EXPERT POINT OF VIEW — MI5 Director Common, Ken McCallum’s, common address the 6the July with the FBI chief noticed a welcome rebalancing of the Security Service’s focus in the direction of nation-state threats. Counter-terrorism is a crucial operation but it has been allowed to dominate for twenty years when Russia, China and other warring states were not sufficiently monitored.
The onslaught of 9/11 was so significant that it lost Western international coverage for twenty years. The impression of 9/11 stemmed not only from the large death toll (nearly ten cases, the largest subsequent terrorist incident), but also because it was seen as a particularly dangerous new type of Islamist terrorism. The extraordinary television sequences, both thrilling and horrifying, as well as the long-term goals produced imaginative and prescient terror in a league of their own.
Until September 11, the world viewed terrorism as crime or poverty, as something we wanted to eradicate but had to endure and deal with forever. The main elements that distinguish terrorism from crime are the political motive, the intent to kill and maim and, generally, the secret hand of international nations behind the terrorists. This is the reason why security vendors around the world are taking the lead in the fight against terrorism (CT) with the help of police forces.
We will probably overlook the fact that the spectacular terrorist attacks did not begin with 9/11. Prior to 2001, there were two extraordinary years since the early 1970s that saw a number of major attacks annually. For example, the September 1970 explosion of 4 airliners in Jordan by Palestinians The Terroriststhe kidnapping in December 1975 of 60 officers at an OPEC convention in Vienna by the terrorist often called Carlos the Jackal and the crash of an Air India Boeing 747 over the Atlantic in June 1985, by Sikh extremists which killed 329 people.
Among the most publicized attacks were carried out by the Abu Nidhal Organization (ANO) and various Palestinian teams. In addition there have been Sikh and Latin American organizations, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), the German Baader Meinhof gang and the Japanese Crimson Army. Assaults in the 1970s and 1980s only gained front-page and prime-time protection for a few days every day. The exception was the destruction of a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie in December 1988, which broke through an invisible barrier to become a recurring news item for several years.
Behind these organizations, we have often glimpsed nation states. In many cases it was Iran, Syria or Libya, but there were other far lesser-known players. French OK with the ANO (revealed in 2019) was particularly cynical but there was also Irish-American (NORAID) assistance to the PIRA and all those different nations who paid ransoms for the discharge of their residents. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the extent of East Germany systematic involvement in anti-Western terrorism has been laid bare.
Sometimes there might be hits for security vendors. In the United Kingdom alone, operations have uncovered 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 had been expelled from London, the fruit of thousands of hours of scrutiny and from that second a coordinated effort was maintained to expel Soviet bloc spies disrupting their operations.
It was the tip of the Battle of Chilly 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. However, just 4 months later, the 9/11 assault ended and China was almost forgotten.
Allies in Southeast Asia would repeatedly warn their Western counterparts of the risks of ignoring China’s rise and focusing too narrowly on CT in general and Iraq and Afghanistan in particular; however in vain. Naturally, the destruction of al-Qaeda and the capture of its leader, Osama Bin Laden, has become a US strategic objective involving major intelligence sources. Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama have each pressured their companies to halt any future attacks on US soil. When 30 British holidaymakers were killed in a Tunisian resort, then Prime Minister David Cameron describes terrorism as “an existential risk”.
For some countries with weak governments, like Somalia and Mali, terrorism can certainly be existential. Terrorism can be deeply corrosive to civil society. Nevertheless, for Western democracies, the only circumstance by which terrorism can become an existential risk is if a group succeeds in acquiring 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 has repeatedly attempted to acquire WMD. The collapse of a country like Pakistan or North Korea could long lead terrorists to get their hands on chemicals; organic, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons.
The change in 9/11 planning after the British The first bought wind of the plot turned a standard airliner hijacking to secure a prisoner’s release, into a novel idea that used a fully fueled aircraft as flying bombs. Essentially, 9/11 became a borderline case between standard terrorism and WMD terrorism.
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For this reason, CT will remain an important concern for security vendors worldwide. Additionally, as long as nation states continue to aid terrorist organizations, we may want to engage the energies of our intelligence providers to find the plans of terrorist teams and their sponsors.
Statistics show that terrorism is a low risk 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, a median of less than 6 people per year. That compares with 695 homicides in 2020, about 1,500 deaths a year from visitor 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, global (especially American) successes against Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda terrorists have reduced the power of these organizations to mount large-scale assaults in the West.
Increasingly, CT focused on the “lone wolf” phenomenon; young men who become radicalized online and are persuaded to build a fundamental bomb or simply take a knife from the kitchen drawer. For security vendors to address this risk, it requires disproportionate use of their restricted sources. Addressing this risk must include psychological health services, social providers, training and the police.
One of the results of the years since 9/11 is that security vendors have shouldered an excessive share of the burden of CT. Typically, they were tempted to bid for beneficial CT funding while care providers remained uncomfortable participating in a CT position. Nevertheless, the Lone Wolf phenomenon (whether or not Islamist or right-wing) must be approached as a “full-fledged Presidency” effort as envisaged in genuine British politics. COMPETITION to plan. Valuable security vendor sources should focus on the likely most strategic threats; that threaten not only our way of life but our very existence.
This piece was first revealed by our associates at RUSI.
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