Intelligence led counter-terrorism
Intelligence led counter-terrorism: a brief analysis of the UK domestic intelligence system’s response to 9/11.
By Professor Frank Greogory, Jean Monnet Chair in European Political Integration, School of Social Sciences, University of Southampton
The significance of intelligence in counter-terrorism stems from three main drivers: its role in, ideally, pre-emption and disruption of terrorist activity; its role in post-incident investigations and its contribution to preventive/protective security measures. This discussion will focus mainly on intelligence and domestic counter-terrorism in the UK. It will not consider the intense UK debate about intelligence and the evidence for an Iraqi WMD programme as that has limited relevance to a discussion on intelligence relating to terrorist suspects or facilities within UK national territory because these can be subjected to direct surveillance and investigative actions.
The limitations on the role of intelligence, in counter-terrorism, need to be carefully understood and the following examples will illustrate this point. With regard to 9/11, US intelligence agencies had received some relevant information pre 9/11 but either failed to appreciate its significance or failed to share information. When the UK government deployed 400 troops to Heathrow, in an alert in February 2003, because of intelligence indicating a possible attack, ‘Prime Minister Blair was later to comment over the deployment of troops that …To this day we don’t know if it was correct and we foiled it or if it was wrong.’ (i) However, the intelligence source was regarded as a strong one and the counter-terrorism policy priority was to protect the public. The attack on Madrid in March 2004 was a large scale multi-location attack without any apparent prior signs of terrorist activity but with some relevant intelligence available but not fully shared. One expert has commented on terrorism intelligence that ‘The bull’s eye of this intelligence target – an individual terrorist plot – lacks the size and signatures of most other targets, from nuclear weapons programs to political instability,.’ and that ‘…intelligence specific to terrorist plots is often unattainable.’ (ii)
Britain’s Domestic Intelligence System (iii)
Until the passing of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act the British intelligence and security services existed in a kind of ‘limbo’ where government refused to allow open discussion of their functions, despite a history going back to the early twentieth century. Britain’s intelligence ‘community’ can be described as a layered, pyramidal structure. In the top layer are the Security Service ( MI5 ) [ domestic counter-terrorism, counter-espionage and some assistance with countering serious and organised crime ], the Secret Intelligence Service ( MI6 ) [ foreign intelligence ], Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) Cheltenham [ elint and sigint ] and the Defence Intelligence Staff ( DIS ) [ military intelligence including aspects of counter-terrorism ]. The Security Service is assisted, in the first level, by the intelligence gathering work of the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police in London. New Guidelines on the work of the Special Branches were issued in March 2004 and these make it clear that counter terrorism remained the key priority for Special Branch and that all intelligence about terrorism obtained by Special Branch was provided to the Security Service, as the lead agency. Furthermore, the Security Service sets the priorities for the gathering of counter terrorist and other national security intelligence by Special Branch.
In the second layer are the provincial police Special Branches, and other agencies, for example, Customs & Excise and the Immigration and Nationality Department. All the police Special Branches provide what is called the ‘golden thread’ linking the public duty to assist the police with the counter-terrorism process. The connections between anti-terrorist work and tackling serious and organised crime, in those cases where terrorist support their activities from the proceeds of crime, will be strengthened by the recent appointment of former-MI5 head Sir Stephen Lander as Chair of the Service Authority for the proposed Serious and Organised Crime Agency.
Feeding into both the first and second layers are a number of specialist agencies such as the Transport Ministry’s Transportation Security Directorate [TRANSEC] and the Office for Civil Nuclear Security. The CBRN threat has also led to a number of other specialists becoming involved in this second layer. For example, health service personnel concerned with epidemiology and toxins in the Health Protection Agency.
The most significant development in the analytical element of the UK’s management of terrorism was the establishment in June 2003 of JTAC (the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre). JTAC operates under the authority of the Director General MI5 and it represents a specific move to break down institutional barriers between intelligence agencies by the processes of co-locating the analysts from all the intelligence agencies and other specialist agencies thus creating a new shared identity through JTAC membership. JTAC’s remit is to provide: long-term studies of international terrorism, for example, on the suicide bomber problem and immediate assessments of current threats. The Government conceives of JTAC as the UK’s centre of excellence and expertise on the threat from international terrorism and by the Autumn of 2003 JTAC was dealing with an average of 100 pieces of threat intelligence worldwide every week.
The direct usability of intelligence in relation to response requirements is a very variable factor. Obviously, if terrorist groups provide, as did the IRA, coded threats giving some timing and location details or if similar details are provided from suspects, then emergency services can be fairly specific in their response strategies. However, as CIA Director, George Tenet, said to the Independent Commission in America, there were many indications of a major terrorist attack pre 9/11 but the warnings were ‘…maddeningly short on actionable details.’ (iv) In the case of the interception and search of the MV Nisha, in December 2001, for suspect dangerous substances, off the Isle of Wight by UK police and military personnel, the intelligence was not ‘ship specific’ but the Nisha was the only vessel that happened to have a route background and time of arrival into UK waters that fitted in with the limited intelligence available. The decision to intercept was based upon the priority given to ensuring public safety by pre-emptive action, wherever possible. As Prime Minister Blair said ‘… even if the possibility of such a threat is remote we act.’ (v)
It is obvious from the many accounts in the press of circumstances leading to arrests and from court evidence that the sigint work of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 is making a major contribution to disruption and dismantling operations against those suspected of terrorist offences. However, older, traditional methods of penetration and the management of human intelligence sources are also being used although of course one cannot expect to find confirmed details of these. However, Home Secretary Charles Clarke did note that, relating to arrests and detentions of terrorist suspects, ‘ … in many of these issues intelligence is brought not through intercept, not through phone tapping, but by the existence of individuals within organisations we are talking about who are giving information about what is taking place..’ (vi)
Post-9/11 the Security Service has also become far more publicly visible through its role in providing preventive/protective security advice to the wider industrial and commercial sector as well as to the general public. This role is fulfilled, firstly, through the Security Service run National Security Advisory Centre which is linked to a national network of police Counter-Terrorism Advisers. Secondly, the role is fulfilled by the unprecedented step of the Security Service having its own publicly accessible website:- www.mi5.gov.uk.
It has been noted that counter-terrorism intelligence’s ‘… most important and direct value is in providing pre-emptive tactical warning of a terrorist action ..[but] this may not result in immediately observable action such as arresting terrorists or capturing their materiel.’ (vii) This comment is fully consistent with the current emphasis, in the UK, of the primacy given to the use of intelligence for the protection of the public by disrupting the activities of terrorists even if this reduces the evidence gathering opportunities for court purposes.
i) The Sunday Times, 29 March 2004
ii) Paul R. Pillar, ‘Intelligence’, in A.K.Cronin & J.M.Lendes (eds), Attacking Terrorism- elements of a grand strategy’, Washington DC, Georgetown UP, pp. 115-139 and see on UK the book by a former MI5 Director-General, S.Rimington, Open Secret, London, Arrow, 2001
iii) Details of the work of the main UK intelligence and security agencies can be found in the annual reports of Intelligence and Security Committee, published by The Stationery Office, London.
iv) The Times: 25 March 2004
v) Interview with the Senior Investigating Officer for the MV Nisha operation, 11/8/04 and BBC TV news extract
vi) UK Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Minutes of Evidence, HC 321-i, Q15, Jan. 2005
vii) M.Herman, ‘Counter-Terrorism, Information Technology and Intelligence Change’, Intelligence and National Security, 18(4), 2003, p.42