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3 Mar 2003 : Column 632—continued

6.42 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I welcome this excellent report, and it is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson). I appreciate that I am in august company tonight, and I hope that my comments will not be considered out of order in any way; but I hope to cite the events in Bali as part of a series of events from which we can learn. Perhaps they can point to how we can cope in future with a threat that I believe will become much more dangerous as we approach what I feel must be an inevitable war with Iraq.

I shall return to the subject of Bali from time to time, but let me say first that the security services are doing a first-class job. Only their efficacy, I think, has prevented worse atrocities abroad, involving British possessions abroad, or indeed in this country. The news that a joint terrorist assessment centre is to be established is very good. That can only lead to further excellent handling and dissemination of intelligence.

Let me get two old aphorisms out of the way immediately. The first is that the terrorist needs to get lucky only once; the second is that the terrorist's aim is to terrify—not necessarily to destroy, not necessarily to kill and not necessarily to defeat, but simply to terrify. It is Government's job to keep that in proportion, and to learn how to control the perception of terrorism among the victim population.

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I want to compare the ways in which four societies handle terrorism. Two of them are similar, two dissimilar. First and foremost, there is Israel. Whether we approve of what is going on there is a separate matter, but the fact remains that every single Israeli has, directly or indirectly, been touched by what is regrettably an extremely effective terrorist regime. Yet Israel is not on her knees: life in Israel goes on relatively normally, as normally as it can under a threat of this kind.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire): As my hon. Friend no doubt knows, Israel does not issue threat assessments to the general public. Interestingly, it leaves its citizens to make their own assessment of how dangerous it is to go to another country.

Patrick Mercer: I thank my hon. Friend for enlightening us on that point.

My second example is Ulster, where I have carried out nine operational tours working in both the intelligence and the uniformed staff. That too is a society that was and remains very effectively terrorised, but in which life goes on normally. Indeed, it is a society in which life and prosperity are booming.

Then there is America, which has also been very effectively terrorised—by the events of a single terrorist attack. I will say more shortly about a sense of proportion, but there is no doubt that—while many people were killed in that one incident—America is unused to terrorism. Its reactions are an interesting lesson for mature and developed societies elsewhere.

Two weeks ago, when I visited Washington and New York with the Defence Committee, I had the edifying experience of watching surface-to-air missiles being deployed in the centre of towns, and policemen and members of the National Guard carrying their respirators—gas masks—in the "alert" position. Nuclear, biological and chemical warfare decontamination sites had already been established. There was advice on television every night on how to establish safe rooms—the modern-day equivalent of the Anderson shelter, perhaps—and on how society was coming to terms with the threat that was seen to be overweening. But the fact remains that on mainland America there has been only one substantial attack, and I therefore submit that in this instance terrorism is operating very effectively.

As for Bali, I think it fair to say—although others may well correct me—that Australia did not expect an attack of that kind. It was terribly badly hurt by the Bali bomb, and it has skewed its society's perception of terror. It is also interesting to note that the attack took place not in Australia itself, but abroad.

All that, I think, contains important lessons for us as the threat of terrorism grows—for, in my opinion, it is growing. For one thing, I think it important to retain a sense of proportion. On a number of occasions I have been extremely tedious on the subject of the House being "hung up" on the organisation al-Qaeda. The fact remains that al-Qaeda has been operating for more than 10 years, but has pulled off only one deeply successful incident. There is no doubt that 11 September was

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hugely significant, but it was only one attack. It killed thousands of people—the number was probably out of all proportion to that which the perpetrators expected—but it should be borne in mind that al-Qaeda's normal style is much less adventurous. Operations such as the bombing of USS Cole and the attack on the Limberg were very successful from its point of view, but individual assassinations such as those we have seen in the past few weeks are much more likely. We should also bear in mind that this country, so far, has been attacked with relatively little success—owing, I have no doubt, to the excellence of our security services.

I am convinced that terrorists are trying hard to attack this country, but so far, mercifully, casualties here have been relatively light. Yes, Britain suffered on 11 September; yes, Britain suffered in Bali; but it seems that our society has learnt to live with that. How will we cope when attacks of similar proportions are made on this country, or indeed when the tempo of terrorists operations is increased?

Dr. Julian Lewis: May I take my hon. Friend back to what he said about America and the broadcasts advising ordinary people how they could prepare? I was not entirely sure whether he was suggesting that that was an over- reaction or an appropriate reaction. If it were an appropriate reaction, is he about to recommend that similar messages should be sent here? If so, does he feel that perhaps a limiting factor was the experience of 1980, when "Protect and Survive" was published, which was widely mocked? Does he agree that there is a difference between the circumstances of nuclear war preparations and terrorist preparations?

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recalling me to my duty in this regard. It was a point that I was going to develop but I will it develop now. It is difficult for the public and the likes of me, who do not have access to the sort of intelligence that the Intelligence and Security Committee get, to assess exactly what the threat is. Therefore, it is the Government's duty to make that threat both palatable, if a threat can be palatable, and realistic.

I do not know, to answer my hon. Friend's question, whether that was an over-reaction or not. The fact remains that, simultaneously, two distinct pieces of news were being given in Britain and America of severe threats to the infrastructure of both countries. America chose to go down the route of national broadcasts. This country chose to go down an all together less extreme route, albeit deploying armoured forces and infantry battalions at Heathrow airport for the first time, I think, in eight or nine years.

We must understand that victims from this country will not necessarily be in holiday resorts such as Bali; they are more likely to be in British possessions overseas such as Gibraltar and Cyprus. How are the Government fixed? How do the Government stand to handle mass casualties in garrisons or British possessions overseas? A lot of what we have heard tonight is reassuring but I should like to know more from the Minister on that point.

We must realise that, while we hear about things such as ricin plots being developed and more exotic forms of terrorism, the fact remains that the sort of terrorism that

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is likely to kill is exactly the same as the sort of terrorism that we saw in Bali: operations that copy those carried out by the Provisional IRA over the past 30 years or so. This society must get used to the fact that improvised explosive devices cleverly targeted and placed will be the way ahead for the terrorist. We must learn as a society to live with that. Government advice, news and intelligence management must be sensitive to that.

For example, we constantly live with the threat of fire. Outside this Chamber, there are fire appliances. In our offices, we know what to do in the event of a fire; we are drilled. Until a few years ago, if one wanted to go shopping in the centre of Belfast, one understood that it would take at least 10 or 15 extra minutes to get into the city centre; one's car had to be searched and parking was difficult. Similarly, getting out again was a problem, but people learnt to live with that. During the blitz, this country learnt to live with a severe and clear threat.

If we are going to take the Prime Minister's words that we must take preventative measures without destroying our ordinary way of life to heart, we must become alert to the fact that there are terrorists abroad, inside our society, who wish to inflict the sort of casualties on us that we have seen both on 11 September and in Bali, but balance that with carrying out, as a Prime Minister would call it, ordinary life.

I believe, to use a naval expression, that we are standing into danger at the moment. We have seen Muslim extremists carrying out attacks in this country, or trying to carry out attacks in this country, and I have no doubt that as war with Iraq approaches, sadly, other forms of terrorism will become more and more prevalent. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) about warning fatigue, but I beg the Minister to understand that news and intelligence must be handled sensitively and consistently. We had contradictory information last November from the Home Secretary and in statements that were issued during the Heathrow alert a couple of weeks ago by the Labour party chairman. Issuing a warning or a warning of a threat and rescinding it is deeply counter-productive. There needs to be a code of practice that makes the approach much more cohesive and that the British public, be they at home or abroad, can understand more clearly.

The American system of a series of coloured warning levels is deeply helpful. Perhaps we have not approached that yet but I would like an assurance from the Minister that we are thinking of a public information campaign, again without alarming and panicking, but introducing the public to the fact that the threat will become more and more serious.

I welcome the written statement today on civil contingency planning to deal with a terrorist attack but I ask the Minister, although it is a matter not for his Department but for the Ministry of Defence, what plans there are to use the many tens of thousands of regular troops, by which I mean soldiers, sailors and airmen, all of whom are nuclear, biological and chemical warfare trained, to help with this matter. Currently I see no plans at all. There are plans with regard to territorials and reserves but what about those men and women who are not deployed overseas? Where do they fit into the plan?

At Mombasa, Israel had a very close shave from a hugely damaging and fatal series of terrorist attacks. What plans do we have to ensure that our airliners are

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protected more effectively from surface-to-air missiles? Again, we had an alarm two weeks ago at Heathrow airport. I do not know the intelligence background to it but it seems clear that we lay under the same sort of threat that we had seen at Mombasa a few months ago. I would be interested to know how we might avoid such an attack in future.

I am grateful for the report. I hope that it will avoid attacks similar to the one in Bali being perpetrated against British citizens but I doubt it. I ask the Government to be more consistent in the way they handle information, to be more realistic in the way they deal with a potentially frightened population and to be fully aware of a threat that is prevalent at the moment and which I believe will increase in the near future.

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