Terrorism: Home Secretary's speech on the response to the terrorist threat

This speech was to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on 3 November 2010. The version here is as written, rather than as delivered.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

Last month, the government issued a new National Security Strategy which confirmed that international terrorism and terrorism from Northern Ireland remain two of the highest risks our country faces.

The events of the past week show us why. On or about the 28th October individuals who we assess to be members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist group based in Yemen, placed explosive devices in unaccompanied air-freight leaving Sana’ and destined for the US. One of the devices was intercepted and made safe here.

Explosive device

The explosive device was deeply concealed in the cartridge of a printer and connected to a hidden power source in sections of a mobile telephone. It could have destroyed the aircraft on which it was being carried, over the UK, over the US or on the ground.

The specifics of this attack - notably the type of device and how it was concealed - were new to us. The principle of the attack - a device placed in unaccompanied baggage - was not. It bears some resemblance to the attack on Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988.

On Saturday I chaired a meeting of COBR, the government’s emergency committee, to manage our response to this latest threat. We ordered the suspension of all air-freight from Yemen and I have announced further measures in the last few days, including the suspension of unaccompanied air freight from Somalia.

We will also urgently review all aspects of air freight security and will update the guidance given to airport security personnel to enable them to identify similar packages in future.

But we must not forget a more longstanding terrorist threat whose origin is much closer to home. On Saturday another explosive device was identified and made safe in this country. That device had been placed in a car at Belfast airport by residual terrorist groups linked to Northern Ireland. It too was intended to cause civilian casualties. It was the 38th attempted attack in the province this year.

Home-grown terrorism

As Home Secretary, I am responsible for work to counter the threat from home-grown terrorism, from international terrorism and, alongside the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, from terrorism from Northern Ireland. I have been working closely with John over the last few days to deal with the latest plot. And John, Jonathan Evans, the Director General of MI5, and I meet on a weekly basis to discuss the terrorist threat to the UK and the actions we are taking to deal with it.

The police and the agencies do a first rate job. They are working day in, day out, often at great personal risk, to keep the people of this country safe. They are the best in the world at what they do and as a nation we owe them an immense debt.

The threat

It is testimony to the success of the police and the agencies that we have not had a successful attack in this country since 2007 and there have been no casualties since 2005. But as we saw last week, the absence of an attack does not mean an absence of threat.

The intelligence briefings I read on a daily basis still usually start with plots in this country directed by Al Qaeda’s senior leadership in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. But Al Qaeda is not the organisation it once was. Action by our counter parts in Pakistan, by our allies in the US, by our own coalition forces in Afghanistan and of course by agencies here and elsewhere have all made Al Qaeda weaker than at any time since 9/11.

But terrorist groups pose a threat to us in a state of weakness as well as in a state of strength. Al Qaeda continues to dedicate people to the task of attacking the UK, Europe and America; members of Al Qaeda are continuing to attempt to operate in this country; people from here continue to train with Al Qaeda in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So we should neither overstate the strength and significance of Al Qaeda, nor underestimate its continuing capability.

But the threat we face comes not just from the old Al Qaeda organisation. Many other terrorist groups now aspire to attack us.

After the events of last week, the group we know as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been very much in the headlines. But they have been at the forefront of our own thinking for a great deal longer. They were of course responsible for the attempted attack on an aircraft bound for Detroit on 25 December last year, for the attempted assassination of my counter part in Saudi Arabia and for other attacks in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

In April this year an AQAP suicide bomber attacked the convoy of the British Ambassador in Sana’a. In October a British embassy vehicle carrying five staff was struck by rocket propelled grenades fired by an AQAP cell.

One member of staff was injured in the attack and two passers-by were severely wounded. AQAP now has a very substantial operational capability in Yemen and this is increasing.

But they have also shown the ability to project a threat far beyond the borders of Yemen. Our police and agencies have been working to disrupt AQAP operatives in this country. An AQAP associate was arrested here earlier this year. He is alleged to have
been planning a terrorist attack in this country. Threats such as these are likely to continue.

AQAP continue to broadcast propaganda to this country and to publish online material which encourages acts of terrorism. We have seen the damage this propoganda can cause in the ongoing case of the attack on the MP Stephen Timms.

Just across the Red Sea from Yemen, the Al Qaeda linked extremist group Al Shabaab, in Somalia, has developed links to Al Qaeda and, we assess, to AQAP. It thrives in a failed state. It has aspirations beyond Somali borders.

We know that people from this country have already gone to Somalia to fight. It seems highly likely, given experience elsewhere, that if left to their own devices we would eventually see British extremists, trained and hardened on the streets of Mogadishu, returning to the UK and seeking to commit mass murder on the streets of London.

In North Africa, we see continued activity from another Al Qaeda affiliate Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. They have raised millions of pounds by kidnapping people from Europe and holding them to ransom. They are using that money to buy weapons. We do not believe the group yet has the capability to carry out a terrorist attack on British soil but I don’t doubt that would be their aspiration.

Wider trend

Developments of this kind point to a wider trend. The terrorist threat we face is developing. We see the continued emergence of a more diverse and devolved terrorist threat, without a strong, directive and commanding centre and joined more by ideology than hierarchy. The attempted attack in Times Square by the Pakistani Taliban perfectly illustrates the challenge we face.

My predecessors may have found discussion with the Security Service and police entirely dominated by Al Qaeda in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. That is no longer the case.

Attacks might now come from foreign nationals or from British citizens recruited by Al Qaeda, by its affiliate groups or by Al Qaeda inspired groups.

Technology favours these trends, empowering small organisations and giving them the capabilities of their larger counterparts. Al Qaeda and emerging terrorist groups use new technology to constantly develop and refine the way they work, probing gaps in our protective security and that of our allies.

We saw it in 2006, when Al Qaeda sought to use liquid explosives to destroy trans-Atlantic airliners.

We saw it in December, when AQAP sought to down a plane over Detroit using a device with low metal content. And we saw it again last week. In November 2008 we also saw a new and deadly method of attack used to devastating affect by the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba in Mumbai.

These attacks were conducted by terrorists with assault rifles, handguns and improvised explosive devices. The attackers also used off the shelf technology - satellite guidance and encrypted communications - which you can buy across the counter anywhere in the world.

We cannot assume that such an attack would be replicated exactly here, but we must plan for the possibility of a terrorist firearms attack in this country.

Our response

Our response to all of these threats needs to be genuinely strategic: we must be clear about what we are seeking to achieve, how we are seeking to achieve it and the resources we have at our disposal.

Our starting point is the CONTEST strategy which has been developed over the last few years. Its framework is sound and in many respects - though not all - it has been effective.

The aim of that strategy - what we seek to achieve - is to ‘reduce the risk to the UK and its interests overseas from international terrorism so that people can go about their lives freely’.

I think it’s important to note the phrase ‘reduce the risk’. The events of last week again showed that we can never entirely eliminate the threat of terrorist attack but we can reduce the risk - that is what all of our programmes and our efforts are intended to do.

The resources we have at our disposal were set out in the Spending Review. We will maintain all the core counter terrorist capabilities in policing and in the agencies which have been developed over the past few years. We must do so. Spending on counter terrorism will remain high - over £2billion for counter-terrorism policing alone in the next four years.

And in several areas we will have to develop new capabilities in response to the technology and techniques that the terrorists are now deploying against us.

So we will invest further in police firearms capability to deal with the threat of a Mumbai style attack in this country. That does not mean that we will have police with machine guns on every street corner. It means that if an attack of this sort should take place we will be better equipped to save the lives of those affected by it.

We will also continue to invest in our e-borders system which enables us to understand who is entering this country. We will improve pre-departure checks to identify people who pose a terrorist threat and prevent them flying to the UK. And as I told the House earlier this week, we will now carry out a complete reassessment of air freight security.

We also must invest in capabilities to obtain data and, where necessary, to access new forms of communication.

We depend on new communications services offered by companies around the world. But so do terrorists and criminals. To regard those services as being somehow beyond the legitimate reach of our agencies and police makes no sense and would give terrorists and criminals a way of more easily doing us harm. We cannot allow that to happen.

But what we will not do is create a giant government database enabling the state to snoop on every conversation that everyone makes. We will develop a capability that is clearly proportionate to the specific challenge we face, will keep pace with criminals and terrorists and that is based on effective law.

This brings me onto ‘the how’. How in principle, we are going to achieve our aim with the resources we have available.

I want to say three key things about how our counterterrorism response will operate.

Counter-terrorist powers

The first is that our response to terrorism across the police, the agencies and across all government Departments must be based on the rule of law - and
not only on the rule of law but on the rule of the right law.

I took immediate steps on entering government to make sure this was the case.

So our first piece of legislation was to scrap ID cards. We took that decision because they were disproportionate, expensive and unnecessary.

Last week statistics for the use of section 44 - the power enabling stop and search without any suspicion - showed that of the more than one hundred thousand people stopped last year, not one was arrested for a terrorism-related offence. That makes no sense. And following a court case in the summer I ordered that the widespread use of this power should stop.

We are undertaking a review of this and other intrusive and high profile counter-terrorism and security powers.

That includes control orders; pre charge detention; stop and search; the deportation of people engaged in terrorism in this country; measures to deal with organisations that promote hatred or violence; and the use of surveillance powers by local authorities. The review is being conducted by the Home Office, and there will be independent oversight of the review process to ensure it is properly conducted.

The freedom to exercise our rights depends fundamentally on our security. But likewise there is no value in security without liberty. So we need to strike
the right balance between the right we have to live our lives in safety and security and the other rights which we enjoy in our society. I want to ensure that where powers are intrusive they are proportionate to the threat, necessary to reduce it to a level which we judge acceptable, and effective. These criteria - proportionality, necessity and impact - are vital.

I don’t want to provide a running commentary on this review, which will not report until later in the year. But I can say that there will be significant changes and that we will emerge with a much better balance than we have at present.

Anyone who has been on the front benches of government or opposition for the last ten years, as I have, will have thought long and hard about issues
such as control orders, pre-charge detention and other counter-terrorism powers. In Parliament we have debated these issues, considered the balance between liberty and security and voted on the legislation.

I don’t believe the previous government got the balance right but let me make clear: I will do absolutely nothing which will put at risk Britain’s national security.

Prevent strategy

The second principle is that we have to deal with the causes of terrorism as well as its symptoms. We have to deal with the social and economic factors which enable terrorist groups to survive, and the ideology that sustains them, as well as with the attacks that they are
planning to conduct.

So we will have what has come to be called a ‘Prevent’ strategy - programmes to deter people from engaging with terrorism. But we must avoid the mistakes made by the last Government.

A successful strategy for stopping radicalisation depends on an integrated society, marked by high levels of participation, of interaction and of equality of
opportunity. Well integrated societies are more likely to challenge extremist ideologies and extremist activity, as well as having greater social mobility, better access to education, and greater cooperation across communities.

But we will not securitise our integration strategy. The kind of society which we wish to encourage will not emerge through counter terrorism work. Under the last government Prevent muddled up work on counterterrorism with the normal work that needs to be done to
promote community cohesion and participation.

Counter-terrorism became the dominant way in which Government and some communities came to interact. That was wrong and no wonder it alienated so many.

We need a new approach to our engagement with Britain’s Muslim communities. One that helps to create the integrated society that we need.

So we will stop talking to Muslim communities only about counter-terrorism, and start treating them like the ature and integral parts of society that they are. Coss-government work to increase integration, participation and equality are absolutely essential and, as the Minister for Women and Equalities as well as the Home Secretary, I am passionate about them.

This government wants everyone to participate in, and have an equal opportunity to participate in, our national and community life. There is no place in Britain forsegregation or self-segregation of different communities
or of individuals within communities.

We want to increase the participation of everyone in our society. And participating in society also means standing up against the extremists who would seek to divide us.

The last government did not do enough to stand up to extremists. Indeed sometimes they seemed too willing to engage with them.

All of us - Government, faith groups, everyone in society has a role in challenging extremism. We should all stand up for our shared British values; we should all stand up against extremists and their bigoted, racist and false ideology.

On our specific work to prevent radicalisation, I want to change the current approach. I want the new Prevent programme to follow the same principles of our changes to counter terrorist legislation. It must be proportionate to the specific challenge we face; it must only do what is necessary to achieve its specific aims; and it must be effective.

International work

Our third principle is simply that the success of our domestic counter terrorism work here depends on international cooperation and collaboration overseas.

That applies to all aspects of counter terrorism. Intelligence from our international partners can be crucial. The investigation of terrorist plots in this country will almost always lead overseas. We can better prevent people being drawn into terrorism if the international community challenges terrorist propaganda. And as we saw last week, our protective security depends on security measures taken by other states. Where their security fails so may our own.

The presence of our military forces in Afghanistan reflects this basic principle: they are in Afghanistan to stop the return and resurgence of Al Qaeda.

I spent much of last week in Pakistan. That is because our security fundamentally depends on the work of our Pakistani counter parts and the work we do with them.

Most threats to the UK continue to come from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. And last year more than 3000 Pakistanis were killed in terrorist, insurgency and sectarian violence in Pakistan itself. There were over eighty suicide attacks and more attacks and fatalities than anywhere except Iraq and Afghanistan.

That matters deeply to us. It doesn’t just matter to the UK as a member of the international community. It doesn’t just matter because of our shared history and close ties. When we have a Pakistani diaspora of over one million people, and there are hundreds of thousands of journeys between our countries every year, what goes on in Pakistan matters on the streets of Britain.

So the National Security Council recently agreed that we will do much more in partnership with Pakistan. We announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review that we would increase our overseas aid and that we would use 30 per cent of that aid to support fragile and conflict-affected states like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The role of DfiD in addressing the broader cause of terrorism and instability will be vital. This is not just about giving aid for aid’s sake - important though that is. This is about strengthening Britain’s own national security and reducing the threat Britain faces from


We know we will continue to face a threat from international terrorism for the foreseeable future, last week’s events proved that beyond doubt. That threat is now more diverse and more fragmented than ever bfore. Public policy must respond to this changing threat and I and my colleagues will not be afraid to take the tough decisions necessary to protect the British public from further terrorist attacks.

So where necessary we will enhance our protective security measures; we will invest in conflict prevention and stopping terrorist plots overseas; we will refocus the strategy for preventing radicalisation in the UK; and we will strike a better balance between our liberties and our security.

There is much good work underway to tackle the terrorist threat. But where there needs to be change I will not be afraid to make it.

I want an approach which is more targeted against extremist individuals, but that impacts much less on the good people of our communities. I want an approach which allows people to enjoy their liberty in safety and security. And I want an approach that is effective in  dealing with an evolving threat. That is what we will deliver.


Published 3 November 2010