EXPERT POINT OF VIEW — Director General of MI5, Ken McCallum’s, common address the 6the July with the FBI chief saw a welcome rebalancing of the Security Service’s focus on nation-state threats. Counterterrorism is an important function, but it was allowed to dominate for two decades when Russia, China and some other warring states were insufficiently policed.
The 9/11 attack was so enormous that it derailed Western foreign policy for two decades. The impact of 9/11 stemmed not only from the large death toll (nearly ten times the next largest terrorist incident), but also from the fact that it was seen as a particularly dangerous new form of Islamist terrorism. The extraordinary thrilling yet horrifying television images and iconic targets produced a vision of terror in a class of its own.
Until 9/11, the world viewed terrorism as crime or poverty, as something we would want to eradicate but perhaps had to endure and deal with forever. The main factors that distinguish terrorism from crime are the political motive, the intent to kill and maim, and often the secret hand of foreign countries behind the terrorists. This is why security services around the world are taking the lead in the fight against terrorism (CT) with police forces in support.
We tend to forget that the spectacular terrorist attacks did not start with 9/11. Prior to 2001, there were two extraordinary decades from the early 1970s that saw several major attacks every year. For example, the September 1970 explosion of four airliners in Jordan by Palestinians The Terroriststhe kidnapping in December 1975 of 60 officials at an OPEC conference in Vienna by the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal and the June 1985 Air India Boeing 747 crash over the Atlantic, by Sikh extremists which killed 329 people.
Some of the most publicized attacks have been carried out by the Abu Nidhal Organization (ANO) and other Palestinian groups. There were also Sikh and Latin American organizations, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), the German Baader Meinhof gang, and the Japanese Red Army. The attacks of the 1970s and 1980s received front-page and prime-time coverage, but only for a few days each. The exception was the destruction of a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie in December 1988, which broke through an invisible barrier to become a news story repeated for several years.
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Behind these organizations, we have sometimes glimpsed nation states. In many cases it was Iran, Syria or Libya, but there were other less visible players. French OK with the ANO (revealed in 2019) was particularly cynical but there were also Irish-Americans (NORAID) assistance to PIRA and all other countries that have paid ransoms for the release of their citizens. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the extent of East Germany systematic involvement in anti-Western terrorism has been laid bare.
Occasionally there would be successes for the security services. In the UK alone, there have been operations that have exposed Libyans armament of PIRA and the painstaking work that attributed the Lockerbie bombing to Libya. At the time, CT work was always secondary to operations against nation-state threats; primarily the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. In 1970, 105 Soviet intelligence officers were expelled from London, the result of thousands of hours of scrutiny and from then on a coordinated effort was maintained to expel Soviet bloc spies disrupting their operations.
It was the end of the Cold War in 1989/90, which ushered in the unipolar world of a single superpower. In April 2001, the Hainan Island incident involving an American spy plane off the coast of China raised a question mark over the potential future threatens of a more assertive China. But just four months later, the 9/11 attack happened and China was all but forgotten.
Allies in Southeast Asia would repeatedly warn their Western counterparts of the dangers of ignoring China’s rise and focusing too much on CT in general and Iraq and Afghanistan in particular; but in vain. Naturally, the destruction of al-Qaeda and the capture of its leader, Osama Bin Laden, has become a US strategic objective involving massive intelligence resources. Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama have both pressured their agencies to prevent any future attacks on US soil. When 30 British tourists were killed in a Tunisian resort, then Prime Minister David Cameron describes terrorism as “an existential threat”.
For some countries with weak governments, such as Somalia and Mali, terrorism can indeed be existential. Terrorism can also be deeply corrosive to civil society. However, for Western democracies, the only circumstance in which terrorism could become an existential threat is if a group succeeds in obtaining weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
There were several moments of concern. The Japanese cult Aun Shinrikyo attempted to use the nerve agent Sarin on the Tokyo subway in March 1995. Al-Qaeda made several attempts to obtain WMD. There has long been concern that the collapse of a country like Pakistan or North Korea could lead to terrorists getting their hands on chemicals; biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons.
The change in 9/11 planning after the British first caught wind of the plot turned a conventional hijacking of an airliner to secure the release of a prisoner, into a new concept that used fully fueled planes as flying bombs. Essentially, 9/11 became a borderline case between conventional terrorism and WMD terrorism.
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For this reason, CT will remain a major concern of security services around the world. Furthermore, as long as nation states continue to support terrorist organizations, we will need to devote the energies of our intelligence services to uncovering the plans of terrorist groups and their sponsors.
Statistics show that terrorism is a small threat compared to crime and disease, even in the UK, which has been one of the hardest hit countries. Between 1970 and 2019, the UK lost a total of 3,416 lives to terrorism, but 84% of those were linked to Northern Ireland and 271 to the Lockerbie incident. Between 2005 and 2022, 93 people died from terrorism, an average of less than 6 people per year. This compares to 695 homicides in 2020, around 1,500 deaths each year from traffic accidents and some 25,000 from influenza and pneumonia.
Terrorism numbers are low partly because of the successes of MI5. Operation Overt in 2006 alone prevented up to ten passenger plane to be destroyed over the Atlantic. At the same time, international (especially American) successes against Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda terrorists have reduced the ability of these organizations to mount large-scale attacks in the West.
Increasingly, TC has focused on the ‘lone wolf’ phenomenon; young men who become radicalized online and are persuaded to build a basic bomb or simply take a knife from the kitchen drawer. For security services to deal with this threat requires a disproportionate use of their limited resources. Addressing this threat must involve the provision of mental health services, social services, education and the police.
One of the results of the years since 9/11 is that security services have taken on too much of the burden of TB. Sometimes they were tempted to bid for generous TC funding while care services remained uncomfortable playing a TC role. However, the Lone Wolf phenomenon (whether Islamist or right-wing) should be treated as a ‘whole of government’ effort as the original UK report envisioned. COMPETITION to plan. Valuable security services resources must be focused on the most strategic threats; that threaten not only our way of life, but our very existence.
This article was first published by our friends at RUSI.
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