Terrorism is Less of an Existential Threat than Russia and China

Shifting priorities: MI5 Director General Ken McCallum and FBI Director Christopher Wray at a joint press conference on 6 July 2022. Image: PA / Alamy

MI5 Director General Ken McCallum’s joint address with the FBI Chief on 6 July saw a welcome rebalancing of the security service’s focus towards nation-state threats. Counterterrorism is an important function, but it was allowed to dominate for two decades while Russia, China and other belligerent states were insufficiently monitored.

The 9/11 attack was so huge that it blew Western foreign policy off course for two decades. 9/11’s impact derived not only from the large number of deaths (almost 10 times the next largest terrorist incident), but also from the fact that it was viewed as a new form of particularly dangerous Islamist terrorism. The extraordinary television footage, both enthralling and horrifying, together with the iconic targets, produced a vision of terror in a league of its own.

Until 9/11, the world had always regarded terrorism in a similar manner to crime or poverty: as something we would wish to eradicate, but might have to endure and manage forever. In fact, the main factors which distinguish terrorism from crime are the political motive, the intention to kill and maim, and – often – the covert hand of foreign countries behind the terrorists. That is why security services around the world take the lead on counterterrorism (CT), with police forces in support.

We tend to forget that spectacular terrorist attacks did not begin with 9/11. In fact, before 2001, there were two extraordinary decades from the early 1970s onwards which saw several major attacks each year. For example, the blowing up in September 1970 of four airliners in Jordan by Palestinian terrorists; the kidnapping in December 1975 of 60 officials at an OPEC conference in Vienna by Carlos the Jackal; and the downing of an Air India Boeing 747 in the mid-Atlantic in June 1985 by Sikh extremists, killing 329.

Some of the most high-profile attacks were carried out by the Abu Nidhal Organisation (ANO) and other Palestinian groups. There were also Sikh and Latin American organisations, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), the German Baader–Meinhof gang, and the Japanese Red Army. Attacks in the 1970s and 80s received front-page and prime-time coverage, but only for a few days each. The exception was the downing of a Pan Am aircraft over Lockerbie in December 1988, which broke through an invisible barrier to become a repeated news item for several years.

Behind these organisations we occasionally caught glimpses of nation states. In many cases it was Iran, Syria or Libya, but there were other less visible actors. The French deal with the ANO (revealed in 2019) was particularly cynical, but there was also Irish-American (NORAID) assistance to the PIRA, and all those other countries that paid ransoms for the release of their citizens. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the extent of East Germany’s systematic involvement in anti-Western terrorism was laid bare.

Allies in Southeast Asia repeatedly warned Western counterparts of the dangers of ignoring the rise of China and of focusing too heavily on counterterrorism

Occasionally there would be successes for security services. In the UK alone, there were operations which exposed Libyan arming of the PIRA, and the meticulous work which attributed the Lockerbie bombing to Libya. However, at the time, CT work was always secondary to operations against nation-state threats – primarily the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. In 1970, 105 Soviet intelligence officers were expelled from London, the fruit of thousands of hours of scrutiny, and from that moment onwards, a coordinated effort was maintained to expel Soviet bloc spies and thereby disrupt their operations.

It was the end of the Cold War in 1989/90 which ushered in the unipolar world of just one superpower. In April 2001, the Hainan Island incident involving a US spy plane off the Chinese coast raised a question mark about the potential future threat from a more assertive China, but a mere four months later, the 9/11 attack took place and China was all but forgotten.

Allies in Southeast Asia would repeatedly warn Western counterparts of the dangers of ignoring the rise of China and of focusing too heavily on CT in general, and Iraq and Afghanistan in particular – but to no avail. Understandably, the destruction of Al-Qa’ida and the capture of its leader, Osama Bin Laden, became a US strategic objective involving massive intelligence resources. Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama both put pressure on their agencies to prevent any future attacks on US soil. When 30 British tourists were killed at a Tunisian beach resort, Prime Minister David Cameron described terrorism as ‘an existential threat’.

For some countries with weak governments, such as Somalia and Mali, terrorism can indeed be existential. Terrorism can also be deeply corrosive to civil society. However, for Western democracies, the only circumstance in which terrorism could become an existential threat is if a group succeeded in obtaining weapons of mass destruction (WMD). There have been several moments of concern. The Japanese cult Aun Shinrikyo tried to use the nerve agent Sarin on the Tokyo subway in March 1995. Al-Qa’ida tried several times to obtain WMD. There have long been concerns that the collapse of a country such as Pakistan or North Korea could result in terrorists getting their hands on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.

The alteration of the planning for 9/11 after the British first got wind of the plot turned a conventional hijacking of an airliner to obtain the release of a prisoner into a novel concept which used fully fuelled aircraft as flying bombs. In essence, 9/11 became a borderline case between conventional and WMD terrorism.

The precious resources of security services need to be focused on the most strategic threats, which threaten not only our way of life, but our very existence

For this reason, CT will remain a major concern of security services around the world. Furthermore, for as long as nation states continue to support terrorist organisations, we will need to devote the energies of our intelligence services to discovering the plans of terrorist groups and their sponsors.

However, the statistics show that terrorism is a small threat compared to crime and disease, even in the UK, which has been one of the hardest hit countries. Between 1970 and 2019, the UK lost a total of 3,416 lives to terrorism, but 84% of those were linked to Northern Ireland and 271 to the Lockerbie incident. Between 2005 and 2022, 93 people have died from terrorism, an average of under 6 per annum. This compares to 695 homicides in 2020, about 1,500 deaths each year from traffic accidents, and some 25,000 from influenza and pneumonia.

The terrorism figures are low partly because of the successes of MI5. Operation Overt in 2006 alone prevented up to 10 passenger aircraft being destroyed in the mid-Atlantic. At the same time, the international (particularly US) successes against Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qa’ida have reduced the ability of those organisations to mount large-scale attacks in the West.

Increasingly, CT has become focused on the ‘Lone Wolf’ phenomenon – often young men who become radicalised online and are persuaded to build a basic bomb or just take a knife from the kitchen drawer. For security services to address this threat entails a disproportionate use of their limited resources. Dealing with this threat needs to involve mental health provision, social services, education authorities and the police.

One result of the years since 9/11 is that security services have shouldered too much of the CT burden. Sometimes they have been lured by the temptation to bid for generous CT funding, while the caring services have remained uncomfortable playing a CT role. However, the Lone Wolf phenomenon (whether Islamist or right-wing) should be addressed as a ‘whole of government’ effort as envisaged in the original UK CONTEST plan. The precious resources of security services need to be focused on the most strategic threats, which threaten not only our way of life, but our very existence.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG

Senior Associate Fellow

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