Protecting the UK against Terrorism

It is as a matter of sad necessity that we in the UK have developed considerable expertise in fighting terrorism. We have learned to be prepared, to plan and to act accordingly. Following the tragic events of 11 September in the United States, we now have to think the previously unthinkable: the threat of mass destruction from terrorism, by any means, must be regarded as credible. While the events of 11 September have focussed minds on the threat from international terrorism, we in the UK have been responding for many years to the threat of dissident Irish Republican terrorism and other forms of domestic extremism.

The Threat

Terrorism is indiscriminate by its very nature and although most terrorists still favour conventional means of attack, recent years have seen a rise in types of terrorism less constrained by factors such as public opinion. It is no longer safe for governments to assume that any self-restraint or political calculation is taking place or that the terrorist's cause will somehow be weakened or discredited by mass casualties. The mindset of the modern-day terrorist was tragically highlighted by the attacks on the World Trade Center. There is also increasing evidence that some terrorists are interested in using biological and chemical materials as weapons. Terrorist organizations and networks, including Al Qa'ida, have access to considerable levels of funding. This provides a means of hiring scientific and technical expertise for the purpose of developing a chemical and/or biological weapons capability.

Sophisticated delivery mechanisms are not necessary to achieve maximum impact. The anthrax attacks in the United States last year highlighted how easy it was to deliver a biological threat (i.e., by envelope), albeit to a specified individual target. Cross-contamination within the US postal system resulted in further fatalities. The US anthrax attacks caused widespread public fear and anxiety in the UK and other countries and the overwhelming media coverage sparked thousands of criminal hoaxes and false (nonsuspicious) alarms.

At the time of writing the position remains that there is no intelligence of any specific threat to the UK. This is monitored very closely and we remain vigilant, taking all the necessary precautions. We must not, and cannot afford to be complacent.

Counter Terrorism (CT) Contingency Planning

The Home Secretary has lead responsibility within the Government for counter-terrorist policy and it is the Home Office that is responsible for national Counter Terrorist Contingency Planning Guidance. Over many years the Home Office, working with the police and other Government departments and agencies, has developed some of the world's best counter-terrorist expertise. The Home Office's national counterterrorist contingency plans are regularly tried and tested. The plans allow the UK to respond to a wide range of terrorist threats, including those that might involve the threatened or actual use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) materials.

The Government not only accepts but actively embraces the need for contingency planning and for conducting exercises to test those plans and the Home Office's national counter-terrorist exercise programme is designed to test these plans in conjunction with Police Forces and other Government departments/agencies. The national programme involves organizing full-scale operational counterterrorist and tabletop exercises around the country covering the full range of possible scenarios. The Home Office provides support to those police forces hosting exercises, which are a valuable training experience for the force and all other agencies involved in the response. The contingency plans are reviewed in the light of lessons learned during the exercises and most importantly, the contingency plans work. They have operated successfully during real terrorist incidents, the last occasion being the Ariana hijacking at Stansted Airport in February 2000.

Since 11 September, the Home Office has reviewed its counter-terrorist plans and the various levels of support it provides to the police and other agencies. As a result, where appropriate, additional funding has been either provided or sought. The programme of counter terrorist work has also been reviewed and priorities changed.

CT Incident Response

The Home Office holds the responsibility for coordinating the response to the terrorist threat within the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office taking the lead in responding to the threat against UK interests overseas. These two departments do not stand alone in responding to the threat. The response to any terrorist incident relies upon a co-ordinated approach and the Government draws upon the resources of other departments, the security and intelligence agencies, the police, the military, scientific and other specialist advice, local authorities and the emergency services.

Terrorist incidents are a crime, and most people would agree that the perpetrators should be treated criminals. The Police therefore have the primary role in responding to the incident itself and utilize the wide range of skills and capabilities that can be deployed during a terrorist incident. The Police force in whose area the terrorist incident takes place assumes operational command and control of the incident scene.

The Government is responsible for determining the overall political strategy in relation to the incident, including responding to any political demands made by the terrorists. Key officials from government departments and agencies are deployed to the scene and provide an important liaison role between the Police Incident Commander and the Home Secretary and other Ministers in London.

The Armed Forces contribute specific skills and capabilities in support of the Home Office, the Police and other departments. Military Aid to the Civil Power (MACP) covers the provision of military personnel to support the Civil Power in the maintenance of law, order and public safety and the Police Incident Commander is able to request military assistance under these terms in the event of a terrorist incident. The MoD has a range of specialist capabilities, developed both for conventional and counter-terrorist operations, which can be made available to the police, on request, to help in responding to a terrorist incident. The Police would always seek to resolve a terrorist incident through negotiation and peaceful means. The use of military assistance would only be called upon as a last resort.

Role of the Military - SDR New Chapter

The Secretary of State for Defence announced on 2 October 2001 that the MoD would be undertaking work to ensure they have the right concepts, forces and capabilities in place to meet the additional challenge posed by asymmetric threats of the kind demonstrated on 11 September. It is not a new Strategic Defence Review (SDR) but the addition of a new chapter to it. Indeed, the SDR left the Armed Forces well placed to participate in the campaign against international terrorism. The work on the New Chapter continues and the MoD is currently working through the defence policy consequences of the events of 11 September, with particular focus on the areas of defending the UK and the capability to counter and deter terrorism abroad.

The MoD published discussion material on the New Chapter of the SDR on 14 February. This sets out a range of areas being considered and offers an opportunity for the public as well as other interested parties to express their views. A close working relationship between the Home Office and MoD allows an effective and fully integrated response to terrorism when and where it is really needed.

The importance and the leadership of the Home Office and Police in counter-terrorism matters is fully recognized by the MoD, and is a key principle of the work being undertaken to develop the SDR New Chapter. The MoD recognizes that there is no point in the Armed Forces duplicating the roles and responsibilities of the police and other 'home defence' agencies in fighting crime and terrorism within the UK. This would be wasteful, counter-productive and would undermine a successful response. Any changes in defence roles emerging from the New Chapter of the SDR must and will complement the Home Office and Police role.

Consequence Management

The UK has well-established procedures for managing the consequences of any terrorist incident. Lead responsibility for this also rests with the Home Secretary in his capacity as chairman of the Civil Contingencies Committee (CCC). The CCC is supported by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS), which was set up by the Prime Minister following the general election in June 2001; it is responsible for co-ordinating the effort to build up resilience in the Government and throughout the UK. Its purpose is to make the country more effective in planning for, dealing with and learning lessons from emergencies and disasters. A response to a terrorist incident would draw in the support of many other resources including the other blue light services, the National Health Service (NHS) and local authorities. They plan and prepare locally to deal with any disaster, whatever its origin, many other incidents posing the same problems as those caused by terrorists. In a terrorist incident, the Government ensures that the counter-terrorist response is integrated with local emergency plans.

Planning for the consequences of an incident should run concurrently with the management of the crisis. The consequence planning should be in place from the start of the incident. The Department of Health works with the NHS and a range of other public health agencies, such as the Public Health Laboratory Service, bringing together major incident and public protection plans to mitigate the effects of terrorism and to ensure response and recovery. To ensure that local NHS plans and communication arrangements are in place to implement a local response to local situations a well-established network at Regional level, led by Regional Directors of Public Health, is utilized.

The Department of Health issued guidance at the end of September 2001 to Regional Directors of Public Health and all Health Authorities on developing plans for responding to mass casualty incidents, mass decontamination and chemical and biological incidents. A further package of guidance was issued on 17 October 2001 on the procedures to be followed in the event of either a covert or overt release of smallpox, anthrax, plague, botulism or an unknown biological or chemical agent. As part of ongoing contingency planning, the Department of Health is continuing to offer operational advice on implementing the guidance to senior NHS managers responsible for emergency planning.

CT Legislation - Terrorism Act 2000

The Government is determined that the UK should not be used as a base for the planning and preparation of terrorism, both within the UK or overseas. The Terrorism Act 2000, which came into force in February 2001, was largely aimed at strengthening our response to all forms of terrorism. The 2000 Act included an extension of the previous proscription powers to include international terrorist groups of which 21 were added. The intention is to make life difficult for international terrorists to operate from the UK and in particular to seek to deter them from coming here.

Provisions of the Act apply to all those involved in terrorism whether or not they belong to a proscribed organization. It includes provisions for specific offences of providing weapons training for terrorist purposes, and of recruitment for such training. A new offence of incitement to commit an act of terrorism wholly or partly outside the UK was also introduced. Following the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September, the UK Government responded positively by announcing its intention to introduce further legislative powers to protect the UK. On 15 October, the Home Secretary announced the introduction of an emergency Anti-Terrorism Bill to improve our overall security and provide further powers to tackle the threat of terrorism.

CT Legislation - Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 The main purpose of the new Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, which received Royal Assent on 14 December 2001, is to build on existing legislation in a number of areas to ensure that the UK, in the light of the new situation arising from the terrorist attacks on 11 September, has the necessary powers in place to counter the threat to the UK. It was considered that wholesale revision of anti-terrorism laws was unnecessary. The new Act provides proportionate and targeted measures to safeguard our safety, ensures that individual rights are protected and is consistent with our international commitments.

The key provisions of the new Act are as follows:

  • Law enforcement agencies have the powers and information needed to combat global terrorism effectively.

  • To cut off terrorist funding through a variety of measures including account monitoring, asset freezing, cash seizing and information disclosure.

  • To ensure that government departments and agencies can collect and share information required for countering the terrorist threat.

  • To discourage and prevent terrorists from abusing our immigration and asylum procedures, allowing extended detention for suspected international terrorists who threaten national security and who cannot immediately be removed.

  • To strengthen legislation relating to aviation security through new powers enabling the removal and arrest of people in restricted areas and detention of aircraft for security reasons.

  • To strengthen legislation relating to chemical, nuclear and biological weapons to ensure the protection and security of civil nuclear sites through new offences of aiding and abetting the overseas use or development of such weapons and weapons training.

  • To improve the security of dangerous substances that may be targeted or used by terrorists.

International Co-operation

The UK is committed to strengthened international co-operation to deal with the terrorist threat and considers that it is important to share information and best practice in this area. It stands ready to cooperate with other like-minded countries on counter-terrorism issues, both in bilateral contacts and in international fora such as the EU, United Nations and G8. The UK has ratified the 12 existing UN Conventions relating to Terrorism; one of the few governments to have ratified them all and the only EU member to have done so. We have urged further international action, including full implementation and monitoring of sanctions under UN regimes.

On 21 September 2001 Heads of State and Government endorsed an EU Action Plan to help Member States step up the fight against global terrorism and to improve practical co-operation among Member States. Measures taken forward include:

  • Creation of a fast-track extradition procedure and an EU arrest warrant, which should significantly reduce obstacles to extradition within the EU.

  • Agreement on common EU offences and penalties for terrorist activity.

  • Rapid implementation of the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism by all EU Member States. [UK implemented UNSCR 1373 by an Order in Council on 10 October].

  • Requirement that the potential impact on the fight against crime and terrorism is fully considered in drafting EU legislation.

  • Freezing of assets and evidence.

The G8 is also taking a leading role in co-ordinating action to counter terrorism including the production of an action plan to address key issues.


The Government aims first to prevent terrorism, but if necessary it has the means to deal swiftly and expertly with the possible consequences. Since 11 September, the UK has sought to lead by example in the fight against terrorism. The Government's first responsibility is the safety of the public and is therefore firmly committed to ensuring that the UK has the necessary contingency plans in place in the interests of national security and the protection of the public. The contingency plans are well prepared, regularly tested, reviewed and updated in the light of changing domestic and international circumstances. Since 11 September, we have been subjecting all contingency plans to the most careful scrutiny. An enormous amount of work is being undertaken by government departments, agencies and the police to review and improve the resilience of the UK. With our experience of combating terrorism, the priority now is to strengthen our response capability by identifying any gaps and weaknesses and taking the necessary remedial action. We must adapt our thinking, be flexible in our approach and be willing to review our planning and policies to ensure that they are still relevant to the threat. We continue to organize our efforts in an evidence-led way, gathering and assessing intelligence so that we are ready to take timely and effective preventative and protective measures in response to any terrorist threat. The operation to board the MV NISHA shortly before Christmas (21 December) is a helpful example. Whilst we had every reason to be cautious, I should stress that the boarding was successful in that it proved our suspicions to be unfounded. The ship was wholly innocent, and in that respect the operation was a complete success. It was also a successful demonstration of the integrated response to the potential terrorist threat. The principle of an integrated and joined up response - with each agency contributing its part - not only can be demonstrated, it has been demonstrated. I am not pretending that any of this makes the UK a risk-free zone. There can be no such thing but we are fully engaged in thinking the worst and making sure that we are in the best position we can be to cope with it.

Bob Whalley is the Head of the Terrorism and Protection Unit, UK Home Office

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