Select Committee on Defence Second Report


The Defence Committee has agreed to the following Report:—



On 11 September 2001 two hijacked planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. A third was crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC. A fourth came down in countryside near Pittsburgh. In terms of both the loss of life and of property this was the most destructive terrorist attack ever. This report examines how those atrocities changed our understanding of the threat from what has been called the 'new terrorism'.

The attacks were perpetrated by al Qaeda, a militant Islamist terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden. There is evidence that al Qaeda has established a presence in some 50 countries. It also has close links with other Islamist terrorist groups. The destruction of al Qaeda and its leadership in Afghanistan will not end the threat from new terrorism.

Another is the scale of the attacks, evidence of a determination to inflict mass casualties on innocent civilians. 11 September was the most appalling example of that—but not the first or only case. There is now a danger that a new benchmark of horror has been set. Other groups may try to meet or exceed the atrocities of 11 September.

There is also an increased risk that terrorists may turn to weapons of mass destruction. We have inquired into the possibility that they might obtain chemical, biological or nuclear or radiological weapons. There is evidence that terrorist organisations, including al Qaeda, have been trying to obtain such materials. We can see no reason to believe that people who are prepared to fly passenger planes into tower blocks would balk at using such weapons. The risk that they will do so cannot be ignored.

Despite the scale and horror of the attacks of 11 September, the United States did not rush into military action. It took steps to comply with international law. It offered the Taliban regime in Afghanistan the chance to expel Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. We support the measured response taken by the United States and we applaud the British government's actions in standing shoulder to shoulder with them politically and militarily.

The Secretary of State for Defence has decided that the events of 11 September have made it necessary to look again at how we organise our defence. He has described this as a new chapter to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. This work will continue into the Spring of next year. In our report we have looked at its scope and made some initial observations.

In the past the level of resources put into the defence of the UK has been set principally to reflect the perceived level of threat rather than through an assessment of the weak points in our society. Provisionally we have concluded that in the UK we will have to do more to focus our capabilities on defending our weak points. We will return to this issue in our next inquiry.

The primary responsibility for security in the UK mainland rests with the civil power. The Armed Forces are only used in domestic tasks in support of relevant and legally responsible civil authorities. We recognise the constitutional importance of this doctrine, but we are not convinced that the existing arrangements would be able to cope with a large scale terrorist attack. We believe that a review of the arrangements for the provision of military assistance to the civil power should be part of the further work of the SDR.

The Reserves are an under-used resource in the context of homeland security. We believe that their role should be re-examined. We particularly draw attention to the decision under the original SDR to transfer their anti-chemical, biological and nuclear capability to a regular unit whose principal task is the protection of deployed forces.

But increased protection for the UK is only half the story. Alongside efforts to create a more secure international environment through diplomacy, our Armed Forces will also need the capability to take pre-emptive military action: to attack terrorist groups before they attack us. We will need more forces which can be available at short notice; more forces in other words with the training and skills of the Royal Marine Commandos, the Parachute Regiment and the Special Forces. This issue needs to be addressed with urgency. Our forces are not yet achieving the readiness levels currently required of them.

Additional capabilities will need additional money. The Government should make an early commitment that it will find the extra money to fund any additional capabilities made necessary by this new threat which we all now face.

In conclusion the threat from terrorism is now more pressing and more dangerous. A threshold has been crossed in terms of scale and level of casualties. In response, the global campaign against terrorism must be pursued relentlessly. We must not lose our sense of the urgency and importance of this task in the months ahead. We must not hesitate to take the necessary steps to protect the UK and our interests overseas.

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Prepared 18 December 2001