10 January 2003 - 12 January 2003

Terrorism: national and international responses

Chair: Sir Stephen Lander

Over a sunny but cold weekend at the beginning of January we met at Ditchley to discuss the national and international responses to terrorism. We had the fullest participants list of any conference for many years. This allowed us to draw on experience from a wide variety of agencies and organisations from a number of countries engaged in this field. At various points in the conference the view was expressed that we were engaged in the defining struggle of our generation. Our conclusions were at times sobering but realistic. We looked at the problem from the points of view of definitions and priorities, responses and future threats.

We asked ourselves whether it was more important to be able to define terrorism or to fight it. Domestically we agreed that we needed a definition - as in the British Terrorism Act 2000 - to enable our law enforcement agencies to work. Internationally we thought an agreed definition to which all, including Muslim states, could subscribe, would be desirable. However, we recognised the difficulty of achieving this and noted that UNSCR 1373 was restricted to defining the methods used by terrorists. In a discussion about their motives we concluded that the ends did not justify the means, a point we returned to in relation to other issues at the conferences.

We asked ourselves whether the expression "war on terrorism" was a useful description of the operation in which we were engaged. One conclusion was that although, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and during the war in Afghanistan, it might have been a useful rallying cry, it had now outlived its use. Rhetorical wars had been declared on drugs and poverty and they were still being fought. There was equally unlikely to be any finality in a war on terrorism. It also tended to emphasise the role of the military at the expense of intelligence, information and diplomatic operations. This discussion threw up the question of who was the enemy. Were we fighting Al Qu'eda specifically or terrorism in general. The view was expressed firmly that we were not engaged in a war on Islam. Some thought that our common enemy was Al Qu'eda with other terrorist groups of more national or regional significance.

We tried to analyse Al Qu'eda and discussed its aims. At heart we thought Al Qu'eda stood for radical Islam. It had a loose network of activists and supporters and operated at many levels from strategic planning to the opportunistic as Bali and Mombassa tended to show. We sought to define Al Qu'eda's objectives and asked ourselves whether they were the elimination of US presence and influence in the Middle East or went wider to a general rejection of western values. A number of us subscribed to this wider definition. We were told that Al Qu'eda were not irrational. They were concerned above all with opinion in the Muslim world and took into consideration the effect of their attacks on western targets on such opinion. Mass casualties could be counterproductive. Israel appeared in a special category with no limit on the damage or casualties which could be inflicted. The view was expressed, however, that Al Qu'eda did not appear to be overly concerned about killing innocent people. They were actively seeking the means to inflict such casualties. We thought that Al Qu'eda did not really understand the West. They had probably underestimated the strength of the reaction to their attacks at 9/11. We also tried to define what we meant by "success" in our engagement with Al Qu'eda. It was suggested that this could be people living without fear (or, put differently, to reduce the threat of International Terrorism so that our people can go about their business freely and confidently) with the appeal of Al Qu'eda broken globally.

In thinking about our responses we discussed the problem of when, and in what detail, Governments should issue threat alerts. Agencies were faced with the dilemma of informing the public whenever they had intelligence of a possible attack in case they should be blamed for not doing so should an attack occur, or public apathy if too many warnings were issued and nothing happened, "crying wolf". Once warning states were raised they were hard to bring down. The suggestion was made that alerts should be issued only when the public was able to take some concrete action. This should be combined with an attempt at public education about the nature of terrorism and of warnings which, suggested one participant, might be more about the general implications of the threat facing the public than about the specific circumstances of a particular operation. There had to be an element of realism in the public mind that attacks would take place. In considering the balance between revealing intelligence sources and alerting the public, there appeared to be no doubt in the minds of the practitioners that public safety would take precedence over intelligence protection.

We discussed in some detail the role of the media. It was likely that the media would be ahead of Governments in reporting particular incidents and public reaction to them. The words used were important. To describe every attack as the work of "terrorists" could be counter-productive. "The public" was, in any case, not homogenous. Domestic Muslim audiences could easily be alienated by general labels being applied to those thought to be responsible. The recent incident involving the discovery of ricin in a flat in London had been instructive. Describing those arrested as having "North African origin" and the warnings as intended to "alert not alarm" had helped to achieve a balanced reaction. The same had been true of a recent incident involving illegal immigrants into the USA from Canada. The US authorities had been careful not to refer to them as terrorists. There was, however, a recognition in both the USA and UK that more thought needed to be given to the way in which intelligence information could be translated into effective public action. Ideally, there should be a "golden thread" which linked intelligence, police and public understanding into a coherent approach.

Some thought was given to policies which might help to lessen the attraction of Islamic fundamentalism which seemed to be engaged in a struggle with western values. We were told that Sunni Muslims were, by and large, not activists. They were not good at ridding their societies of terrorists. They feared a war within Islam which could result in its destruction. One participant remarked that the cry of "Islam in danger" was particularly effective in rallying support for hard line activists among Muslim communities, not least in India. A range of recommendations were made. The West should be more vigorous in putting its case for freedom and open markets. Substantive political issues such as Kashmir, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Guantanamo, Iraq etc should be openly addressed to show that the West did not apply double standards. "Hearts and minds" policies were also discussed. While the difficulties were clear, suggestions were made to address Muslim communities in the West and to tackle some of their difficulties. "Home grown" Imams who understood their host societies better than those who came unprepared from the countries of origin, would be desirable. However difficult, attempts should be made to involve more citizens of Muslim states in domestic politics. We should seek to de-legitimise Al Qu'eda. All terrorist acts should be dealt with as crimes and the criminals tried in court. We acknowledged, however, that prison sentences were not an effective deterrent for people who were willing to die and whose main concern was not to fail in their mission.

We gave some thought to the legal means at our disposal to deal with terrorism. A US participant thought that there was a gap between normal criminal process in a court and war. Currently the US judicial system was unable to deal with terrorists in detention. We needed to think about some other sort of tribunal, possibly international, before which terrorists could be brought. The admissibility and validity of intelligence in court proceedings also raised difficult issues which could be helped by the use of cleared advocates. This led into the wider question of how far western societies would be willing to restrict their civil liberties in the interests of public safety. Some thought that domestic law could adjust to take account of changed circumstances. International treaties were more difficult. Others cautioned against the mind-set which saw human rights as "getting in the way". Western societies should remain true to their values. One participant thought that if this should turn out a long term struggle then it was likely that civil liberties would be eroded on a long term basis. Another suggested that there was no guarantee, should there be another large scale attack in the USA, that the reaction would remain wholly within the bounds of existing practice. In this connection, we looked at the question of pre-emption. It was suggested that it was inconceivable that the authorities would not take pre-emptive action if public safety was at stake and reliable intelligence to hand. Others added that any action should be within existing laws. Reference was, however, made to the lack of domestic and international reaction to the missile attack on suspected Al Qu'eda terrorists in Yemen.

When we looked at future threats there was a general consensus that Nuclear, Chemical, Biological and Radiological weapons posed the greatest danger. The acquisition of nuclear capabilities would give rise to the greatest problems for Al Qu'eda and, in the view of some, probably required facilities in a failed or possibly rogue state, unless they were acquired in complete form from a nuclear weapons state. The use of CBR weapons was thought to be more probable and, given the effect of the limited anthrax attack in the USA, some found it surprising that no further attacks of that sort had yet been made. We agreed that resources should be focussed on the detection and prevention of CW/BW threats above that of bombings, aircraft highjacking or control of money transfers. Given the relatively limitless nature of the task of hardening our defences it was argued that investment in pre-emptive intelligence would bring a better return. In many continental European countries, however, the sense of threat was lower than in the USA and UK and the political will correspondingly weaker in terms of increasing their intelligence capabilities. Others maintained that the EU record in implementing a list of anti-terrorist measures following 9/11 showed an enhanced awareness of the common threat and of mutual interdependence.

In considering the use of WMD we were advised that they should be seen as "Weapons of Mass Disruption" rather than destruction. Mass destruction required sophisticated dispersal techniques. It was more likely that Al Qu'eda would go for major symbolic targets like the New York Stock Exchange or the US Congress. We looked at Al Qu'eda involvement in organised international crime and thought that it was more at the level of routine crime to finance individual operations. We noted that, notwithstanding, considerable IT and communications abilities of its own, Al Qu'eda had so far shown little interest in operations against such targets.

We looked at increased international cooperation following 9/11. This included international police cooperation which was an essential component in our overall response and the question was posed as to whether countries had a wider responsibility to inform others about the passage of someone with a terrorist record into their territory. In the same way as police cooperation had increased so had the exchange of intelligence. But, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many reports had proved to be valueless and clogged up the system. Good intelligence was what was required.

Throughout the conference the issue of short and long term responses to Al Qu'eda came up. There was criticism of political unwillingness to take more seriously intelligence warnings in recent years. The USA was alleged to still be thinking tactically about the problem when a longer term strategy was required. While some thought that Al Qu'eda activity might be more like a wave which would soon break because it could not maintain the intensity of its fanaticism, others thought it could be a symptom of a long-term trend which might be developed by other groups. Since Al Qu'eda operated on a long term strategy we should do so too. We were given an indication of some strategic planning underway in the UK including offensive operations against Al Qu'eda, making the UK a harder target, attempts to change the climate of international opinion etc.

At the end of our discussions we looked for some general conclusions. There appeared to be agreement that a further serious attack, possibly involving WMD, would take place. Al Qu'eda was seeking the means and had the intention. We needed to engage in "hearts and minds" operations. Although mainstream Islam appeared unwilling to challenge the terrorists, indeed conspiracy theories about 9/11 were rife in the Muslim world, there were, however, examples of successful attempts to build bridges with young Muslims. We were engaged in a defining struggle in which much had been achieved in the past eighteen months. Many terrorists had been arrested. It had, however, taken more than eighteen months at the start of the Cold War to elaborate a strategic plan. We should therefore not lose heart in the work that was underway in this field. A strategic plan was essential since the terrorists aims appeared non-negotiable. Our enemies had a complex motivation. It was difficult to enter into their minds (particularly so, given that most people in the West no longer understood religion). They were, however, dangerous fanatics who were competent at operations. They posed, in specific form, one of the great challenges of the 21st Century - how to deal with fanaticism armed with power. Such people were patient but opportunistic. They were relatively unstructured. The operation against the Taliban had been successful and had bought us some time, for example on CBRN. We were, however, now in a more difficult phase with a more diffuse enemy who was harder to identify and locate. For preventive purposes the unit of account was the individual (who could do great damage). Issues like identity theft would become more important. Intelligence exchanges had increased and resources should do so too. We needed to do some consequence planning to prepare for the worst. We had to "drain the swamp" by hearts and minds programmes and in ways that did not undermine our liberal/humanitarian values. We needed to find ways of warning/alerting our citizens using our intelligence to best effect. A well-informed public would be a more resilient and robust one. We needed a longer term strategy which would, inter alia, encompass investment in intelligence, developing the law to facilitate intelligence collection and legal cooperation, raising standards of security etc.

This is clearly an issue to which we should return in a subsequent Ditchley conference to see how far our worst fears may have been realised and how effective we may have been at both the tactical and strategic level in responding to this challenge. I am grateful to the many senior participants for giving their time and expertise to make this such a useful and policy oriented conference. My thanks also go to the Chairman for drawing on his own deep experience of this subject to steer our discussions towards the key issues.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: Sir Stephen Lander
Director General, The Security Service (retired)

Mr Terry Cormier
Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade: Director, International Crime and Terrorism Division (1999-)

Dr Peter Jones
Policy Advisor (Foreign Intelligence), Security and Intelligence Secretariat, Privy Council office (2001-)
The Hon Robert K Rae PC OC QC
Partner, Goodmans LLP, Toronto; former Premier of Ontario and former member, Security and Intelligence Review Committee; a Director, Canadian Ditchley Foundation

Mr Lars Findsen

Deputy Commissioner of Police and Head of the National Security Service

Mr M K Narayanan

Member, Government Counter-Terrorist Task Force; formerly: Director, Intelligence Bureau (1987-92); Chairman, Government Joint Intelligence Committee and Secretary, National Security Council

Ambassador Antoinio Armellini

International Anti-Terrorism Coordinator, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi
Leone Ginzburg Senior Research Fellow in Israel Studies, St Antony's Middle East Centre and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Oxford University (1998-)

Mr Sybrand Van Hulst

Head, Netherlands Security and Intelligence Service

Mr Mark Allen CMG

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Professor Christopher Andrew
University of Cambridge: Professor of Modern and Contemporary History (1993-); Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (1967-)
Mr Stephen Boys Smith
Director General, Organised Crime, Drugs and International Group, Home Office

Mr Alistair Corbett
Clerk to the Intelligence and Security Committee, House of Commons

Mr Peter David
The Economist: Foreign Editor, formerly Political Editor

The Rt Hon John Denham MP
Member of Parliament (Labour) for Southampton Itchen; Minister of State for the Home Office

Mr John Dodds
Head of Defence, Diplomacy and Intelligence, HM Treasury

Mr Nik Gowing
Main presenter/anchor, BBC World (1996-); Executive Committee and Council, RIIA; Advisory Board, Centre for Studies in Security and Diplomacy, University of Birmingham; a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation

Mr Michael Hedges QPM
Chief Constable, South Yorkshire Police; Chair, ACPO Terrorism Committee

Mr Denis Keefe
Head, Counter Terrorism Strategy Team, Cabinet Office (2202-)
Mr Hugh Kernohan
Ministry of Defence, SDR New Chapter Implementation Team Leader, Head Designate, Home Secretariat, MoD

Professor Ian Leigh
Co-Director, Durham Human Rights Centre, Department of Law, University of Durham

Professor Laurence Lustgarten
Professor of Law, University of Southampton

Mr Rob Macaire
Head, Counter Terrorism Policy Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Sir Colin McColl KCMG

HM Diplomatic Service (retired); Head of MI6 (1988-94) Dr Magnus Ranstorp
Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, St Andrews University

Sir Francis Richards KCMG CVO
Director, GCHQ (1998-)
Professor Paul Rogers
Professor of Peace Studies, Bradford University (1992-)
Mr John Scarlett CMG OBE
Chair, J I C, Cabinet Office

The Rt Hon Ann Taylor MP
Member of Parliament (Dewsbury); Chair, House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee; Leader of the House (1997-98); Government Chief Whip (1998-2001)
Mr David C Veness CBE QPM
Assistant Commissioner, Specialist Operations, Metropolitan Police

Mr John Weston CBE
Chairman, Spirent plc (2002-); formerly: Chairman and Managing Director, British Aerospace Defence Ltd (1992-99); Chief Executive, BAE SYSTEMS (1999-2002); a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation

Mr Bob Whalley
Head, Terrorism and Protection Unit, Home Office

Mr Fraser Wilson
Mr Stephen Wright CMG
Director General for Defence and Intelligence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2000-2002)

Mr Pasquale J D'Amuro

FBI Executive Assistant Director for Counterterrorism & Counterintelligence

The Hon Chuck DeWitt
Co-owner, Lafayette Group, Inc, Washington (1993-); Director, National Institute of Justice (1990-93); member, Advisory Council, The American Ditchley Foundation

The Hon Marvin J Garbis
United States District Judge; author

Professor Bernard Haykel
Assistant Professor, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, New York University

Ambassador John L Hirsch
International Peace Academy: Senior Fellow (2002-) (Vice President 1998-2002); Adjunct Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs, Occidental College, New York

Dr Bruce Hoffman
Vice President for External Relations, RAND

Ms Pattie Kindsvater

Director, Office of Terrorism Analysis CIA Dr John A Kringen Chief, Policy Analysis and Support Staff, US Embassy

The Hon Ronald K Noble
Secretary-General, Interpol

Mr Timothy Sample
Staff Director, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

Mr Steven Simon
Assistant Director and Senior Fellow for US Security Studies, International Institute for Strategic Studies