Select Committee on Defence Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence



Memorandum from Alice Hills (20 November 2001)


  Thank you for letter of 14 November. The issues you ask me to address are complex, especially when relationships between the dependent parts are considered, and over-simplification could be misleading. There is, however, some value in identifying certain existing trends emphasised by the suicide hijackings. Here is my immediate response.

  1.  You ask me to consider how our understanding of the threat to UK security and interests has changed since the suicide hijackings of 11 September. You specifically ask me to address:

    —  the level and nature of the current threats;

    —  possible gaps in our capability to deal with such threats;

    —  steps that might be taken to address deficiencies.


  2.1  We are now more aware of the multi-faceted nature of peacetime security, of the merging of internal and external security, and the need to rebalance our priorities. I cannot judge the precise level and nature of the current threat but I assume that it continues to be identified and evaluated in conventional terms. This is potentially significant because it suggests that our understanding of the threat is based on past experience. It is understandable because we know that major discontinuities cannot be predicted, terrorism tends to innovate in an evolutionary way, staying just ahead of our counter measures, and we naturally think in terms of familiar concerns. Indeed, the attack in September justifies this to some extent for it was conventional even if its scale was not. But unfortunately the apparent ease with which such threats are identified is itself dangerous because, as 11 September also illustrates, it diverts attention from the truly unexpected. It encourages the reactive nature of our response and allows us to be ambushed by events.


  3.1  There are two primary issues I identify here: the first is associated with understanding and the second is linked to the way in which we categorise terrorism and our response to it.

  3.2  Our plans for dealing with the impact of terrorism are conventional, being based on the comparative predictability of past threats and an assumption that terrorist crises will be limited in time and space. But the real problem with thinking in these terms is that it assumes that the familiar will not be transformed into something new that defies conventional responses. A variant of this effect was evident in the US where, although the Center for Disease Control and other government agencies had contingency plans for a massive release of biological agents, no one had considered a sustained campaign involving the delivery of biological agents through the post.

  3.3  We may understand the dynamics of terrorism but, based on recent experience, we do not really understand the dynamics of crisis. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the seeming lack of strategic focus in our response. The fact that the American reaction to anthrax attacks by an indeterminate foe or foes in the weeks following 11 September was unfocused and incoherent is significant, while the UK's response to recent crises involving petrol shortages, BSE, and foot and mouth disease, does not encourage optimism. Of course, existing forms of threat assessment and risk or crisis management may remain valid. But if seemingly recurrent factors prove instead to be stages in a dynamic process than familiarity could be misleading. We do not understand the dependencies involved.

  3.4  The second issue concerns the fact that our response to terrorism is based on a selective mix of policies and processes taken from the paradigms of national security and law enforcement. It reflects the fact that terrorism represents a complex threat. It is an attack, a crime, a disaster, and a threat to civil liberties.

  3.5  We are conscious that terrorism can represent an almost military-scale threat that is neither categorically domestic nor foreign. Terrorist groups could include both British citizens and foreign nationals operating in and out of the UK, while awareness of the close relationship between internal and external security is reflected in the growing involvement of the military in tackling organised crime "upstream". This controversial development emphasises that terrorism cannot be defeated or deterred in any conventional sense.

  3.6  An associated danger is that terrorism may be at its most dangerous when it falls between overlapping governmental jurisdictions, such as foreign as opposed to domestic terrorism or law enforcement.


  4.1  Ultimately, the fundamental step needing to be taken if we are to address deficiencies is to ask the vital question: what happens if we badly misjudge the risks inherent in our decisions?

  4.2  Asking the right question in the first place is fundamental. We therefore need to confront the dangers of group think whereby decision-making groups have an accepted view of how things will turn out and plan accordingly. SDR went some way to address this but the importance of vested interests deserves acknowledgement. The task in the US was not made easier by the strength of traditional rivalries between security agencies and there is no reason why the situation should be better in the UK.

  4.3  We need to ask whether different types of terrorism require different approaches or whether flexible plans, developed in relation to the response being to the incident rather than its cause, are sufficient. It is difficult to believe that either the uniformed services or the public would treat terrorism involving smallpox the same as one created by suicide hijackers—but the issue has yet to be addressed. This is not to suggest that operational and tactical issues are unimportant so much as to balance the fact that discussion of catastrophic acts of terrorism tends to focus on the operational to the exclusion of strategic or long-term factors. The two are in fact interlinked.

  4.4  We must pay more attention to the impact of potentially significant sub-events, and to recognise escalatory triggers that may take events to a new stage.

  4.5  We need to develop criteria for dealing with new or emergent forms of terrorism because, as recent events emphasise, we have no point of reference for al-Qaeda.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 18 December 2001