many years. During my own career I have seen significant changes in the international terrorist threat. In the late 1980s I was Head of one of the Service's international counter terrorist sections. Our pre-occupations then were the state sponsors of terrorism and terrorism linked to nationalism.

I can remember that too was a period when international terrorism dominated the headlines. Some of the language used to describe the impact of 9/11 was used much earlier in 1988 to describe the terrorist bombing of PA103 over Lockerbie. That attack was the single biggest terrorist outrage on UK soil which led to the most intensive, lengthy and complex investigation (and subsequent prosecution) in UK history.

But the events of September 11 were a watershed in the history of terrorism. These were dramatic and devastating attacks, resulting in major loss of life, destruction of property and economic damage across the globe. From Al Qaida's perspective the attacks were their most audacious and ambitious; representing an impressive demonstration of the organisation's capability to plan, co-ordinate and execute simultaneous attacks against the United States. It would be useful to remind ourselves that 67 British citizens died in the 9/11 attacks. 9/11 represented the single greatest loss of British lives in a terrorist attack-a fact that sometimes gets overlooked as the events of that dreadful day begin to recede into memory.

What is new about terrorism in the post 9/11 environment?

Al Qaida represents the first truly global terrorist threat. But we should remember that there are other Islamist and nationalist terrorist groups who have the capability and intent to attack Western interests. Recent events in Riyadh and Casablanca demonstrate that Al Qaida, and groups sympathetic to its aims, remain a potent and deadly terrorist threat.

I wish to be very clear at this point that I am not talking about a threat from Islam. It is true that terrorists use Islamic doctrine to provide a justification for terrorist attacks. We do not see the Muslim community as a threat. In the same way that we do not see the Irish community as a threat. Our focus is the terrorists. But international terrorism, compared with our experience of Irish terrorism, poses new challenges for us. Challenges of scale, geography, culture and language; it represents a complex and diverse target, capable of real harm to our way of life.

Al Qaida members, and others, have demonstrated their willingness to take part in suicide or martyrdom operations. This is an important consideration in planning our response to terrorism. If the terrorist plans no escape or does not worry about possibility of detection then his planning for the attack will be quite different. A bomber intent on suicide is difficult to deter through conventional means. The response to that type of attack must therefore be different.

Terrorist attacks by Al Qaida have inflicted large-scale civilian casualties and they have deliberately attacked "soft" targets to inflict widespread civilian casualties. This is not just a war against the State and its representations here and abroad. In the front line, alongside military forces, diplomats and government targets are tourists, and people going about their normal business. Al Qaida's targeting demonstrates the vulnerability of sophisticated western societies.

Al Qaida has the ambition to carry out unconventional attacks against the West. The Al Qaida leadership have said so. The question we must ask is do they have the capability to carry out such an attack? We know that renegade scientists have co-operated with Al Qaida and provided them with some of the knowledge they need to develop these weapons. My conclusion, based on the intelligence we have uncovered, is that we are faced with the realistic possibility of some form of unconventional attack.

That could include a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack. Sadly, given the widespread proliferation of the technical knowledge to construct these weapons, it will be only a matter of time before a crude version of a CBRN attack is launched at a major Western city. The discovery of traces of ricin in the UK demonstrates that interest in unconventional weapons. The unconventional threat poses significant new challenges for government and society in general. But before we become unduly alarmist it would be worth noting that the bomb and the suicide bomber remain the most effective tool in the terrorist arsenal.

The organisational structure of Al Qaida differs significantly from many of the terrorist groups that my Service and its partners have studied. At the centre, and to some extent directing global operations, rests Usama bin Laden and his close lieutenants. They are surrounded by a relatively small group of hard-core terrorists and facilitators who form the backbone of the terrorist organisation. Their responsibilities include planning and financing terrorist attacks.

Beyond them are looser networks of terrorists and their sympathisers whose connections to Al Qaida and its leadership are less strong. They share many of the goals of Al Qaida but they may have stronger ties to more nationalistic or regional Islamist terrorist groups. Al Qaida's success has been to forge alliances and partnerships with a range of separate and seemingly disparate groups. Al Qaida does not have the rigid structures of other terrorist groups, instead their strength is drawn from alliances, affiliations and networks forged in the terrorist training camps of Afghanistan and the conflicts of Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya. This type of structure makes the collection of pre-emptive intelligence even more difficult for security and intelligence services.

Finally, in our discussion about the threat from Islamist terrorism we should not forget the continuing threat posed by dissident Irish Republican terrorists. We should remember that in our concern about the threat from Al Qaida, the last bomb attack on the UK mainland was perpetrated by the Real IRA. Events in Londonderry at the weekend demonstrate that the threat to the UK remains. London has endured terrorist attacks by Irish Republican terrorists for many years.

We should not lose sight of the possibility that paramilitary groups implacably opposed to the peace process may seek to carry out terrorist attacks here to further their aims. We should remember that attacks against the security forces continue in Northern Ireland but many of the terrorists, opposed to the peace process, recognise the propaganda value of a successful attack on the UK mainland. The substantial holdings of terrorist weapons and explosives on both sides of the divide continue to pose a real threat to the United Kingdom.

The response

So what have we done since September 11? I should like to begin by correcting a few misunderstandings that occasionally appear in published comment about the Service's work.

As I mentioned earlier, I was head of one of the Service's international counter terrorist sections in the late 1980s. We were working actively to deal with the problem of the Islamist terrorism then, so it certainly would not be true to say that we woke up to the threat on 12 September 2001.

From the mid-1990s my Service were working closely with our French counterparts who were dealing with a deadly threat from the Algerian extremist groups inside France. During the summer of 2001, the UK agencies knew that attacks, probably against US interests, were imminent but their nature and target were unknown. What shocked us all was the scale and devastation of the attacks.

I should like to make clear that the response to the terror threat is not just a responsibility of the security and intelligence agencies and the police. This is much wider problem and our work forms part of broader Government strategy. That strategy extends beyond the security response to many other parts of Government. All of this work must rest upon vigorous efforts to maintain the confidence of the Muslim population both here and overseas.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Service stepped up its investigative and intelligence collection efforts against Islamic extremists in the UK. Our work can be divided into three parts:

  • first - to reduce the threat of terrorism by stopping it and disrupting it;
  • second - to reduce our vulnerability to terrorist attack; and
  • finally - to support others to manage the consequences of any attacks.

In addition to the front line investigation and intelligence collection efforts, the Service's important role in providing protective security advice was significantly expanded. We are continuing to increase that work to provide the best possible advice to the widest range of customers. One of my aims during my period as Director General is to see a greater engagement between the Service and the private sector in the provision of the best possible protective security advice.

For the first time in many years, the Security Service is increasing in size. The Government has provided increased resources to the Agencies to meet the extra demands for our work. Recruitment is at an all time high. Last year, and as a direct result of open recruitment, we recruited over 200 new staff to the Service. Recruitment from the ethnic minorities remains a priority for me and, again, we had our best ever year's ethnic minority recruitment.

Counter terrorism has increased its share of the Service's overall effort. Last year over 32% of our effort was devoted to international counter terrorism, this figure will increase still further. Republican dissidents, of course, remain a substantial cause for concern and we cannot afford to drop our guard.

In thinking about this talk I decided to identify some positive messages about the UK's response to 9/11. It is easy to become demoralised in the face of headlines reporting another terrorist atrocity or threat. Normal life is what the terrorist seeks to destroy and creating fear is part of the terrorist agenda.

There is a difficult balance to be struck between keeping people informed about the threat and alarming them unduly. Government has a difficult job to do. In getting the balance right both the Service and the police play a key role in supporting government. I should like to consider the UK's situation in the fight against terrorism and remind ourselves of some positive things that may get overlooked.

The UK has unrivalled expertise in dealing with terrorism - 30 years of Irish terrorism has given the UK a robust and well-established system of handling the terror threat. We have wide-ranging counter terrorist legislation in place to deal with the terrorists, including the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act introduced in the aftermath of September 11. Part of the legislation is designed to deal with terrorism before it takes place. Although it has attracted criticism, it has been an important weapon in our arsenal to combat the international terrorist threat. Of course there must the safeguards to protect individual rights, but there is no doubt in my mind that the legislation has been a valuable contribution to protecting the UK.

The British public has a robust and common sense attitude about individual incidents and terrorist-related events. We have considerable experience of living with terrorism and dealing with the restrictions on normal life that have accompanied the threat.

The UK's counter terrorist arrangements involve the police, the Armed Services, the intelligence services and Government. The private sector and the public more generally are also important. This year a major structural development took place within the intelligence community with the creation of the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre. This is a multi-agency body, for which I am responsible, established to bring together those involved across government in assessing and reporting threat intelligence. This is a positive example of the Agencies and Government's response to the post-9/11 challenges.

Our systems for terrorist protection and advice are the envy of the world. We have long provided protective security advice to key sectors and installations that are critical to our national well being. Part of my Service's historical role was the protection of the country from sabotage attacks; this work later developed into counter terrorist protection. The current arrangements, which build on our long experience, have been effective in making a substantial contribution to the wider counter terrorism effort.

The advice provided by my Service is based on our best understanding of the threat. The Service experts advising industry and Government have access to the intelligence on what we know about the terrorists. The advice they give is practical and firmly grounded in our best understanding of the threat. The protective security arrangements are well established and post 9/11 a great deal of work has gone on behind the scenes to ensure the best possible advice is made available to the widest audience. Our systems are acknowledged to be world class and we have received a steady stream of visits from other countries, including the Department of Homeland Security in the US, to learn about how we do things in the UK.

Police and the security and intelligence services are working together to combat this problem. I can assure you that co-operation has never been better. The UK arrangements bring together the best from the intelligence world on the one side and the law enforcement community on the other. Tackling complex and organised threats is a difficult and dangerous business. There is, without doubt, unequalled transparency and co-operation between us compared with other systems overseas.

International co-operation to combat the terrorist threat has never been closer or more productive. Exchanges of intelligence have long been routine and we and the other agencies, SIS and GCHQ, work closely with foreign intelligence and security services to combat the threat. International co-operation too has never been better.

Since September 11, the United States, working with others, has succeeded in capturing and detaining some significant members of Al Qaida. This has had an impact on the organisation's capability but it is by no means defeated. Other significant developments have been the denial of the Al Qaida safe base in Afghanistan and the protection afforded them by the Taliban regime. This too has curtailed Al Qaida's capability. But as I have mentioned, they remain an organisation capable of carrying out deadly terrorist attacks.

The future

The threat from international terrorism is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. The supply of potential terrorists among extreme elements of the Islamic world is unlikely to diminish. Breaking the link between terrorism and religious ideology will be difficult in the short term. Political dialogue and a process of reconciliation are not on the horizon as groups like Al Qaida have aims that are absolute and non-negotiable. Economic and political developments in parts of the Middle East would reduce some of the exacerbating factors that help feed extremism.

Here in the United Kingdom, we have lived with terrorism before and we will learn to live with this threat too. Its potential lethality and global scale unfortunately will make it an issue for us all for many years to come.

In conclusion, not all of the work of the Service and others is visible and much of it is routine and not at all like the BBC series "Spooks", though it is not just 9-5! In the post 9/11 period, some commentators have called for a root and branch review of our intelligence and security arrangements. A few believe they are out of date and incapable of delivering what is needed for the new threat.

With any complex systems, of course things occasionally go wrong, but the system does work and in our rush deal with the Al Qaida threat we risk discarding those elements of the system that work well.

We are not complacent about the threat or in our response to it. We have had some successes in stopping terrorism and, working with the police, in arresting and prosecuting terrorists. But no matter how successful we are, there is no such thing as complete security. There are no guarantees in the counter terrorism business. We must be alert not alarmed. This will be a difficult road to travel but the UK has many advantages on which to build.


Related News & Speeches

View all News & Speeches
Men in suits on stage in front of flags from different countries, engaged in discussion.

The heads of the Five Eyes domestic intelligence agencies today launched new advice to help organisations protect themselves against the security threats posed by nation states.

MI5 Director General Ken McCallum has welcomed the National Security Act receiving royal assent.

Ken McCallum delivering Bowman lecture

Our director general, Ken McCallum, delivered the annual Bowman lecture at The University of Glasgow earlier this month.