Counter-terrorism and national security

The National Security Strategy re-emphasises the importance of the Prevent strand of the Government’s existing counter-terrorism strategy and describes the importance of the role of wider society in aiding effort across the ‘four Ps’.

By Garry Hindle
Head of Security and Counter-terrorism, Homeland Security and Resilience Department

19 March 2008 - The present fashion in approaching security is clearly holistic and the UK Government’s National Security Strategy follows this dutifully. The benefits of such an approach are evident in the complex challenges the UK currently faces: the inter-related threats from Iraq, Afghanistan, WMD proliferation and from transnational organised crime and terrorism at home and abroad. The strategy even, and rightly, observes the ‘unhelpfulness’ of the distinction between foreign and domestic policy agendas in some cases, leaving some of us concerned about the scale of future departmental restructuring.

The National Security Strategy (NSS) is a statement – in many areas a re-statement – of the UK’s foreign and domestic security policy agenda. Guardedly observing failures in Iraq, and outlining an ambition to expand engagement internationally, it expounds a qualified but nevertheless enlightened approach to addressing security threats. As described in the NSS, this effort is to be undertaken through an increased emphasis on strengthening multi-lateral institutions and bilateral relationships but also by strengthening the intelligence services and not eschewing the use of military force. It is, then, a largely common-sense framing of the multifarious threats facing the UK and which outlines (largely for public consumption) current activities.

UK Terrorism

Aside from its assertion that terrorists in the United Kingdom have very little domestic support – which lacks qualification and is inconsistent with repeated observations regarding the significant scale of the threat faced – the strategy has useful things to say about the direction of UK counter-terrorism policy. In particular, it re-emphasises the importance of the Prevent strand of the counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) published in 2006. The summary of activity and objectives in the strategy describe developments in the policy thinking presented in CONTEST. It also, more explicitly than CONTEST, describes the importance of the role for wider society in aiding the effort across the ‘four Ps’. This is a key part of the Government’s current approach to tackling terrorism. From posters encouraging those suspecting terrorist activity to report it (Protect) to increased budgets for community level engagement and education programmes (Prevent), the focus on the individual in this sense is clear and welcome.

Human security

In a related vein, Lord West has enthusiastically described the strategy as focusing on the protection of the individual. By this he appears to be referring to the focus on threats from non-state actors. For example, the attention paid to organised crime, terrorism and climate change are presented as notions that would not have registered on the national security agenda of twenty years ago. This is certainly true, but what does it mean and what does it imply? In fact, this focus on the individual is a luxury, a temporal benefit of the post-Cold War period that could rapidly expire. This fragility should be a core reason for the attention paid to maintaining and strengthening multilateral institutions and providing civil support in post-conflict situations. Without strong multilateral institutions, future climate change/energy security/terrorism-linked tensions between WMD-armed states could swiftly remove the luxury of protecting the individual. Addressing current security problems through multilateral approaches and preventative initiatives that focus on mitigating conflict and reducing inequality will provide mechanisms to insure against a return to the security notions of twenty years ago.

The National Security Strategy is neither revolutionary nor particularly detailed but expectations to the contrary were unfounded. The primary purpose of the document is to describe an approach to national security that is no longer focused on state-based strategic threats and to elucidate on the transnational dimensions of domestic security threats. In essence, therefore, it describes an approach within which the more specific plans of particular departments and organisations will work.



The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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