Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)



Mr Howarth

  280. I quite accept your point, Secretary of State, that these are organisations that cross national boundaries but as we have seen in the case of Afghanistan the organisation seems to have had its base, if you like, in Afghanistan and these people cannot operate just solely in the ether, they have to have a base from which to operate.
  (Mr Hoon) Yes.

  281. I wonder if that is specifically a military issue, as to whether we try and deal with those in a military way, and you posed the question in your opening remarks. Do you not see the need to take out their bases?
  (Mr Hoon) I think that is a very good point, and it is one that I think we do need to address. You have tended to downplay it by saying these are organisations which cross national boundaries, in fact I think it is more fundamental than that. These are organisations which have no respect for national boundaries and indeed are organised in a way to be able to take advantage of the weaknesses of failed or failing states. You are right, one of the issues is the extent to which we go after the bases that they establish, certainly as in the case of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, with not just the consent but the active support of the elements of the state. There could easily be and there are examples of where Al-Qaeda and similar organisations can establish bases perhaps in the ignorance of a weak central state who do not investigate sufficiently or are not minded to investigate sufficiently the activities within their borders. We tend to view—and I think this is one of our difficulties—other countries as being an image of the kind of central state that we have. In fact the weakness of a number of states that I am thinking of is that they do not have the kind of control over their geographical boundaries that we would expect them to have. This is why in answer to David's question earlier, I think it is important that we think through that. Are there organisations now around the world that are fundamentally challenging our sense of how we operate in defence terms in dealing with those because they can be far more threatening to us than the conventional idea of alliances where collectively nation states group together in order to defeat a threat from another nation state which is the way, in a sense, traditionally we think of these things. It is not new in the sense that before the nation state this was something that many countries would have to face up to.
  (Mr Webb) Can I make a point. I do not think you necessarily have to assume you are going to be acting in opposition to the state. As Mr Hoon says, if they are a weak state, they might just need some help and support or a bit of moral reassurance or something to help them do it. Chairman, you were talking about Sierra Leone, you had a war lord situation there running across borders, I do not want to stretch this analogy too far but in a way we went and helped the Sierra Leone state to tackle that in a very co-operative way. There are lots of ways of coming at this.

Patrick Mercer

  282. Secretary of State, you will be aware of the huge amount of time, effort and blood that has gone into building very specialist police and military agencies in Northern Ireland for a specialist way of tackling Republican terrorism.
  (Mr Hoon) Not just Republican terrorism.

  283. Principally built first for that and I would agree adapted. The language of deter and dissuade I suspect reflects more that style of campaign than perhaps we are facing now. How far do you think those organisations which exist at the moment can be adapted and expanded to help cope with the threat of Al-Qaeda and similar organisations on the UK mainland?
  (Mr Hoon) Anticipating some of the conclusions, I do think there is a fundamental difference between the efforts that have been made courageously over a far too long a period now by the police support of the military in a sense as part of a community in Northern Ireland committed to dealing with the threat from a relatively small number of nevertheless very determined terrorists on both sides of the sectarian divide. I think there is a huge difference between policing and a military activity that operates in the context of a society that essentially is no different from the way in which we live, albeit it has to deal with this threat from within its own borders, as against the kind of failed state that Afghanistan became, where you have in a sense a parasite that has taken over the operation of government in that country. This is something we have learned the more we have looked at the way in which Afghanistan under the Taliban operated, it has used its secure bases inside that country to export terrorism not just across the border, which in a sense you might argue was analogous to Northern Ireland, but actually around the world as a deliberate effort by Osama bin Laden to corrupt regimes elsewhere in the world. That I think is a very, very different concept from the one that we faced in Northern Ireland.

  284. What I am looking for is an assurance that the knowledge and technologist styles that we have developed to deal with both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland can be adapted. Are they going to be adapted and expanded to combat this form of terrorism on the UK mainland?
  (Mr Hoon) I think the key analogy is intelligence. The key analogy is understanding the nature of the threat, identifying how that arises and taking steps to deal with it. Certainly I agree that there are lessons that we can learn from our experience in Northern Ireland, Simon mentioned as well Oman, and there are other places, Malaya, where we have been engaged in a similar sort of operation. I do not believe that necessarily the approach ultimately is going to be the same simply because of the very different context in which terrorism operates in Northern Ireland.

Jim Knight

  285. I want to pick up Patrick Mercer's point a little bit. He seemed to be talking about the UK mainland and I think it is easy for us to be distracted by the notion that the threat from Al-Qaeda is one of failed states and in places like Afghanistan when actually, it was suggested to us this morning, the chances are Al-Qaeda had thought through the probable response of the United States and the international community and that cells are out there and here and in the United States and elsewhere and at some point may act and that possibly we are more vulnerable now than we have been before. It seems very valid for Patrick to say that the threat that we may have here in the UK mainland, and that may exist in other far from failed states—very robust, rich advanced states—could use the expertise we have left in Northern Ireland in order to help defend us.
  (Mr Hoon) I do broadly agree with that in terms of the importance in particular of gaining intelligence about terrorist organisations and then being able to act upon them. In a sense that action has proceeded since 11 September. You are absolutely right to warn about a continuing risk, it is something we have done, but equally in the very determined efforts that have been made around the world, perhaps we will never know how many terrorist threats we have already disrupted by the actions that we have taken. I am aware, for example, of disruption that occurred to terrorist threats before 11 September because of the action that was taken to deal with information about those threats as it arose. Without being ever able to prove it, I am absolutely confident that the determined response that has occurred around the world since 11 September involving large numbers of arrests, disruption of financing, of the supply of weapons, of restrictions on people crossing borders, has had a significant impact on the ability of terrorist organisations to threaten us without in any way being complacent about the efforts that they are still likely to make.

  286. Are we making efforts in turn then to recruit into our intelligence services from ethnic minorities in this country and across faiths to extend that intelligence because clearly it is a little bit easier to develop intelligence in the UK in Northern Ireland just because of a cultural —
  (Mr Hoon) Those, of course, are not my responsibilities but I can assure you that a very determined effort is being made to make sure that we have the ability to deal with the threats as and when they arise.
  (Mr Webb) Perhaps it would be useful to say that people with recent operational experience in Northern Ireland and people with Muslim faith are both people who are included in the study teams working on this subject.

  Mr Howarth: That sounds like an interesting mixture.

Mr Hancock

  287. I thought that was a very fair comment that you made. None of us will ever know what has been achieved and I think it is right that you make that point. I think it is sad that it has not been made before because I think in a sense it does reassure people that there is a serious problem which we will never be fully exposed to, I think you are right to bring it up. If I can just raise the issue which you slightly touched on, and so did Mr Webb, about the changing role and some questions about British Defence Doctrine. It is interesting in this booklet on one page alone the word "fear" is mentioned five times. Now as a nation we are combatting people who have no fear, either for their own lives or the fear of consequence for their actions. That really does change the game, does it not, quite considerably, when you actually have an enemy who has no known weak spot in the sense of fear to themselves or the consequences of what they are doing. I am interested to know because in the British Defence Doctrine it emphasises the approach we had about "deep, close and rear" levels of operating and how we deal with the situation and how we seek out the centre of gravity of the enemy and how we attack it. I would be interested to know how you can now relate this document to those issues that we are now confronted with?
  (Mr Hoon) Can I just deal there with your premise. I do not accept that terrorist organisations have no known weak spots.

  288. The individuals we are dealing with at the present time, the Al-Qaeda organisation, have transparently exposed us to the fact that they have no fear.
  (Mr Hoon) I do not agree with that. There is some evidence, for example, that not all of the terrorists on board those aircraft of the 11 September were aware of what the leading elements were going to engage on. Clearly they were not entirely confident in the support that they were necessarily going to get. It may well have been that some of those people thought that they were involved in a routine hijacking and were not aware of the plans of the people actually piloting the aircraft. I do not believe in this idea that these organisations do not have weak spots, we are exploiting those weak spots and we will continue to do so. I suspect in fact there are fortunately a relatively limited number of people who are prepared to destroy themselves in the pursuit of some fanatic perverted ideal and, therefore, I do not think we should over-estimate either the numbers or their willingness to behave in this way. We can have a difference of opinion about that.

  289. There is ample evidence that Palestinians are prepared to do it virtually on a daily basis. They strap a bomb to themselves and explode it in a market place in Israel and they seem to have an endless supply of them. I am interested also in this suggestion that some of the terrorists on those planes were not fully conversant with what was going to happen. If you read the evidence that has already been put into the public domain I do not think there is too much to substantiate that statement.
  (Mr Hoon) This is in the public domain and I will give you an example of what I am relying on. Notes were found from some of the people involved in the hijacks, they were not found in relation to others. The inference that has been drawn from that is that the ones who left notes were aware of what they were engaged on and the ones who did not were not.

  290. Then what do you think is the centre of gravity of the current terrorist threat, and where is our centre of gravity, based on this document which talks about finding the threat and its centre of gravity and protecting your own centre of gravity? Where do you see those two points as being?
  (Mr Hoon) I think what is absolutely fundamental—again it goes back to your premise—is the question of fear. Certainly the events of 11 September caused fear right around the world and indeed in the United Kingdom. It was understandable why that was the case because, in a sense, having over many years developed, for example, tried and tested procedures for dealing with hijack (a point you have made), we were used to dealing with what I have described as rational highjackers, people who had a demand, whether it was to be taken to a certain place, or co-conspirators to be released, or for money or political asylum. There was, in effect, a potential exchange between the hijackers and the authorities. You are right, in the sense that some of the people involved in these hijacks were not interested in that rational exchange. That means that many of the procedures that had previously been developed to deal with hijacking have had to be thought through again, because we need, for example, action taken by civil airlines to protect the pilots' cabin from passengers determined on causing their own deaths as well as the deaths of their fellow passengers. That is a different concept. So that fear is an issue that we have to deal with. The specific reason for involving our armed forces in Afghanistan is to protect the citizens of the United Kingdom against those sorts of threats. The issue in terms of this defence doctrine is how we go about that. That is the question which I raised with you at the outset, as to whether, for example, we concentrated all our efforts on protecting the boundaries of the United Kingdom at the boundary—that is, against hijacked aircraft or against seaborne threats—or by enormously enhanced security procedures at our physical borders, whether they be sea borders, or whether they are airports or road crossings and so on, or whether we go after the threat wherever it happens to be developing in the world. I think that, in a sense, our defence doctrine encompasses that already, but I think it may need some refinement in the work that we are doing to decide what kind of capabilities we might require and how we go about dealing with the threat wherever it happens to be, before it actually manifests itself in the United Kingdom. My instincts are to say that actually rather than waiting for the threat to arrive on these shores, we go after it.

  291. I agree entirely with that, but there is a slight contradiction there, is there not, because our current policy is to work with the coalition and to have friends on board with us? If we adopt, as you rightly say, the point that we do not wait for them to come to us, but we go after them, the contradiction comes when we actually cause problems to partners in the coalition because that offensive action that we take in some way offends either their own feelings on the issue or their stability, or encroaches into their sovereignty. There is a real issue here. So is the issue one of keeping the balance, the centre of gravity being the coalition and its stability, or is it defending us wherever that takes us? It cannot be both, can it?
  (Mr Hoon) I think you are probably being too rational in your analysis. All coalitions are coalitions of the willing, and most military action in particular involves states being willing to use their military forces to achieve certain purposes. Clearly there are issues in relation to sovereignty, but we have always emphasised, as we will continue to emphasise, the importance of international law and indeed our own law, because that governs our own armed forces in the way in which they conduct their activities. So I do not really think that there is quite the dilemma that you suggest. We work as part of a coalition, and when it is necessary we take action that that coalition agrees upon. Equally, that is within the constraints of international law.

  292. If you were given, Secretary of State, the hypothetical situation that there were a known terrorist threat about to happen to the United Kingdom, which was based in another state that was currently part of the coalition, but that partner was not prepared to see that terrorist group attacked in any way, would you believe it would be right and proper then for the United Kingdom to go after those people?
  (Mr Hoon) I believe that it is very difficult to deal with that. First of all, that is not even a hypothetical illustration, it is simply a set of assumptions,

  293. I am basing it on what the Prime Minister said in answer to the question this afternoon when he tried to put right the situation about George Bush's statement about where the attack goes next.
  (Mr Hoon) I think that if that were a sufficiently proximate threat to the United Kingdom, and I as Secretary of State could say that this threat was about to affect citizens of the United Kingdom, then I would be entitled to defend those citizens by proportionate action that seems to be appropriate.

  294. I damn well hope so.
  (Mr Hoon) The reality is, though—this is why it is always difficult to deal with rather vague hypotheses—that inevitably the kind of warnings that we get are much less specific than the proximate threat that I have just set out for you, and therefore judgements have to be made about the best way of dealing with that threat. It is not usually, I am pleased to say, by the use of military force. This is a point that I made to you right at the end of my comments, that actually many of the things that we will want to do fall well short, rightly, of military means.
  (Mr Webb) Since you have been so courteous as to read the British defence doctrine—


  295. Does that mean that you wrote it?
  (Mr Webb) I did not actually, but some very smart people who work in my area did. You are right that we are looking at the centre of gravity. One of the reasons why we are taking a bit of time to think about it is because it is not quite so obvious. Amongst the things you can think about in terms of centre of gravity is a network, an Al-Qaeda or network like it, which is prepared to use force on a large scale across borders to achieve a change in international affairs. This is not local stuff. So you could think it was groups like that. In a way, that would be quite convenient, because although this is a horrible business, there are not that many groups, and we could probably write down those who were large scale. However, there is another line of argument which we got onto earlier on, which is that maybe it could also be the sources of sustainment of such groups, it could be camps, or money, or drug money or something like that. That is one of the things that we were debating just as the planes fell. You are absolutely right, we need to get to the nub of this. On our centre of gravity, it is information, maybe resilience. One of the things they might fear is that they cannot succeed, that we are resilient enough as societies. At home when you talk to people in this country about this, our resilience actually is that yes, somebody might walk through with a bomb strapped to their body, but actually we are not going to be deflected, as the United States have not been deflected, from our overall policies or way of life by this kind of thing. There are issues in there.

  296. I agree with you and that Mr Hancock's is a good point, but there is also this element of flexibility, co-operation and sustainability that the enemy do not know quite how robust your coalitions are and how willing or how far you are prepared to go, do they?
  (Mr Webb) No.

  297. I think what you have shown—and this doctrine does allude to this—is that we will go to wherever it takes us on this. My final point is that I think the coalition might be our centre of gravity, sustaining a coalition could be of value, and I actually think that is quite an important element in this. My final question relates to the SDR which is being looked at again, the defence of the homeland and our capability to counter and deter terrorism abroad. That is in the current thinking. How do you see the relative balance now between the two strands? Which is the role for this final chapter to take? Is it of paramount importance—the defence of the homeland and more resources spent there—or is it this attack of the threat wherever it is? It is going to be very difficult to afford both.
  (Mr Hoon) I hope it will be possible to afford both, because my guess is, without anticipating the results of the work that we do, that there will be a certain amount of each that we have to do in addition to the efforts that we make already. I certainly think, as far as the homeland is concerned, that the British people would expect to see an enhanced role for defending particular facilities and institutions in this country, if we judge that there is a continuing and direct threat, a proximate threat, to the United Kingdom. Equally, I, as Secretary of State for Defence, want to ensure that with the skills that we have developed and the equipment hat we use in the armed forces, they are used to maximum effect. That is more likely to be to maximum effect beyond the shores of the United Kingdom, and therefore that is why I raised the question of whether there is an enhanced role that we can develop for the reserves in providing this first, something that we want to look at and something that we want to consider very carefully.


  298. So you are inviting us to look at reserves again, Secretary of State, are you?
  (Mr Hoon) I see no reason why you should not. Far be it from me to suggest what you should or you should not look at, but I think that there may well be a role for them. I have lived in the United States and I have seen the way in which reserves are organised and used there. I think that in recent times, since 11 September, they have performed a magnificent role in reassuring the American public. It may well be that that is something that we might judge to be necessary.

Mr Jones

  299. Mr Webb raised this the last time he came before us. I do get a bit concerned about this stiff upper lip approach you have every year that somehow if we have the resolve and do the right thing, things will come right. It does not instil a lot of confidence in me, I have to say. Picking up something the Secretary of State said in a response to Mr Hancock about these being vague hypotheses, would we, for example, get involved in an action in Chechnya, Somalia, Iraq, if there was a threat coming from there directly for the United Kingdom? That is obviously what I tried to ask you in the Commons the other day, which you sidestepped rather nicely and no doubt you will do so again today. Could you see a situation where, if we saw a perceived threat, for example, in Chechnya, we would get involved in responding to that threat?
  (Mr Hoon) I would put it another way to you. If there was a direct threat to the citizens of the United Kingdom from any country in the world, you would expect me to deal with that, and if I did not deal with it in protecting the citizens of the United Kingdom I would not be doing my job properly.

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