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Global terrorism: are we meeting the challenge?

Published date: 16 Oct 2003

The James Smart Lecture by the Director General of the Security Service, Eliza Manningham-Buller, City Of London Police Headquarters.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am honoured to have been invited to give this year's James Smart lecture and I am most grateful to the Council of the James Smart lecture and the City of London Police for their hospitality this evening.


Last June, I gave a talk to a conference at the Royal United Services Institute. That was my first speech in public. This is my second. I am a career intelligence officer who has spent her whole working life avoiding the press, so my very occasional forays into the public arena and the subsequent weight put on my words are quite sobering.

I am delighted to be talking to you this evening, but please do not expect me to accept many of the invitations to speak that I receive each week. It is the Home Secretary, to whom I am responsible, who will generally speak about the Security Service and our work, both inside Parliament and outside. That said, interest in our work is high and I share the Home Secretary's view that it is important that the Director General of the Security Service in the 21st century should occasionally speak on the record.

I have given this lecture the title "Global Terrorism: Are we meeting the challenge?" This is not just an endeavour for my Service or the Police, and I shall say more of that later. The public also play a pivotal role in defeating terrorism. I am not just referring to the public providing information to the police about suspicious people or activities. Part of the UK's counter-terrorist strategy is the frustration of the terrorists' main aim of spreading fear and anxiety among us. The robustness of the public's response to terrorism and the adoption of a commonsense, "business as usual" attitude is therefore an integral part of the UK's defence.

The public have real concerns about the terrorist threat and there is an appetite for practical advice on what individuals can do to make themselves safer. Understanding the threat, where it comes from and what we are doing to frustrate it are questions that the public are asking and we should do all that we can to answer them without compromising our security or making available information that could help the terrorists.

The safety of the public is the overriding concern of the police and my Service. This evening I want to say something about what it means for all of us to live with a long-term terrorist threat of a different order or magnitude than that which existed before September 11 2001. In particular I should like to highlight several elements of the counter terrorist response from the perspective of an insider.

Since our establishment in 1909 the Service's priorities have changed dramatically, so that today our most important task is countering terrorism and approaching 70% of our effort is devoted to all its manifestations. I don't oversee a vast empire. My organisation is relatively small, comprising around 2,000 staff, but growing. That relatively small size and the compelling nature of our mission enables me to retain what some might regard as an unusually personal connection with the staff. I take every opportunity that I can to meet them and listen to their views on how we can improve.

I am proud to lead an organisation where public service and a commitment to the public good are part of our values. But those values are not unique to the Security Service. We share them with our partners across the whole of the UK's counter-terrorist effort. That effort leads to difficult and sometimes dangerous work, much of it taking place unnoticed and unreported. Occasionally an event brings into sharp relief the difficulties and dangers that face people working at the front line.

That front line is not just in the Middle East or South East Asia. You will all remember one event from earlier this year that had a profound effect on all those it touched. In January a Special Branch officer, Detective Constable Stephen Oake was killed while on duty with Greater Manchester Police. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Stephen Oake and to his police colleagues who were injured in that attack.

The death of Stephen Oake was a tragic reminder of the constant courage required by the police and the other agencies involved in the protection of the public. I should also like to acknowledge the work of Special Branch and the unique contribution that the branch makes to the UK's counter-terrorism.

As I said before, that effort is not confined to the Service and the Police. A defining characteristic of the UK effort is the integrated nature of the response. Our partners also include the other intelligence agencies, SIS and GCHQ; the Armed Services, Customs and Excise and the many other parts of government that contribute to and support this work. The list of Government departments in that category is extensive, most obviously the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Office but, perhaps less obviously the Departments of Transport, Health, International Development and the Treasury.

All are part of a concerted counter-terrorist response that represents the very best of public service. That commitment to public service would be recognised by James Smart and his colleagues of the Glasgow City police. Compared with the mid 1800s, when James Smart was a forward-thinking police leader, our society is very different. The threats of transnational organised terrorism and crime that we face today were unheard of in his time. But the values that exist among the security and law enforcement agencies would be familiar to James Smart and his contemporaries.

Successful organisations today need to be organic, changing and adapting to tackle new problems and developing solutions. But it is also important that we do not forget our past, retaining the best of the values, lessons and experience that we inherit from our predecessors. It is partly for that reason we have appointed an official Historian to write our centenary history which we intend to publish in 2009.


We are now past the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, and it is clear that the threat from Islamist terrorism will be with us for a long time. I see no prospect of a significant reduction in the threat posed to the UK and its interests from Islamist terrorism over the next five years, and, I fear, for a considerable number of years thereafter.

One of the dangers of responding to a threat from Islamist terrorism is the danger of demonising the whole of the Muslim community. Like any citizen of the UK, they are at threat too. The Service and the Police are working hard to ensure that our focus is the terrorist and not the overwhelming majority of law-abiding people.

The effort to defeat the Islamist threat will be a long haul; the root causes of this terrorism are fed by a complex series of seemingly intractable issues, many of which, on their own, would take years and significant international effort to address.

In my speech to the Royal United Services Institute, I said that we had entered a new period in the history of terrorism. Less regional and national in focus, this new phase is characterised by suicide terrorism, attacks by terrorists that purposely seek to inflict mass civilian casualties and who are affiliated to groups which have no interest in negotiation. The threat is present here in the UK and is also directed at British interests overseas. The indiscriminate nature of recent attacks we have witnessed places some of our citizens at risk in distant parts of the world where they might expect to be safe. I recall reading one gloomy Joint Intelligence Committee paper on the threat, after which a colleague said, "holidays only safe in Antarctica then".

Keeping our citizens safe is not an easy task. The recently formed Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, known by the acronym JTAC, is dealing with an average of 100 pieces of threat intelligence worldwide every week: that means intelligence related to a plan or intention to mount a terrorist attack. Ensuring that the intelligence is passed to those who need to know it as speedily as possible, accompanied by an expert assessment of what it means, is of the highest priority for my Service and the other Agencies and Departments who staff JTAC. JTAC is a concrete example of how different parts of government are working together to respond to the changed circumstances we now face.

How serious is that threat? At one end of the scale, we are faced with the prospect of an attack which might use a chemical, biological or radiological weapon and at the other, sporadic acts of violence committed by small groups of individuals, acting with or without the support of an umbrella organisation.

That bleak assessment forms the basis upon which we and the other parts of the UK response are planning for the future. It is however not all bad news and there is much that is positive. I am often asked, "How worried am I personally about terrorism?" As a professional intelligence officer, of course I am concerned about the threat. It is my job to be concerned about the terrorist threat and more crucially, to work with others to make the UK safer. As a citizen, I do have a life away from work and the office. It may surprise you to learn that I have not altered how I live since 9/11. Other than longer hours, my life is, for the most part, relatively unchanged. This is an unremarkable but I suggest, important point, and my first theme for tonight: life goes on and that's one of the reasons I strongly support the Government's wish that the public should be "alert but not alarmed."

For the remainder of this evening I should like to cover three important topics. I would like to begin with some thoughts about the importance of public communication as part of a counter-terrorist strategy. It is important to strike the right balance between the public communication of terrorist threats on the one hand and the danger of putting sources at risk or rendering the public complacent about the threat and indifferent to alerts on the other.

I have already made clear that the safety of the public is the priority but the complex, international nature of the threat will result in possibly more alerts than we have been accustomed to. Understanding a little about the processes used to develop threat intelligence should shed light on the difficult debate about how much to share with the public. For the second part of my talk I should like to say something about the intelligence itself, and particularly how it is used. Finally, I will say a few words about the important work that is going on to make the UK safer, and more hostile to the terrorist, through the dissemination of advice on protection. Part of this work will involve the greater provision of better advice to the public and wider business community.

Importance of public communication

For the most part, the actual detail of our operations must and should remain secret. That said, I am in no doubt that there is value in raising awareness about some of the issues that affect us all. I firmly believe that the public are sensible and realistic in their expectations of both the Security Service and our partners in countering this threat. We need to continue to tell them about the threat, explain the nature and extent of it, and be clear about what can be expected of us by the public. We need and rely upon public cooperation and support for our work.

Over the last thirty years, this country has successfully faced down a ruthless domestic terrorist threat and terrorism from the Middle East and elsewhere which has been brought to the streets of the United Kingdom. Throughout all this we have relied on the good sense, goodwill and, above all, trust of the public, our fellow citizens, to cope with the inconvenience of added security measures, checks and the disruption to normal life of bomb warnings and other alerts. Yes, the threat from Al Qaida and its affiliates is relatively new but the UK's counter terrorist arrangements are effective and they are robust.

Some of you will think "well she would say that, wouldn't she." But I believe it. Representatives of friendly overseas security agencies come here to see how we do things. We set the pace and have been at the leading edge of best practice. We need to keep in view that the UK is not just at the starting line of what will be a long haul in defeating terrorism, and neither are the public. That's not to say that there is not a lot more that needs to be done. Indeed there is a substantial programme of work ahead.

We have a duty to explain what we are doing and the limits of our ability to protect our fellow citizens. Every day people make balanced judgements about risk and the likelihood of some adverse event resulting from it - crossing the road in busy traffic, leaving your home with a window open, making a business trip to a part of the world judged to be unsafe. These are all judgements based on experience. These same processes mirror the judgements we are required to make in assessing the terrorist threat. By being clear and honest about the threat, and recognising that we will not have a perfect 100% shield against terrorism, we are enhancing our defences - not being defeatist or alarmist. Informing the public increases their confidence that the authorities are addressing the problem and have the capability to respond appropriately to terrorist threats.

In a society with a 24-hour media and the Internet, there is little chance that an overt security response to a terror threat or alert will go unreported. But detailed explanation of what lies behind such a public alert is often simply not possible. We need to protect valuable sources of intelligence without which there would be no warning at all. Compromising them will achieve little in the short term, and, in the long term, damage our ability to collect intelligence.

Public safety is the overriding concern and requires the authorities to act quickly when faced with credible intelligence about a threat. In these circumstances, and I speak from recent experience during the alert at Heathrow airport, the Government often faces difficult choices about how best to protect the public, without damaging the economy or preventing normal life from going on. These are not easy decisions to make and invariably have significant repercussions and consequences. The public need to be reassured that the response is both appropriate and proportionate to the seriousness of the threat. Comments to the effect that the troops at Heathrow were a cynical government manoeuvre to prepare the UK for war in Iraq were quite wrong.

The nature of the threats we face mean that arrests may not always be expected to follow an alert. An early arrest may sometimes be counter-productive. So called "quick wins" are in fact, no wins at all. How we respond must be part of a long-term strategy to contain the terrorists. We don't want to do the terrorists' job for them by spreading alarm and anxiety; being honest about the nature and extent of the threat is being neither alarmist nor over-anxious.

Terrorist intelligence

Turning from the end of the process, I thought you might find it interesting to hear something about how terrorist intelligence is used. We collect intelligence to prevent terrorism and to work proactively within the law to frustrate the activities of terrorists. In the intelligence world it is a truism, and also something that we just have to put up with, that out failures are apparent to all, our successes usually known only to a few. Like the best administration, you never notice it. It is only when things go wrong that you do.

But the nature of our counter-terrorism is to get ahead of the game to stop, frustrate or otherwise prevent terrorist activity. That is the primary goal but the reality is that we can never stop all such attacks and no security intelligence organisation in the world could do so. An attack may get through our defences. It is therefore vital that we make sure that security advice is accessible to those who may be subject of an attack so they may better protect themselves. I will say more about this later.

Intelligence is key to any successful counter terrorist strategy through other efforts - diplomatic, political, legal, economic, even military also need to be there. Better intelligence about terrorists and their intentions can prevent attacks and lead to the arrest and prosecution of terrorists. So what is the nature of intelligence that we are dealing with? Where do we get it and what are the limits to its use? Why can't we provide the complete assurance to keep the UK free from attacks?

Counter-terrorist intelligence can include intercepted communications between terrorists and their supporters and reports from agents inside the terrorist cells or networks. We receive reports from other Services, here and overseas. We also obtain intelligence watching terrorists, physical surveillance of terrorists and by gathering information on the movements of terrorist suspects at ports and airports. Reports from the public about suspicious activity can be valuable and volunteers to the intelligence services from among the terrorists themselves can provide unique insights to the activities of the terrorist groups. Of course, not all the material we use is from secret sources. For example, the public communiqués and statements of the terrorists themselves form part of this matrix of intelligence, providing clues to their intentions and plans.

Much of this raw intelligence is of variable quality and is incomplete. Some of it is of exceptionally high quality but some is dubious. With many agencies across the world operating in this field, there are unscrupulous individuals who will fabricate material, exploiting the laws of supply and demand in an effort to offer a product that someone, somewhere, will pay for. Furthermore, today nearly all our investigations in this field have an international dimension, and simple enquiries are rendered complex by the need to liaise with several different countries. My Service has links to services in over 100 countries.

The volume of material from all these different intelligence sources can threaten to overwhelm. Now clearly, it is the job of the intelligence officer to separate the important from the unimportant, but rarely is the whole picture visible at the start of an investigation, and leads to possible terrorist activity are usually fragmentary and unclear. One element of the conspiracy may be visible, others, perhaps overseas, are hidden. Rigorous prioritisation is demanded and risks evaluated.

This requires expertise and judgement to decide where finite resources must be allocated. Leads to plots to carry out terrorist attacks must be pursued until a) they are resolved or b) new information shows that the original lead was not worth pursuing or c) until nothing more can be done. Then there is the matter of "interpretation". Some intelligence is aspirational, not substantial, some designed to mislead, some accurate in parts but wrong in others. Analysing it rarely leads to certainty. Often the accumulated intelligence is vague, conflicting and raises more questions than it answers.

Intelligence officers are always asking questions through the process of evaluating the material. Is there an attack at the end of this and in what timescale? What sort of activity has been uncovered and how concerned should we be about it? Difficult professional judgements have to be made every day - that's what we are paid for. I think the public understands the difficulties that we face. I hope that the track record we have collectively earned in minimising and often stopping terrorism in the UK demonstrates that we are professional, serious, focused and determined to make the UK and its interests abroad as safe as possible.

Much has been written about "intelligence" recently and its impact on public policy. I do not propose to enter that debate tonight other than to say that intelligence is at the centre of our defences against terrorism. Our collective security and safety depends on the quality of the intelligence, the assessment made of it and action taken upon it. There is no alternative strategy for confronting the threat we face and we must accept the uncertainty that accompanies aspects of terrorist intelligence. There is a difficult balance to be struck here and the decisions taken will be a result of careful assessment of all the relevant pieces of information.

Developing intelligence picture: Al Qaida in the UK

So how is the intelligence picture in the UK developing? What have we learned as a result of our increased efforts to collect better intelligence and frustrate Al Qaida's efforts to carry out terrorist attacks? Prompted by success against the terrorists here and overseas, a few, ill-informed, commentators have claimed early victory against Al Qaida. I do not share that view. Al Qaida has conducted more attacks in the two years since 9/11 than in the same period before 9/11. It remains a sophisticated and particularly resilient terrorist group.

That said, across the world, there has been success in degrading its terrorist capability: the detention of Al Qaida leaders and the consequential loss of terrorist experience; the disruption of the terrorist camps in Afghanistan, the recovery of documentation; and the increased effort to collect more intelligence by the UK and other countries has had a significant and constraining impact on the organisation. In particular, this focused effort has yielded a wealth of intelligence about the organisation and affiliated groups. There is no room for complacency and within the intelligence community there is no sense of self-congratulation, merely an acknowledgment that, working with others here and overseas, we are breaking new intelligence ground.

Significant numbers of new leads to terrorist activity have been uncovered. What is clear to us today is that Al Qaida operates on many different levels. Indeed, it may be more accurate to note there are many Al Qaida rather than a monolithic organisation with leadership directing every facet of the organisation's activities. It is quite different from the structured, hierarchical terrorist groups we are more familiar with such as the Provisional IRA.

Under Usama Bin Laden's leadership, Al Qaida has directed and planned its own terrorist operations but it has also encouraged and inspired other extremists, who have no direct connection to his organisation, to carry out their own attacks on Western interests. Bin Laden articulates an extremist ideology of the Islamic world which encourages and motivates a broad coalition of Islamist groups. Al Qaida has separately established a sophisticated, geographically widespread and highly covert series of networks to support and sustain its terrorist activities. This partly explains its ability to maintain a terrorist capability in the face of the worldwide intelligence and law enforcement pressure.

Western security services have uncovered networks of individuals, sympathetic to the aims of Al Qaida, that blend into society, individuals who live normal, routine lives until called upon for specific tasks by another part of the network. Some of these individuals are in the UK. Not all of them fit the stereotypical profile of a terrorist sometimes portrayed in the media. One of the lessons learned from other modern terrorist conflicts is the ability of the terrorist to hide in plain sight, to be seen but not noticed and to all intents and purposes to live a law-abiding existence. It is for this reason that we continue to believe that there is a threat of an attack here in the UK.

It is my Service's highest priority to gather intelligence on the plans and intentions of the terrorists based in the UK. Some aspects of their activity are clear to us. One example would be the provision of material support to sustain the efforts of other terrorists working overseas. Individuals who are part of this type of terrorist conspiracy pose difficulties for us and the police. Containing terrorism in a democratic society, governed by the rule of law, requires evidence that meets the highest standards of proof. We may be confident of what they are doing from intelligence, but it is difficult to secure evidence of their terrorist activity to support criminal charges that can place an individual before a court.

It is easy to relegate the problem of terrorism to overseas. Bombs in Riyadh, Casablanca and Jakarta, it could be argued, have little direct relevance to the United Kingdom. There has, so far, been no terrorist attacks by Al Qaida on the UK and no attempt to replicate the devastation of the September 11 attacks. Some recent events are worth noting, however. In November 2000, a year before 9/11, two British men were arrested in Birmingham, and one subsequently convicted and sentenced to twenty years for possession of explosives with intent to endanger life. It is not known for what purpose they intended this explosive but it is certain that it was for use in the UK. Then there were the British citizens prepared to act as suicide bombers. One blew himself up in Tel Aviv and Richard Reid, had he been successful, would have brought down a passenger plane over the Atlantic.

The leader of Al Qaida, Usama Bin Laden, has specifically mentioned the UK as a potential target. The truly global nature of the threat means that a conspiracy might be hatched in the UK while intended for another part of the world. But it must be pursued with equal urgency and application as if it were a threat to the UK itself. Only through international cooperation will we be successful in reducing the threat from terrorism.

Security advice

Finally I should like to say something about a vital part of the UK's arrangements for countering terrorism. I said earlier that in the UK we start from a higher base of familiarity with the challenges posed by a terrorist operating in a democracy. I should like to mention the proactive counter-terrorist work of our hosts this evening, the City of London police. Their close partnership with the City business community helps firms to understand their responsibilities to making the City safer to live and work.

But the work of the Service and the police in stopping terrorists is only one part of our defences. Another important element is the provision of advice on how to protect the UK's key national assets. This is long-standing work for the Service, pre-dating the attacks on the USA, and the UK leads the world in the provision of best practice in this field. By national assets I mean those that are critical to the functioning of the UK and include communications, transport, water, fuel and energy supplies. Well-established arrangements and relationships are in place for the Service, supported by the police, to provide security advice to these key sectors. But the changed nature of the threat has meant that we need to extend that advice to new sectors such as the chemical and the food industry, which today, may present an attractive target for terrorists.

The first terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 1993 and the efforts of other groups to demolish parts of the City of London and Manchester demonstrate that business is on the front line. The importance of our economy has long been identified as a potential vulnerability of Western society. We have increased the Service's security advice to business but we cannot do it alone. We are therefore strengthening our partnerships with the police, regulatory bodies and commercial organisations to extend this work.

I began my lecture by saying that the public also have a role to play in frustrating the terrorists. As I have made clear, terrorism poses a challenge for us all and not just the police and intelligence agencies. The passenger, the chief executive, the head teacher, the health professional and every other citizen has, to a greater or lesser extent, their part to play. Since September 11 a great deal has been achieved: a national network of police counter-terrorism security advisors, enhanced aviation and port security, more training of industry personnel, revised guidance to government and industry, legislative changes and the provision of advice through the Home Office terrorism website. This is all to be welcomed but as I said earlier, more needs to be done.


I have been able today to give a description of the terrorist threat and talk about how we are responding without revealing too much of what we know to the terrorists themselves. This is, I hope, helpful to those who need to make decisions about security measures and protect people and assets against terrorism. We plan to do more of this.

Looking to the future, my priorities include continuing to enhance the specialist advice delivered to the key national assets, developing better counter measures and improving the quality of publicly available advice. The threats of chemical, biological and radiological and suicide attacks require new responses and the Government alone will not achieve all of it; industry and even the public must take greater responsibility for their own security.

In conclusion, the UK and our interests overseas are under a high level of threat from Islamist terrorism. That level of threat has been constant for several years but the scale of the problem that we face here has become more apparent as the amount of intelligence collected and shared has increased. Responding to that level of threat requires the deployment of substantial Service and police resources to investigate the activities of suspected terrorists and substantial government effort in a range of departments. Action by the police to arrest suspects and put them before the courts is a priority.

At the start of my talk I made it clear that the public need to understand more about the threat. As I hope that I have made clear, the absence of an attack on the UK or any other Western target may lead some to conclude that the threat has reduced or been confined to parts of the world that have little impact on the UK. This is not so. The initiative generally rests with the terrorists. The timing of any attack is of their choosing and for them patience is part of the struggle. There is a careful balance to be drawn between alarming the public on the one hand and taking an unduly optimistic view on the other. I take a position somewhere between the two points of view.

I am confident that the counter terrorist effort across Government has improved and is improving. The Service and the police, the other intelligence agencies and the Government are working together as never before. The challenge for all of us is to learn to live with this threat as we have done with others. We are here to serve the public and ensure, to the best of our ability, they are kept safe and the UK is made as difficult an environment for the terrorists as is possible. My Service and our partners in the police and Government will play their part but the vigilance, good sense and cooperation of the public are all essential components of the UK's response. The future will undoubtedly bring further pressures on us all. We are up to the challenge.


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