Securing the UK Borders

The speech made by Gordon Brown on 14 November, in advance of the National Security Strategy which will be published in the next few weeks, sets out a strategy for preventing future terrorist attacks on the UK. Much of the new content of Brown’s speech pertained to Lord West’s review of physical security measures within the UK.  These included the introduction of barriers to keep potential vehicle borne bombs away from key areas and designing bomb-resistant features into new buildings.

The Government should  however be careful not to be drawn into purely technological methods that, while they are more visible and more easily understood by the public, are far less efficient than more complex, longer-term planning that will ultimately be far more important to the safety and security of the UK.  

While it is important to stop terrorists from carrying out an attack, it is far more important to stop them from becoming terrorists in the first place. How to prevent both is addressed in Brown’s speech, and the public need to acknowledge, understand and appreciate this. The visible is easy, and will provide short-term comfort. The introduction of a new Border Agency will prevent terrorists from entering the UK. The increased security at train stations and other ‘sensitive locations’ within the UK offers another highly visible solution.

Both illustrate the Government’s commitment to detecting and preventing both those who have slipped into the UK undetected and home grown terrorists from carrying out attacks. However, the less-visible, less-immediate but more important counter-terrorism initiative is the campaign of dialogue and education that will ensure the hearts and minds of young Muslims are not won over by jihadist extremism in the first place.

The benefits of each of these three measures should determine not only the money that is spent on them but also the proportion of that money that comes from the security budget.

The visible plans provide short-term comfort to concerned citizens and show that the Government is ‘doing something’ but how effective are they really likely to be? The 25,000-strong Border Agency will, hopefully, be looking to do more than just prevent the entry into the UK of the nine foreign nationals who were deported last year on the grounds of national security. If they are also there to prevent more mundane border crime, why blame their creation on the threat of terrorism?

Brown described the agency as coming hand-in-hand with the introduction of biometric passports for foreign nationals from the end of 2008 (and eventually for all UK passport holders) and the e-borders programme. These initiatives will tighten border security with or without the addition of the Border Agency. The introduction of such technology has been driven less by any ‘threat’ from terrorism than by the simple development and evolution of the means to ensure the identity of the passport holder, which has always been the raison d’etre of passports and border controls.

Assuming (and it would appear that Brown is) that some terrorists will continue to slip through our border checks, or return to the UK after undergoing jihadist training overseas, once they are in country the security agencies within the UK need to have the means by which to detect and stop them. This brings us on to the second point within Brown’s speech: the tightening of security at 250 of the UK’s busiest rail stations, as well as 100 other sensitive locations, combined with 160 counter-terrorism advisors who will train civilian staff at such facilities, planners and architects who will ‘build-in’ terrorism resistant measures, and further work that will consider what might be done to prevent terrorists from gaining access to materials that could be used to make explosives.

The introduction of such far-reaching and extensive methods will come at a huge cost. Such methods would have done little to prevent the car bomb incidents of July, however, to which Brown referred at the beginning of his speech. The car that attempted to drive into Glasgow Airport was partially stopped by security measures already in place (and which worked sufficiently), while the car parked outside a nightclub in Haymarket is unlikely to have been stopped by anything other than the vigilance of the general public.

Increased security for all passengers at train stations and other facilities is more likely to be seen as an unnecessary and pointless inconvenience, a waste of the passsengers’ time and of the staff needed to implement the searches. If profiling enters into the equation – meaning that the searches target disproportionately large numbers of young Asian men and their luggage – the initiative threatens to anger and alienate the very sections of the UK population that the Government should be striving to keep on side. Again, such measures may help to stop other forms of crime, but its impact on the prevention of terrorism is likely to be negligible and far out of proportion with its cost and the bad feeling it may cause.

Which bring us to the most important, but unfortunately, less visible method of protection, the one which it will be hardest for the general public to understand: the community initiatives to ensure we keep hold of the ‘hearts and minds’ of young Asians who have been born and raised in the UK. To ensure they are given an identity and sense of belonging by their own society that is stronger and more robust than the fantasy offered to them by the jihadists is vital. There is little point in ensuring that terrorists cannot enter the UK if, through the internet, radical preaching and other jiihadist propaganda, we are raising our own within our borders.

A more welcome investment than the Border Agency or increased surveillance at train stations is the money that will be spent on training British Imams in British colleges, the increased investment in the English language and in encouraging interaction between Muslim groups and wider British society. All of this will reinforce the idea that being ‘British’ and ‘Muslim’ are not two separate identities but integrated facets of a larger whole. If and when this initiative succeeds in treating the cause rather than the symptoms of the terrorist disease, increased spending on border guards, bag checks and increased surveillance will no longer be necessary.

Jennifer Cole
Editor, Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor
November 16,2007

The views of the author are not meant to represent the views of RUSI.


Jennifer Cole

Associate Fellow

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