Home Secretary Jacqui Smith Speaks on the Threat of International Terrorism


I want the revised CONTEST strategy to be debated and discussed as widely as possible – and achieving that will be one of the marks of its success. Many of you here today will be very familiar with the history of international terrorism as it has affected Britain and British interests overseas. It is worth reflecting briefly on that history. I think of it as having two, perhaps three, very different phases. Phase One lasted from the seventies until the late eighties – and was defined by terrorist attacks committed by groups closely and directly associated with the Palestinian cause, or by groups which enjoyed a degree of state sponsorship, or by both.

It is easy now to forget that in this period British nationals were kidnapped and murdered by terrorists overseas; that attacks took place here, often against Jewish and Israeli targets; and that airlines were hijacked and destroyed. Remember Pan Am 103, twenty years ago next month [December 21, 1988]. Phase Two began almost when Phase One finished, at the end of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. This led, rather directly, to both the creation of Al Qaeda and to the development of an Al Qaeda worldview.

The threat we face now comes, of course, not only from Al Qaeda and from its so called ‘franchises’ around the world. It also comes from other terrorist organisations, of many nationalities and ethnicities, that often sympathise with parts of the Al Qaeda narrative and which very often count among their number those who fought the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. There is a great deal more to be said about these two phases – and we will reflect on these in more detail when we release the new CONTEST strategy. But for the purposes of this morning, I’d like to make a few quite obvious points.

The Phase One terrorism I’ve described had a clearly focused objective. It was specific to one area of the world, and attacks in the UK were often conducted by groups coming into the country from outside. These groups certainly made little or no attempt to recruit British citizens or people who live here – and nor did they appeal directly for their support. They did not develop a substantive public narrative to justify acts of terror and they rarely invoked religious language and terminology. They had little opportunity to disseminate their message widely. State sponsorship often acted as much as a constraint as a facilitator.

Today we talk about the current threat level in this country as sustained, and severe. That is indeed the case – the threat has been described as being “at the severe end of severe” – but that does not necessarily relay the significance of the changes we have seen since Phase One.  The international threat we face from terrorism today is wholly different in type, as well as extent, from the threat we faced twenty years ago. It is a wholly new form of terrorism – so different in motivation, complexity and reach, in fact, that it might as well have a different name. The focus of those who threaten us today is not a cause related to a specific geographical area. They wish to kill British people – and of course others – anywhere in the world. They want a reordering of global political structures and a separation of faith groups.

This new terrorism actively seeks to recruit people in this country and to subvert our institutions. It has a detailed public narrative that claims to justify the killing of civilians. But it has more than this – it also has the electronic means to disseminate that narrative very quickly and very widely. And new terrorism has access to other technologies and training that Phase One terrorism never had.  ‘Old’ groups did not seek weapons of mass destruction. Extended networks; a detailed ideology that draws on the language of religion; the exploitation of new technology; the synthesis of subversion and terrorism – all these factors combine to create the new threat we face.

In a country like our own – where law enforcement and intelligence agencies have managed to disrupt attacks and attempted attacks – it is sometimes hard to explain the scale and urgency of the threat we face. But no-one should take the absence of attack to mean the absence of threat – nor, indeed, to mean the absence of success in countering that threat. Consider, for example, the number of convictions for terrorist offences since the beginning of last year. 81 people found guilty in 33 major cases. And overall nearly half of those individuals, 40 of the 81, pleaded guilty to the charges brought against them.

This is a very significant increase on previous years and decades. And it shows, very clearly, why those who argue that the Government exaggerates the scale of the terrorist threat are wrong. The threat we face is severe, and it is different in character from what has gone before. In responding to this threat and taking action to counter it, it follows from what I have said that it is clearly not enough to conduct counter terrorism as we did before. Parallels with old counter terrorist campaigns are of limited relevance to the situation we find ourselves in now.

Phase One and Phase Two terrorism are very different, and our response has to be very different too. So we need to continue to evolve our CONTEST strategy to build on the successes we have had and to ready ourselves for new challenges. Core to that has been setting up the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism in the Home Office to develop and implement CONTEST, to coordinate effort across Government and internationally, and to ensure that we are achieving the impact we want.

Secondly, we have provided more resources to do this, significantly increasing numbers in both the police and the Security Service. And they have also, importantly, changed the way they work – both together and separately. We have established four regional counter-terrorism policing hubs, in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. And we are about to add a fifth on the M4 corridor. These units extend our reach, connect very clearly to the wider capabilities of our police forces across the country, and are guided by a national command structure. And they are tasked not only to investigate conspiracies and terrorist operations but to understand radicalisation and radicalisers and to tackle them effectively. This is what we call the Prevent part of our counter terrorist strategy.

In that context we also now look to many other departments to provide assistance. Phase Two terrorism (unlike its forebears) seeks to recruit people in this country and to subvert some of our institutions. To deal with that threat needs a much wider alliance of stakeholder departments and organisations than have ever been involved in counter terrorist work before.

You will have read last week about the excellent work of the Department for Children Schools and Families in providing advice to teachers on how to deal with signs of radicalisation. John Denham’s department has been working with student bodies and higher and further education to do something rather similar. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is considering what impact the issue of counter radicalization should have on their programmers – as are the Department for Work and Pensions; and the Department of Health.  We are working very closely with the Ministry of Justice to manage the problem of radicalization in prisons. I now hold a weekly security meeting with senior representatives from each of these departments and others across Whitehall to discuss their work and the current threat with the police and the security and intelligence agencies.

Third, we of course need to be working with and through communities, in particular but not only Muslim communities, and through local and regional government. Hazel Blears and I are working closely on delivering the Preventing Violent Extremism plan  – but I think we would both accept that the work of government departments has its limits. To be effective, it is communities – and the organizations and institutions that represent them – which need to take the lead, and who have done so. We also need to be working with industry. We are world leaders in security and defense technologies and we have on our doorstep great expertise and creativity, prepared to help us solve some of the problems we face. We do not want to forgo that opportunity. We have worked hard to develop new forms of engagement and new mechanisms for sharing problems, ideas and solutions. Much is now in place that would have been unrecognizable a few years ago, and the National Security Strategy reaffirmed our determination to go further, with the National Security Forum starting work later this year.

Underpinning all of these efforts – renewing CONTEST, investing in police and agency resources, working across government and engaging with community and business stakeholders – there is a common principle which is reflected in much of what I want to do and want others to do. That is the principle of openness. By its very nature, much of our counter terrorist activity has to be secret. But we need to cut that secrecy to the minimum and share as much as we can our understanding of the threat and our thinking about how to respond to it. We need to be genuinely collaborative in our response. We want to be as close to our communities, to our industrial partners and to our colleagues across Government as we can be. And so I want to see us become much more open in communicating with the public and in engaging with our partners – so that those we are charged to protect against terrorism understand the scale and nature of the threat and what we are doing to counter it, and so that those we work alongside and need by our side can have confidence in our efforts to prevent violent extremism.

And in that spirit of openness and accountability, people are right to question us closely on the difference that is being made. And I believe we have a ready answer. Our police and security services have used their new resources to repeatedly arrest and disrupt conspiracies in this country and overseas. We have stopped attacks. We have introduced a very large number of fully funded programmes to support our work to counter radicalisation. There are 74 such programmes in our plan for delivery, complemented by other work by our partners nationally and internationally.

These programs reach from the very local – for example a programme to build a community organisation or to  support vulnerable individuals in a London borough – to the international – a programme to develop a joint counter radicalisation programme  with the new Pakistani government and to share with them the lessons we are learning here.

We are looking much more closely at the financing not just of terror but of radicalisation itself.  And as I promised earlier this year, we have engaged closely with companies that supply filtering and parental control software to ensure that these products provide a high level of protection against material that promotes or encourages terrorism or violent extremism. We are working with community organisations in this area too. We have reassessed protective security across vital parts of our national infrastructure, systematically identifying weaknesses and areas which need more work and putting in place programmes to address them.

We have invested in a major new programme to reduce risks in what we call ‘crowded places’ – not just parts of the critical national infrastructure, as we define it, but the areas where we all live, work and play. We are rolling out further protective security programmes at our borders.  We are continuing work on major programmes to protect us against chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological threat which terrorist wish to use against us. We are measuring and tracking our progress in all these areas. We have set new and ambitious targets with and for our colleagues. We know what success is going to look like.  We are determined to achieve it.  

If all of this were easy and straightforward, it would not need some thousands of people to do it. I am well aware both of the sheer difficulty of some of the tasks we have set ourselves and of the policy complications that face us. Let me comment on two of these further in particular. I have spoken already here about the threat. It has changed and we have had to change with it. I’ve also spoken many times before about the difficulty of conducting counter terrorist investigations. These are not like other criminal investigations. They put a very high premium on pre-emptive intelligence because we are trying to stop a criminal act and not investigate one which has already taken place.

We have to arrest early rather than late to protect the public. Sometimes we arrest when we have intelligence, but not evidence. We then have to work across different jurisdictions in different countries, unearthing the evidence we need. We are not talking about France or Germany here. We are more likely to be talking about Iraq and Pakistan. And experts, people who actually do this work, have explained clearly to me that this process inevitably takes time. We should be clear that all this not ‘Government policy’ which is somehow optional. It is the very nature of the work we do.

It was against this background that we have tried to legislate for the reserve power that would have allowed the police and prosecutors to apply to a judge to enable them to continue an investigation of a terrorist suspect – in the most difficult, most complex and most challenging of circumstances. In order to cover off the risk from terrorism that undoubtedly exists, I will not leave Britain in a state of unreadiness to deal with this contingency if and when the need arises. As I set out on Monday night following the House of Lords vote on the Counter-Terrorism Bill, I have prepared a new Bill to enable the police and prosecutors to do their work – should the worst happen, should a terrorist plot overtake us and threaten our current investigatory capabilities. I want to come on finally to talk about another aspect of our programme which is quite rightly of great interest.

Our ability to intercept communications and obtain communications data is vital to fighting terrorism and combating serious crime, including child sex abuse, murder and drugs trafficking. Communications data – that is, data about calls, such as the location and identity of the caller, not the content of the calls themselves – is used as important evidence in 95% of serious crime cases and in almost all Security Service operations since 2004. But the communications revolution has been rapid in this country and the way in which we intercept communications and collect communications data needs to change too. If it does not we will lose this vital capability that we currently have and that we all take for granted. [For example, in the Soham murders and 21/7 convictions.]

All this is a reflection of the technological and behavioural changes that the growth of the internet brings. Once again, that is not a Government policy which is somehow optional. It is a reality to which Government needs to respond. The changes we need to make may require legislation. The safeguards we will want to put in place certainly will. And we may need legislation to test what a solution will look like.

But before proceeding to legislation, I am clear that we need to consult widely with the public and all interested parties to set out the emerging problem, the important capability gaps that we need to address and to look at the possible solutions.  We also need to agree what safeguards will be needed, in addition to the many we have in place already, to provide a solid legal framework which protects civil liberties.

This consultation will begin in the New Year and I want this to be combined with a well-informed debate characterised by openness, rather than mere opinion, by reason and reasonableness.  In this, as in the other work we do, my aim is to achieve a consensus and I hope that others will approach the serious issues posed for our national security capabilities in the same spirit. So let me set the terms for that open and reasoned debate now, and be clear on what we are not going to do.

There are no plans for an enormous database which will contain the content of your emails, the texts that you send or the chats you have on the phone or online.  Nor are we going to give local authorities the power to trawl through such a database in the interest of investigating lower level criminality under the spurious cover of counter terrorist legislation. Local authorities do not have the power to listen to your calls now and they never will in future. You would rightly object to proposals of this kind and I would not consider them. What we will be proposing will be options which follow the key principles which govern all our work in this area – the principles of proportionality and necessity.

Terrorism has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. We have no option other than to respond if we are to remain constant and true in our defence of British liberties and British security. We rely not only on our police and law enforcement but on all parts of Government, on our communities, on international partners and on industry. We rely on the law and we need to be sure that the law evolves as the threat changes in a way consistent with our rights and freedoms. We rely on technology to provide us with solutions.

But we also rely on organizations like your own, IPPR, to offer different perspectives, to challenge our strategy, and of course to provide us with a forum to explain our thinking. I am grateful for that opportunity here today.

Source:  British Embassy Newsletter