Terrorists Have to Be Lucky Once; Targets, Every Time


Nov 30, 2008

This commentary originally appeared on Daily News & Analysis, India - DNAIndia.com on November 30, 2008.

The 9/11 tragedy was a catalyst that accelerated the pace of the changes in the UK security model that were already occurring due to the waning threat of terrorism from the IRA and the growing threat from those who espoused an ideology of violent jihadism. The changes took place in three main areas.

First, within the security agencies and in particular the Security Service (also known as MI5), who have the responsibility for gathering and assessing intelligence relating to acts of terrorism within the UK. In the years since 9/11, the number of their staff has more than doubled to some 4000 and their operational reach has been extended and improved by the opening of new regional offices in parts of the UK other than London.

The UK's overseas intelligence gathering organisation, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), and the government signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, have also undergone a significant but less public re-focusing of their activities.

Second, within government itself, the mechanisms that exist to deal with terrorism and counter-terrorism have changed substantially. The most visible aspect of this was divesting the Home Office (which had traditionally been the lead government department in dealing with terrorism on the British mainland) of many of its other functions. A new Department of Justice was established to oversee its wider criminal justice system responsibilities, whilst the Department for Communities and Local Government now takes the lead on countering extremism and radicalisation.

Third, the police have also had to recalibrate the way in which they gather and exploit intelligence in conjunction with the Security Service. The latter, too, have needed to refocus their efforts into different areas of the UK, sometimes through local police forces with no or very little previous experience of the kind of operations now required.

The net result of these changes, plus many more that were made in the fields of immediate incident response and the investigation of terrorist offences whilst they were in their very earliest stages, has led to a more effective and efficient security model that is now very much geared to the main threat that it faces. As the threat has increased, both in terms of the number of individuals and groups/networks under investigation and the scope of their activities, the changes that have been made and continue to be made have contributed to ensuring that there have been no serious casualties from a terrorist attack on the British mainland since the London suicide bombers killed 52 people and injured many more on July 7, 2005.

However, the lack of casualties is not due to a lack of attempts from the terrorists to carry out attacks. If certain aspects of the explosives carried by the failed suicide attackers on July 21, 2005 had been different or the two car bombs left in central London on June 29, 2007 had functioned as they were intended to, and indeed, if the burning vehicle with its load of gas cylinders had penetrated deep into the Glasgow airport on June 30 2004, then the story would be a different one. In the aftermath of the IRA attempt in 1984 to kill the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher by planting a bomb in the hotel she was using in Brighton, the IRA released a statement. It ended with the words “You have to be lucky all the time. We only have to be lucky once.” The situation in Mumbai is different in so many ways, both in the scale, scope and method of attack and in the organisation, responsibilities and operational roles of the security agencies, police force and military.

However, what is clear in the UK, based on our experiences of terrorism from a variety of sources over the last forty years, is that success in counter terrorism stands or falls on the way that the main elements of those that are involved in it (the police, the security agencies and the military) all work together to cooperate, coordinate and control their activities. It must be a genuinely joint effort at all levels, from the strategic through the operational and into the tactical.

Lindsay Clutterbuck is a research leader on RAND Europe's Defence & Security team. RAND Europe is a not-for-profit research organisation.

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