Memorandum from Alice Hills (20 November
THE IMPLICATIONS OF 11 SEPTEMBER 2001 FOR
UK SECURITY AND INTERESTS
Thank you for letter of 14 November. The issues
you ask me to address are complex, especially when relationships
between the dependent parts are considered, and over-simplification
could be misleading. There is, however, some value in identifying
certain existing trends emphasised by the suicide hijackings.
Here is my immediate response.
1. You ask me to consider how our understanding
of the threat to UK security and interests has changed since the
suicide hijackings of 11 September. You specifically ask me to
the level and nature of the current
possible gaps in our capability to
deal with such threats;
steps that might be taken to address
2.1 We are now more aware of the multi-faceted
nature of peacetime security, of the merging of internal and external
security, and the need to rebalance our priorities. I cannot judge
the precise level and nature of the current threat but I assume
that it continues to be identified and evaluated in conventional
terms. This is potentially significant because it suggests that
our understanding of the threat is based on past experience. It
is understandable because we know that major discontinuities cannot
be predicted, terrorism tends to innovate in an evolutionary way,
staying just ahead of our counter measures, and we naturally think
in terms of familiar concerns. Indeed, the attack in September
justifies this to some extent for it was conventional even if
its scale was not. But unfortunately the apparent ease with which
such threats are identified is itself dangerous because, as 11
September also illustrates, it diverts attention from the truly
unexpected. It encourages the reactive nature of our response
and allows us to be ambushed by events.
3.1 There are two primary issues I identify
here: the first is associated with understanding and the second
is linked to the way in which we categorise terrorism and our
response to it.
3.2 Our plans for dealing with the impact
of terrorism are conventional, being based on the comparative
predictability of past threats and an assumption that terrorist
crises will be limited in time and space. But the real problem
with thinking in these terms is that it assumes that the familiar
will not be transformed into something new that defies conventional
responses. A variant of this effect was evident in the US where,
although the Center for Disease Control and other government agencies
had contingency plans for a massive release of biological agents,
no one had considered a sustained campaign involving the delivery
of biological agents through the post.
3.3 We may understand the dynamics of terrorism
but, based on recent experience, we do not really understand the
dynamics of crisis. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the seeming
lack of strategic focus in our response. The fact that the American
reaction to anthrax attacks by an indeterminate foe or foes in
the weeks following 11 September was unfocused and incoherent
is significant, while the UK's response to recent crises involving
petrol shortages, BSE, and foot and mouth disease, does not encourage
optimism. Of course, existing forms of threat assessment and risk
or crisis management may remain valid. But if seemingly recurrent
factors prove instead to be stages in a dynamic process than familiarity
could be misleading. We do not understand the dependencies involved.
3.4 The second issue concerns the fact that
our response to terrorism is based on a selective mix of policies
and processes taken from the paradigms of national security and
law enforcement. It reflects the fact that terrorism represents
a complex threat. It is an attack, a crime, a disaster, and a
threat to civil liberties.
3.5 We are conscious that terrorism can
represent an almost military-scale threat that is neither categorically
domestic nor foreign. Terrorist groups could include both British
citizens and foreign nationals operating in and out of the UK,
while awareness of the close relationship between internal and
external security is reflected in the growing involvement of the
military in tackling organised crime "upstream". This
controversial development emphasises that terrorism cannot be
defeated or deterred in any conventional sense.
3.6 An associated danger is that terrorism
may be at its most dangerous when it falls between overlapping
governmental jurisdictions, such as foreign as opposed to domestic
terrorism or law enforcement.
4.1 Ultimately, the fundamental step needing
to be taken if we are to address deficiencies is to ask the vital
question: what happens if we badly misjudge the risks inherent
in our decisions?
4.2 Asking the right question in the first
place is fundamental. We therefore need to confront the dangers
of group think whereby decision-making groups have an accepted
view of how things will turn out and plan accordingly. SDR went
some way to address this but the importance of vested interests
deserves acknowledgement. The task in the US was not made easier
by the strength of traditional rivalries between security agencies
and there is no reason why the situation should be better in the
4.3 We need to ask whether different types
of terrorism require different approaches or whether flexible
plans, developed in relation to the response being to the incident
rather than its cause, are sufficient. It is difficult to believe
that either the uniformed services or the public would treat terrorism
involving smallpox the same as one created by suicide hijackersbut
the issue has yet to be addressed. This is not to suggest that
operational and tactical issues are unimportant so much as to
balance the fact that discussion of catastrophic acts of terrorism
tends to focus on the operational to the exclusion of strategic
or long-term factors. The two are in fact interlinked.
4.4 We must pay more attention to the impact
of potentially significant sub-events, and to recognise escalatory
triggers that may take events to a new stage.
4.5 We need to develop criteria for dealing
with new or emergent forms of terrorism because, as recent events
emphasise, we have no point of reference for al-Qaeda.