How the UK managed counter-terrorism after 9/11

The development of an effective UK counter-terrorism strategy after 9/11 has shown a distinctive British approach to security which has succeeded in managing threats to the UK and interests abroad.

By Sir David Omand, formerly UK Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator

9/11 Retrospectives: This commentary is part of a series of contributions from eminent policymakers, academics and commentators offering their thoughts on the significance of 9/11.

Armed PoliceThe mass murders of 9/11 crystallised, at a political level, an understanding of the exceptional threat posed by the global terrorist campaign that Osama Bin Laden had launched some years before. Al-Qa'ida terrorists were prepared to die for their cause and were also seeking to acquire radiological, chemical and biological means of attack. The response of the Bush administration was to build up the defence of the US itself through a massive new Department of Homeland Security, and to declare war on terrorism abroad - with no holds barred. Intelligence officers, along with special forces, became hunters rather than gatherers of intelligence. The UK joined the US in the task of destroying the ability of Al-Qa'ida to build and train under the shelter of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

For the US at that time, the problem was seen as defeating an external enemy; for Europe, on the other hand, the external problem was being mirrored on the inside as support for jihadist violence could already be found in small minorities within European Muslim communities, and these feelings were heightened with the occupation of Iraq. In the UK, external and domestic intelligence and police services improved their ability to work as a single counter­terrorist community, and with allies and partners overseas developed the use of modern technology to track individuals, their identities, movements, finances and communications around the world.

What emerged in 2002-03 was a distinctive British approach to using security and intelligence aggressively against jihadist terrorism as part of a risk reduction strategy. It was not the 'war on terror', but was instead aimed at maintaining normality so that people could go about their normal life freely (that is, without having to suspend the rule of law and interfere with individual liberties) and with confidence (that is, with visitors coming to the UK, markets stable, people still travelling by air and on the underground, and so on). This counter-terrorism strategy, called Contest, involved reducing the likelihood of attack by significantly expanding the intelligence and police effort and bringing terrorists to justice (Pursue); reducing violent radicalisation in the community and overseas (Prevent); reducing the vulnerability of the public through aviation and transport security, and safeguarding infrastructure essential for normal life (Protect); and equipping, training and exercising the emergency services to reduce the impact when (rather than if) terrorists succeeded in mounting an attack (Prepare). Underpinning the whole strategy was better pre-emptive intelligence used to uncover networks, forestall attacks and provide evidence in court. The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre was created to act, alongside MI5, as the UK's centre of excellence and expertise on assessing the threat from international terrorism.

Has the UK achieved its Contest aim? Yes. Despite attacks in London and on British interests overseas, the UK remains a nation where the threat is being managed, so that normality is maintained in accordance with our values. And it remains a nation that looks forward to hosting the Olympic Games in 2012 and that continues to take an active role in the world. ¡

Sir David OmandSir David Omand is a former director of GCHQ and was appointed the UK's first Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator in 2002. He is an Honorary Vice-President of RUSI and a visiting professor at King's College London.

This commentary first appeared in The RUSI Journal.

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