Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)|
WEDNESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2001
MP, AND MR
280. I quite accept your point, Secretary of
State, that these are organisations that cross national boundaries
but as we have seen in the case of Afghanistan the organisation
seems to have had its base, if you like, in Afghanistan and these
people cannot operate just solely in the ether, they have to have
a base from which to operate.
(Mr Hoon) Yes.
281. I wonder if that is specifically a military
issue, as to whether we try and deal with those in a military
way, and you posed the question in your opening remarks. Do you
not see the need to take out their bases?
(Mr Hoon) I think that is a very good point, and it
is one that I think we do need to address. You have tended to
downplay it by saying these are organisations which cross national
boundaries, in fact I think it is more fundamental than that.
These are organisations which have no respect for national boundaries
and indeed are organised in a way to be able to take advantage
of the weaknesses of failed or failing states. You are right,
one of the issues is the extent to which we go after the bases
that they establish, certainly as in the case of the Taliban regime
in Afghanistan, with not just the consent but the active support
of the elements of the state. There could easily be and there
are examples of where Al-Qaeda and similar organisations can establish
bases perhaps in the ignorance of a weak central state who do
not investigate sufficiently or are not minded to investigate
sufficiently the activities within their borders. We tend to viewand
I think this is one of our difficultiesother countries
as being an image of the kind of central state that we have. In
fact the weakness of a number of states that I am thinking of
is that they do not have the kind of control over their geographical
boundaries that we would expect them to have. This is why in answer
to David's question earlier, I think it is important that we think
through that. Are there organisations now around the world that
are fundamentally challenging our sense of how we operate in defence
terms in dealing with those because they can be far more threatening
to us than the conventional idea of alliances where collectively
nation states group together in order to defeat a threat from
another nation state which is the way, in a sense, traditionally
we think of these things. It is not new in the sense that before
the nation state this was something that many countries would
have to face up to.
(Mr Webb) Can I make a point. I do not think you necessarily
have to assume you are going to be acting in opposition to the
state. As Mr Hoon says, if they are a weak state, they might just
need some help and support or a bit of moral reassurance or something
to help them do it. Chairman, you were talking about Sierra Leone,
you had a war lord situation there running across borders, I do
not want to stretch this analogy too far but in a way we went
and helped the Sierra Leone state to tackle that in a very co-operative
way. There are lots of ways of coming at this.
282. Secretary of State, you will be aware of
the huge amount of time, effort and blood that has gone into building
very specialist police and military agencies in Northern Ireland
for a specialist way of tackling Republican terrorism.
(Mr Hoon) Not just Republican terrorism.
283. Principally built first for that and I
would agree adapted. The language of deter and dissuade I suspect
reflects more that style of campaign than perhaps we are facing
now. How far do you think those organisations which exist at the
moment can be adapted and expanded to help cope with the threat
of Al-Qaeda and similar organisations on the UK mainland?
(Mr Hoon) Anticipating some of the conclusions, I
do think there is a fundamental difference between the efforts
that have been made courageously over a far too long a period
now by the police support of the military in a sense as part of
a community in Northern Ireland committed to dealing with the
threat from a relatively small number of nevertheless very determined
terrorists on both sides of the sectarian divide. I think there
is a huge difference between policing and a military activity
that operates in the context of a society that essentially is
no different from the way in which we live, albeit it has to deal
with this threat from within its own borders, as against the kind
of failed state that Afghanistan became, where you have in a sense
a parasite that has taken over the operation of government in
that country. This is something we have learned the more we have
looked at the way in which Afghanistan under the Taliban operated,
it has used its secure bases inside that country to export terrorism
not just across the border, which in a sense you might argue was
analogous to Northern Ireland, but actually around the world as
a deliberate effort by Osama bin Laden to corrupt regimes elsewhere
in the world. That I think is a very, very different concept from
the one that we faced in Northern Ireland.
284. What I am looking for is an assurance that
the knowledge and technologist styles that we have developed to
deal with both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland can be
adapted. Are they going to be adapted and expanded to combat this
form of terrorism on the UK mainland?
(Mr Hoon) I think the key analogy is intelligence.
The key analogy is understanding the nature of the threat, identifying
how that arises and taking steps to deal with it. Certainly I
agree that there are lessons that we can learn from our experience
in Northern Ireland, Simon mentioned as well Oman, and there are
other places, Malaya, where we have been engaged in a similar
sort of operation. I do not believe that necessarily the approach
ultimately is going to be the same simply because of the very
different context in which terrorism operates in Northern Ireland.
285. I want to pick up Patrick Mercer's point
a little bit. He seemed to be talking about the UK mainland and
I think it is easy for us to be distracted by the notion that
the threat from Al-Qaeda is one of failed states and in places
like Afghanistan when actually, it was suggested to us this morning,
the chances are Al-Qaeda had thought through the probable response
of the United States and the international community and that
cells are out there and here and in the United States and elsewhere
and at some point may act and that possibly we are more vulnerable
now than we have been before. It seems very valid for Patrick
to say that the threat that we may have here in the UK mainland,
and that may exist in other far from failed statesvery
robust, rich advanced statescould use the expertise we
have left in Northern Ireland in order to help defend us.
(Mr Hoon) I do broadly agree with that in terms of
the importance in particular of gaining intelligence about terrorist
organisations and then being able to act upon them. In a sense
that action has proceeded since 11 September. You are absolutely
right to warn about a continuing risk, it is something we have
done, but equally in the very determined efforts that have been
made around the world, perhaps we will never know how many terrorist
threats we have already disrupted by the actions that we have
taken. I am aware, for example, of disruption that occurred to
terrorist threats before 11 September because of the action that
was taken to deal with information about those threats as it arose.
Without being ever able to prove it, I am absolutely confident
that the determined response that has occurred around the world
since 11 September involving large numbers of arrests, disruption
of financing, of the supply of weapons, of restrictions on people
crossing borders, has had a significant impact on the ability
of terrorist organisations to threaten us without in any way being
complacent about the efforts that they are still likely to make.
286. Are we making efforts in turn then to recruit
into our intelligence services from ethnic minorities in this
country and across faiths to extend that intelligence because
clearly it is a little bit easier to develop intelligence in the
UK in Northern Ireland just because of a cultural
(Mr Hoon) Those, of course, are not my responsibilities
but I can assure you that a very determined effort is being made
to make sure that we have the ability to deal with the threats
as and when they arise.
(Mr Webb) Perhaps it would be useful to say that people
with recent operational experience in Northern Ireland and people
with Muslim faith are both people who are included in the study
teams working on this subject.
Mr Howarth: That sounds like an interesting
287. I thought that was a very fair comment
that you made. None of us will ever know what has been achieved
and I think it is right that you make that point. I think it is
sad that it has not been made before because I think in a sense
it does reassure people that there is a serious problem which
we will never be fully exposed to, I think you are right to bring
it up. If I can just raise the issue which you slightly touched
on, and so did Mr Webb, about the changing role and some questions
about British Defence Doctrine. It is interesting in this booklet
on one page alone the word "fear" is mentioned five
times. Now as a nation we are combatting people who have no fear,
either for their own lives or the fear of consequence for their
actions. That really does change the game, does it not, quite
considerably, when you actually have an enemy who has no known
weak spot in the sense of fear to themselves or the consequences
of what they are doing. I am interested to know because in the
British Defence Doctrine it emphasises the approach we had about
"deep, close and rear" levels of operating and how we
deal with the situation and how we seek out the centre of gravity
of the enemy and how we attack it. I would be interested to know
how you can now relate this document to those issues that we are
now confronted with?
(Mr Hoon) Can I just deal there with your premise.
I do not accept that terrorist organisations have no known weak
288. The individuals we are dealing with at
the present time, the Al-Qaeda organisation, have transparently
exposed us to the fact that they have no fear.
(Mr Hoon) I do not agree with that. There is some
evidence, for example, that not all of the terrorists on board
those aircraft of the 11 September were aware of what the leading
elements were going to engage on. Clearly they were not entirely
confident in the support that they were necessarily going to get.
It may well have been that some of those people thought that they
were involved in a routine hijacking and were not aware of the
plans of the people actually piloting the aircraft. I do not believe
in this idea that these organisations do not have weak spots,
we are exploiting those weak spots and we will continue to do
so. I suspect in fact there are fortunately a relatively limited
number of people who are prepared to destroy themselves in the
pursuit of some fanatic perverted ideal and, therefore, I do not
think we should over-estimate either the numbers or their willingness
to behave in this way. We can have a difference of opinion about
289. There is ample evidence that Palestinians
are prepared to do it virtually on a daily basis. They strap a
bomb to themselves and explode it in a market place in Israel
and they seem to have an endless supply of them. I am interested
also in this suggestion that some of the terrorists on those planes
were not fully conversant with what was going to happen. If you
read the evidence that has already been put into the public domain
I do not think there is too much to substantiate that statement.
(Mr Hoon) This is in the public domain and I will
give you an example of what I am relying on. Notes were found
from some of the people involved in the hijacks, they were not
found in relation to others. The inference that has been drawn
from that is that the ones who left notes were aware of what they
were engaged on and the ones who did not were not.
290. Then what do you think is the centre of
gravity of the current terrorist threat, and where is our centre
of gravity, based on this document which talks about finding the
threat and its centre of gravity and protecting your own centre
of gravity? Where do you see those two points as being?
(Mr Hoon) I think what is absolutely fundamentalagain
it goes back to your premiseis the question of fear. Certainly
the events of 11 September caused fear right around the world
and indeed in the United Kingdom. It was understandable why that
was the case because, in a sense, having over many years developed,
for example, tried and tested procedures for dealing with hijack
(a point you have made), we were used to dealing with what I have
described as rational highjackers, people who had a demand, whether
it was to be taken to a certain place, or co-conspirators to be
released, or for money or political asylum. There was, in effect,
a potential exchange between the hijackers and the authorities.
You are right, in the sense that some of the people involved in
these hijacks were not interested in that rational exchange. That
means that many of the procedures that had previously been developed
to deal with hijacking have had to be thought through again, because
we need, for example, action taken by civil airlines to protect
the pilots' cabin from passengers determined on causing their
own deaths as well as the deaths of their fellow passengers. That
is a different concept. So that fear is an issue that we have
to deal with. The specific reason for involving our armed forces
in Afghanistan is to protect the citizens of the United Kingdom
against those sorts of threats. The issue in terms of this defence
doctrine is how we go about that. That is the question which I
raised with you at the outset, as to whether, for example, we
concentrated all our efforts on protecting the boundaries of the
United Kingdom at the boundarythat is, against hijacked
aircraft or against seaborne threatsor by enormously enhanced
security procedures at our physical borders, whether they be sea
borders, or whether they are airports or road crossings and so
on, or whether we go after the threat wherever it happens to be
developing in the world. I think that, in a sense, our defence
doctrine encompasses that already, but I think it may need some
refinement in the work that we are doing to decide what kind of
capabilities we might require and how we go about dealing with
the threat wherever it happens to be, before it actually manifests
itself in the United Kingdom. My instincts are to say that actually
rather than waiting for the threat to arrive on these shores,
we go after it.
291. I agree entirely with that, but there is
a slight contradiction there, is there not, because our current
policy is to work with the coalition and to have friends on board
with us? If we adopt, as you rightly say, the point that we do
not wait for them to come to us, but we go after them, the contradiction
comes when we actually cause problems to partners in the coalition
because that offensive action that we take in some way offends
either their own feelings on the issue or their stability, or
encroaches into their sovereignty. There is a real issue here.
So is the issue one of keeping the balance, the centre of gravity
being the coalition and its stability, or is it defending us wherever
that takes us? It cannot be both, can it?
(Mr Hoon) I think you are probably being too rational
in your analysis. All coalitions are coalitions of the willing,
and most military action in particular involves states being willing
to use their military forces to achieve certain purposes. Clearly
there are issues in relation to sovereignty, but we have always
emphasised, as we will continue to emphasise, the importance of
international law and indeed our own law, because that governs
our own armed forces in the way in which they conduct their activities.
So I do not really think that there is quite the dilemma that
you suggest. We work as part of a coalition, and when it is necessary
we take action that that coalition agrees upon. Equally, that
is within the constraints of international law.
292. If you were given, Secretary of State,
the hypothetical situation that there were a known terrorist threat
about to happen to the United Kingdom, which was based in another
state that was currently part of the coalition, but that partner
was not prepared to see that terrorist group attacked in any way,
would you believe it would be right and proper then for the United
Kingdom to go after those people?
(Mr Hoon) I believe that it is very difficult to deal
with that. First of all, that is not even a hypothetical illustration,
it is simply a set of assumptions,
293. I am basing it on what the Prime Minister
said in answer to the question this afternoon when he tried to
put right the situation about George Bush's statement about where
the attack goes next.
(Mr Hoon) I think that if that were a sufficiently
proximate threat to the United Kingdom, and I as Secretary of
State could say that this threat was about to affect citizens
of the United Kingdom, then I would be entitled to defend those
citizens by proportionate action that seems to be appropriate.
294. I damn well hope so.
(Mr Hoon) The reality is, thoughthis is why
it is always difficult to deal with rather vague hypothesesthat
inevitably the kind of warnings that we get are much less specific
than the proximate threat that I have just set out for you, and
therefore judgements have to be made about the best way of dealing
with that threat. It is not usually, I am pleased to say, by the
use of military force. This is a point that I made to you right
at the end of my comments, that actually many of the things that
we will want to do fall well short, rightly, of military means.
(Mr Webb) Since you have been so courteous as to read
the British defence doctrine
295. Does that mean that you wrote it?
(Mr Webb) I did not actually, but some very smart
people who work in my area did. You are right that we are looking
at the centre of gravity. One of the reasons why we are taking
a bit of time to think about it is because it is not quite so
obvious. Amongst the things you can think about in terms of centre
of gravity is a network, an Al-Qaeda or network like it, which
is prepared to use force on a large scale across borders to achieve
a change in international affairs. This is not local stuff. So
you could think it was groups like that. In a way, that would
be quite convenient, because although this is a horrible business,
there are not that many groups, and we could probably write down
those who were large scale. However, there is another line of
argument which we got onto earlier on, which is that maybe it
could also be the sources of sustainment of such groups, it could
be camps, or money, or drug money or something like that. That
is one of the things that we were debating just as the planes
fell. You are absolutely right, we need to get to the nub of this.
On our centre of gravity, it is information, maybe resilience.
One of the things they might fear is that they cannot succeed,
that we are resilient enough as societies. At home when you talk
to people in this country about this, our resilience actually
is that yes, somebody might walk through with a bomb strapped
to their body, but actually we are not going to be deflected,
as the United States have not been deflected, from our overall
policies or way of life by this kind of thing. There are issues
296. I agree with you and that Mr Hancock's
is a good point, but there is also this element of flexibility,
co-operation and sustainability that the enemy do not know quite
how robust your coalitions are and how willing or how far you
are prepared to go, do they?
(Mr Webb) No.
297. I think what you have shownand this
doctrine does allude to thisis that we will go to wherever
it takes us on this. My final point is that I think the coalition
might be our centre of gravity, sustaining a coalition could be
of value, and I actually think that is quite an important element
in this. My final question relates to the SDR which is being looked
at again, the defence of the homeland and our capability to counter
and deter terrorism abroad. That is in the current thinking. How
do you see the relative balance now between the two strands? Which
is the role for this final chapter to take? Is it of paramount
importancethe defence of the homeland and more resources
spent thereor is it this attack of the threat wherever
it is? It is going to be very difficult to afford both.
(Mr Hoon) I hope it will be possible to afford both,
because my guess is, without anticipating the results of the work
that we do, that there will be a certain amount of each that we
have to do in addition to the efforts that we make already. I
certainly think, as far as the homeland is concerned, that the
British people would expect to see an enhanced role for defending
particular facilities and institutions in this country, if we
judge that there is a continuing and direct threat, a proximate
threat, to the United Kingdom. Equally, I, as Secretary of State
for Defence, want to ensure that with the skills that we have
developed and the equipment hat we use in the armed forces, they
are used to maximum effect. That is more likely to be to maximum
effect beyond the shores of the United Kingdom, and therefore
that is why I raised the question of whether there is an enhanced
role that we can develop for the reserves in providing this first,
something that we want to look at and something that we want to
consider very carefully.
298. So you are inviting us to look at reserves
again, Secretary of State, are you?
(Mr Hoon) I see no reason why you should not. Far
be it from me to suggest what you should or you should not look
at, but I think that there may well be a role for them. I have
lived in the United States and I have seen the way in which reserves
are organised and used there. I think that in recent times, since
11 September, they have performed a magnificent role in reassuring
the American public. It may well be that that is something that
we might judge to be necessary.
299. Mr Webb raised this the last time he came
before us. I do get a bit concerned about this stiff upper lip
approach you have every year that somehow if we have the resolve
and do the right thing, things will come right. It does not instil
a lot of confidence in me, I have to say. Picking up something
the Secretary of State said in a response to Mr Hancock about
these being vague hypotheses, would we, for example, get involved
in an action in Chechnya, Somalia, Iraq, if there was a threat
coming from there directly for the United Kingdom? That is obviously
what I tried to ask you in the Commons the other day, which you
sidestepped rather nicely and no doubt you will do so again today.
Could you see a situation where, if we saw a perceived threat,
for example, in Chechnya, we would get involved in responding
to that threat?
(Mr Hoon) I would put it another way to you. If there
was a direct threat to the citizens of the United Kingdom from
any country in the world, you would expect me to deal with that,
and if I did not deal with it in protecting the citizens of the
United Kingdom I would not be doing my job properly.