The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office recently reformulated its priorities. Counter-terrorism is now one of the UK government's top overseas goals, along with counter-proliferation of weapons. Above all, the UK seeks to work against the threat of the two coming together.
Would Osama bin Laden use a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) if he could procure, for example, a biological weapon? We have to work on the assumption that he would. Hitherto, use of such weapons has been deterred by the potential user having the near certainty that his/her own destruction would follow. But that logic does not apply with organisations such as Al-Qaeda. They positively seek martyrdom.
If a militant group was unable to get hold of a WMD such as a useable nuclear device or a biological weapon, the psychological mayhem that they could cause through use of a radiological device would be enormous, never mind the immensely difficult and costly clean-up operation that would be involved were such a device to be exploded in a densely populated city centre. The weapon might not be thought of as a 'classical' WMD, but it would certainly be a weapon of mass disruption.
Nonetheless, attacks by conventional means remain the most likely method. So we must not focus only on WMDs - we have to work against threats across the board. In trying to formulate our strategy for combating terrorism, we need to combine differing elements:
The timescale for action by organisations such as Al-Qaeda is also measured in years, not months, so we have to calibrate our response accordingly.
In terms of a terrorist threat we are essentially dealing with six groups or networks:
There are of course a kaleidoscope of complex and constantly shifting relationships between these six groups.
In relation to the above groups we are not just talking about the militants, but also about their facilitators and support agents. Al-Qaeda and its associated groupings rely heavily on a sizeable, but diffuse, network of individuals who perform key services such as money transfer and laundering, generating passports, credit card fraud, and other forms of fundraising. Relatively little cash may be needed to mount an actual attack - the simultaneous Madrid bombings of March 2004 probably cost less than US$500 - but quite a bit more is needed to maintain the organisations and their networks. Much of this is criminal activity but some groups take advantage of the facilities of Islamic welfare organisations that have a real humanitarian purpose and, at the more benign end of the spectrum, are unaware that their channels are being subverted. Other facilitators assist with recruitment and provide training, transport, safe houses, and other similar support. A facilitator can of course become an operator.
What then are the key characteristics of these various networks?
Since the attacks of 11 September 2001 there has been some important progress in countering the terrorist threat. Al-Qaeda's central structure has been degraded and major figures have been arrested, even if its fragmentation has brought new challenges, with more or less independent networks functioning in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, East Africa, North Africa and Southeast Asia. The international recognition of the threat has sharpened, not just in EU or NATO countries, but much more widely. A number of countries - including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey - that may have been less focused on the domestic threat they faced, sometimes literally to their own existence, are now very much alive to it. International co-operation against the terror threat has been strengthened, both in the pursuit of suspects and intelligence sharing.
But let us be clear. For all these advances, and they are real, the picture in this country and abroad is still very worrying. There is a real possibility of a major attack in the next year in Europe, never mind further afield.
As stated above, we need to elaborate a long-term strategy of tackling those factors that encourage radicalisation and recruitment to militant groups.
Understanding the process of radicalisation
Just because international terrorism appears to us perverse in its objectives and abhorrent in its methods, does not mean that others see it in this way. We need to understand better what attracts some young people - albeit a tiny minority - to leave their homes, join militant networks, take their own lives and those of others, and to give these networks moral, financial and practical support.
What are the main factors that contribute to the recruitment of terrorists?
What are we doing to counter these factors?
The UK is working with governments internationally to manage change and reduce alienation. For example, we are working with governments in the Arab world and more widely to support reform towards representative government, greater development and better education. These reforms are vital in opening new horizons for jobs, freedom and prosperity.
We are trying to convey clearly too, overseas as at home, that there is no clash of civilisations, but rather a struggle between human civilisation as a whole and inhumanity. Violent extremists of all types should be marginalised, while those with genuine, peaceful aspirations should be welcomed into the political mainstream. We are also trying to resolve conflict, most notably through our efforts to support the Middle East peace process. This is a very high priority for the UK.
The second axis of our response is to pursue the terrorists and those that sponsor them by improving our understanding of terrorist networks; tracking the terrorists down; disrupting their operations; and, where we can, bringing them to justice. We are also trying to reduce the ability of terrorists to use 'third' countries as a base from which to mount/organise/finance attacks on the UK and our interests abroad.
Our third line of activity is to protect the public and UK interests abroad, including the improvement of maritime and aviation security, offering travel advice to UK subjects and reducing the vulnerability of our embassies to attack.
Our fourth area of work is to prepare for the consequences of an attack by improving our resilience to cope with attacks and other major disruptions, and ensuring effective investigations and follow-ups.
These four streams of activity are underpinned by better intelligence coverage and by improving intelligence sharing between allies, of course between the UK, US and Australia, but also with other NATO and EU member states.
This of course raises the issue of international co-operation, with the US and a rapidly growing number of international partners. Before 11 September 2001 the UK had 12 bilateral counter-terrorist programmes; we now have more than 80. While much of our work must be bilateral, international organisations can add considerable value. The UN, notably through its specialised agencies, and the Security Council's Counter-Terrorism Committee, provide important reinforcement. There are clearly limits to how effectively the UN can exert pressure, but it increases the legitimacy and effectiveness of our pressure on other countries to act in the best interests of counter-terrorism. On a more limited front, NATO, the G8 and others make their contribution too.
A huge amount of work is underway. But the scale of the terrorist challenge is immediate and daunting: we need to press ahead urgently on all the fronts outlined above. In a word, we need to match the immensity of the task with the urgency and vigour of our response.
Edward Oakden is Director of Defence and Strategic Threats at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This article is based on a speech made at a RUSI conference on politics and terrorism