Recent Patterns of Terrorism Prevention in the United Kingdom

By Irons, Larry | Homeland Security Affairs, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Recent Patterns of Terrorism Prevention in the United Kingdom


Irons, Larry, Homeland Security Affairs


INTRODUCTION

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) was the basic internal security threat to the United Kingdom over the past 100 years. In particular, more than 3,600 people died during the "Troubles" (1969-1996). However, authorities no longer consider Irish paramilitary organizations the country's major terrorist threat. 1 The major terrorist challenge to the UK today comes from international terrorist groups affiliated with al Qaeda. Until recently, the nexus of the affiliation with al Qaeda was Pakistan and Afghanistan. Recent attacks suggest a nexus with Iraq as well. However, the emergence of a new threat such as al Qaeda does not mean that intelligence analysts' thinking, conditioned to meet one threat, e.g. PIRA, adjusts readily to the new threat. 2 The analysis here highlights this issue in the recent patterns of terrorism prevention in the UK.

Three agencies make up the national intelligence and security services in the UK, The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) ? the nation's external intelligence agency overseen by the foreign secretary; the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) ? which develops signals intelligence, also overseen by the foreign secretary; and the Security Service (MI5), which operates under the authority of the home secretary to conduct surveillance operations. Observers often refer to the three services as the Agencies. MI5 has no arrest powers of its own, meaning its effectiveness in preempting terrorist operations depends largely on collaboration with the Special Branch (SB) of local police forces', especially the Metropolitan Police Department's Special Branch (MPSB). 3

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks (9/11) in the United States, the government of the UK assumed the consensus opinion that the Agencies had failed to recognize the significance of al Qaeda. 4 As a result, MI5 established the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC). JTAC was hailed as "the most significant structural development within the intelligence community," pooling international terrorism intelligence in one central location "under the direction of one central authority, the director-general of MI5." 5

Islamic extremists either attempted attacks, or successfully attacked, the UK in the summers of 2005 and 2007. In addition to actual attacks, the Agencies disrupted numerous plots within the UK by terrorist groups over the past few years. The discussion below analyzes patterns in the prevention activities of the intelligence, security, and police services of the UK by examining three terrorist attacks, but principally the most devastating one on July 7, 2005 (7 July) as well as the two most complex preempted plots.

Following William Pelfrey's seminal article on the cycle of preparedness framework, 6 the analysis here uses the Prevention Cube model 7 (see Figure 1) to explore the relationship between terrorist attacks in the UK that occurred since 7 July, and key plots in which authorities successfully intervened to preempt attacks. To do so requires a common framework for analyzing "successful" and "unsuccessful" attack plots. Just as effective collaboration and information sharing provide a basis for recognizing threats, and deciding whether to intervene to preempt them, so can ineffective collaboration and information sharing result in failure to develop opportunities for preemption.

Figure 1 ? Prevention Cube

Pelfrey characterizes the importance of prevention to the Cycle of Preparedness in the following manner: "The Cycle of Preparedness places greater weight on Prevention...It does not carry with it the assumption that there must be an incident as an initiator of the Cycle. Indeed, an organization or jurisdiction must simultaneously prepare for prevention activities, response capacity, and recovery capabilities." 8 The Prevention Cube is a "thinking tool", a heuristic device, useful in analyzing the way prevention principles inform risk management and enable preemption of terrorist threats. …

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