Terrorism: Home Secretary's speech to the Council on Foreign Relations

This speech was delivered by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on 16 September 2011.

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

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is inevitably a time for reflection. A time first and foremost to remember all of those who lost their lives. But also to reflect on the terrorist threats we still face, on the lessons we have learned and on the challenges ahead.

The threats we face

We know that the terrorist threats we face have changed significantly over the past ten years.

Al Qa’ida is now substantially weaker than it has been since 9/11. US military and intelligence operations, the international effort in Afghanistan, work by Pakistan and many other countries are all key factors. Al Qa’ida has lost its people, its facilities, its freedom of action and much of its support and reputation.

This is a considerable achievement. We should be thankful for it. But we need to be realistic about the threats that remain.

In the UK we continue to arrest very significant numbers of people for terrorist offences - almost 2000 since 9/11 but over 650 in the past two years alone. This is more than other countries in Europe.

The leadership of Al Qa’ida continues to plan operations in the UK; they attract people for training; they have sections dedicated to overseas operations; they radicalise and recruit. And even as the capability of the Al Qaida leadership has reduced, other threats have emerged which, in the UK, affect us directly.

We have seen a wider range of terrorist groups active in and from Pakistan. Some are new but rapidly growing. Others are well established. We all now pay more attention to Al Qa’ida’s affiliates, in Yemen and the Horn of Africa in particular.

These affiliates have independent capability. They can radicalise people in our country. People are travelling to fight in Somalia with Al Shabaab and Al Qai’da, and to train in Yemen. Some aspire to conduct attacks back home.

We remain alert to terrorist activity in and spreading out of Iraq. We are watching with concern terrorist planning and plotting in Nigeria and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

And, of course, we know that as its command and control is attacked, Al Qa’ida seeks to inspire lone acts of terrorism, organised and conducted without its guidance or instruction.

The new terrorist threats are no less complex and difficult than the old. In some ways they are harder to deal with. They challenge our systems and structures. Terrorism now is more diverse, decentralised and perhaps also more agile than the landscape of 9/11.

In the UK, we also face a significant threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland. In 2010 almost three times as many people were arrested for terrorist offences in Northern Ireland as for international terrorist offences across the UK. We had 40 attacks in 2010 - and 16 by the end of June this year.

The tragic events in Oslo this summer have made us reconsider the threat from the extreme right. This is much less widespread and systematic than terrorism associated with Al Qa’ida. But it has a strange symbiotic relationship with extreme Islamism - they feed off and fight each other. Our counter terrorism police and our counter terrorism strategy were already addressing this threat. After Oslo we will be allocating further resources to this work.

The lessons we have learned

In the last decade we have learned a great deal about effective counter-terrorism. The core of our response requires the closest coordination between policing and the security and intelligence agencies - much closer than they may have imagined 10 years ago.

This response needs to be dispersed around our country, under central command but integrated into local policing and close to the communities which it aims to protect. The network needs to join seamlessly with what we have come to call our upstream response - our efforts overseas to stop attack planning against the UK.

Until very recently almost all the attacks planned against the UK had an organised and structured overseas connection.

We also know that successful counter terrorism needs to be more wide ranging and wider in scope than we first thought. It must include not only capabilities to investigate and prosecute but also to prevent or to counter radicalisation, to provide protective security and to establish community and state resilience.

It must involve the whole of government, linking to work on community integration, diplomacy, counter proliferation, foreign aid and of course to military operations.

And it needs to be local, national and international; to embrace state and non-state actors, governments overseas, industry and communities at home. The very complexity of this task - the number of moving parts - requires careful co-ordination and a genuinely strategic approach.

Our strategies

Shortly before the summer, both the US and the UK launched new counter-terrorism strategies. They both look forward - taking account of these lessons in different ways.

They also describe the threats we face using comparable terms and language. That is important because the threats we face have not always seemed similar.

From very soon after 9/11 - and certainly by 2005 - we in the UK realised that terrorist groups had become embedded into the fabric of our society and in particular our cities.

These groups had a complex relationship with non-violent extremists, who exploited the freedoms in our society even as they sought to attack its very principles, all the time skirting round the edges of the law.

This terrorism came into the UK from outside. But it made use of small numbers of British residents and citizens who were already in our country.

In America, for many years you saw the terrorist threat as something external, practised by people “over there” who wanted to strike at American citizens “over here”.

Our different sense of threat led us to respond in different ways. Your response has often been framed by military action overseas. Ours has been grounded in policing and law enforcement in our own country. Neither approach was wrong.

In recent years, that view of the threat to America has been challenged by the experience of so-called home grown terrorism. And in the UK we are very clear that a domestic law enforcement response alone will not resolve the continued threats we face.

Our strategies now reflect these common perspectives. Our security relationship is grounded not just in an exchange of intelligence but on collaboration across a much wider range of areas. We both recognise the need to tackle urgent short-term threats but also vital long-term challenges.

Today I want to focus on four of these challenges - legal, ideological and technical, and on the enduring need to secure our borders.

The rule of law

First, looking at the legal challenge. We agree that our counter-terrorism work must reflect our core values, respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Our laws must create powers that are proportionate, necessary and effective. We must use these powers in ways that are as focused, targeted and precise as we can make them.

Both strategies make clear that the successful prosecution of terrorists is vital. It is our ‘highest priority’. But writing strategies is easier than delivering them.

It may now be an inevitable feature of counter terrorism work that we identify more people engaged in terrorist related activity than we can prosecute. Intelligence based operations cannot always deliver evidence we can use in court.

Domestically, that causes us both problems. In Britain, we have had to develop means to restrict the actions of people who we can neither prosecute nor deport, but who we know are engaged in terrorist related activity.

These measures are necessary, but we must ensure they are always applied in a way consistent with our laws and our values.

But the legal challenges overseas are far greater. In countries where terrorists are most active, they are often least likely to be prosecuted.

In these countries, agencies may not have the skills to investigate terrorist cases; the judicial system may be weak or corrupt, or both; and there may be an absence of political will. The consequences are far reaching.

When we identify terrorist threats we cannot always resolve them. The absence of a functioning judiciary may lead to the violation of human rights. It may then be impossible to co-operate with states in the way that we would wish. And we cannot then deport to these countries foreign nationals engaged in terrorist activity on our own soil.

It is hard to see how we can deal with terrorism in the longer term without better promoting the rule of law overseas.

We are looking to expand our international work around the rule of law and to ensure that agencies overseas have the capabilities to develop evidence-led investigations into terrorism. But the challenge far outstrips our own resources.

The solutions to this problem, and others, must be international. Promoting the rule of law must be a hallmark of our global counter-terrorism work in the years to come.

The ideological challenge

The second challenge is ideological.

Our strategy argues that the ideology associated with Al Qa’ida may continue to mobilise lone terrorists and others long after Al Qa’ida itself has gone.

So dealing with the terrorist ideology must be a central part of our overall efforts to defeat terrorism. Your strategy is very clear about this.

You rightly say that we must always carefully weigh the costs and risks of our actions, recognising that tactical success can sometimes inadvertently contribute to strategic failure. Our counter-terrorism work must not give legitimacy to the claims made by terrorists about us.

We also agree that we have to demonstrate that the ideology of those who wish to do us harm is wrong.

We must recognise and take on the core of that ideology - that we as countries are at war with Islam and that this justifies acts of terrorism against us.

In the UK, both terrorists and non-violent extremists support this outlook. They back up this claim by saying that it is unacceptable for Muslims to participate in a democracy; and indeed that it is wrong for Muslims and non-Muslims to live alongside and to associate with one another in an integrated, content and cohesive society.

We will deal with those who promote terrorism through our criminal justice system. We will prevent extremists operating freely in our schools, universities and our prisons. We will not amend our legislation to ban extremist groups operating just within our laws. But nor will we let them pass unchallenged. And we will stop extremists, of whatever kind, coming to our country to preach hatred and division.

But there are limits to what governments can do. It is vital to empower communities to contest these issues: Muslims living in our countries can best disprove the claims made about them. Muslims struggling for freedom across the Middle East and North Africa have shown that political change does not depend on acts of terror; in the Arab Spring, Al Qa’ida has been irrelevant.

In this ideological struggle we must, of course, recognise the role of the internet. The internet facilitates not only terrorist attack planning and recruitment, but also radicalisation and the circulation of extremist ideologies. We know that terrorist and extremist use of the internet is becoming more sophisticated. And we know that much of the extremist material that concerns us is hosted overseas, including here.

We are determined, in the UK, that the internet must not be a no-go area for Government, where terrorists and extremists can proceed unhindered.

We have encouraged the development of a specialist policing unit, responsible for enforcing the removal of material which is unlawful under our legislation. That unit has international reach. Since it started, the unit has removed material from the internet on over 170 occasions.

We have also developed a new online facility which more easily allows the public to refer unlawful or offensive material they have identified to web hosting companies. When this breaches their own conditions of use; which it often does; they will remove it.

I commend this model. I believe this is exactly the kind of community participation and empowerment which best ensures that terrorism remains marginal in our society.


But the internet is merely one of the technological challenges that we now face.

We know that terrorists use technology for operational planning, to communicate and spread ideology, evade protective security and increase lethal impact.

The attacks in Mumbai in 2008 were directed by people using off-the-shelf secure communications technology. Software to encrypt mobile phone, voice and messaging is widely available. Satellite imagery, which used to be the classified preserve of military planners, is now freely available.

Some terrorists want to acquire or develop access to Chemical, Biological, Radiological or even Nuclear weapons. In future, the direction and wider publication of scientific research may make that easier.

We continue to see little evidence of systematic cyber terrorism. But this is now part of the language of Al Qa’ida. As a tactic, and as a weapon, cyber terrorism is perfectly suited to the world of the lone terrorist, operating outside a hierarchy and without traditional command and control. Collectively, these are very significant issues for us and our allies.

The pace and availability of technology has the potential to more than compensate for the progress we have made since 9/11. It can make the ideological struggle look irrelevant: technology can give much more lethal power to many fewer people.

Of course, a great deal has been done to address these threats. You have again taken a lead in work on counter-proliferation around the world. We have both developed solutions to deal with some emerging technical threats. We have shared that technology and learned from others. But we have much more to do.

We will need a much clearer shared idea of how technology will change terrorism and change our response to it.

We will need to nurture the academic links between our two countries to find solutions in the future.

And we will need to develop new and rather different relationships with our private sectors, who of course own much of this technology and who - for our wider benefit - will develop it as fast and as aggressively as they can.

The challenge at our borders

Let me turn finally to one of the most striking achievements since 9/11 - the improvement of security at our borders and for aviation in particular.

I use the term striking because of the complexity and scale of the task; because it has been achieved alongside the continued rapid expansion of travel around the world; because it has required global co-operation; and because it has retained the support of the vast majority of the travelling public.

The US, and the Department of Homeland Security in particular, have led the way. We have developed a dialogue together which is vital to our national security and to our counter terrorist efforts. It has given a new meaning to the term border security and perhaps to the term border itself. But in future this work will get more challenging.

Right now, 200 million passengers travel by air to or through our country each year from some 465 points of departure around the world. By 2030 that number will have risen to around 390 million.

We know that a common feature of the threats we face is that terrorists increasingly operate across states, travelling and networking freely. We know they aim to carry lethal material, either with the intent to use it in mid-air or at their destination.

We also know that our border security to a considerable extent depends on border security in other states, often less capable than ourselves. And it depends too on the collection, exchange and analysis of large amounts of data.

Within the UK, we have done a great deal to strengthen our borders. We are working on new technical programmes and we will be setting up a new Border Police Command. We are looking at your Customs and Border Protection which offers important lessons for us.

We are also working closely with the European Union and other countries to develop passenger data sharing agreements. I have secured agreement in Europe that this is vital to our collective security.

There is often talk of the value of our intelligence exchange. And that’s of course absolutely right. The exchange of data and information on border security may be far less glamorous but it is no less important or effective.

In the US alone, for example, you have used the analysis of travel data to identify 3000 people suspected of terrorist connections over two years.

Countries around the world must commit to developing an international consensus on secure borders, common capabilities and sharing data. We know our enemies share technology, new ideas and expertise - we must do so too.


So as we look back to 9/11 we can rightly point to many achievements in containing and reducing the threats we face. Looking forward we can see these threats will continue to change.

Dispersed organisations and lone individuals will make more use of different technologies. They will test our law enforcement and intelligence capabilities. As the 9/11 Commission warned us, we will have to use our imaginations to anticipate future trends. Terrorism in 2015 is likely to be very different from terrorism today.

Success will depend on balancing the near and long-term objectives. Repeated tactical success will not of itself assure us of strategic victory. We must extend the rule of law; address the ideological challenge; harness and not be harmed by technology; and preserve our borders in what will surely remain a period of instability.

But in that period of instability, one thing must remain stable - the strength of the UK/US security relationship. Its scope will change. Its importance will not. The security of our citizens and the wider world depends on it.


Published 16 September 2011