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The New National Security Strategy

19/10/2010

The UK National Security Strategy was released yesterday afternoon, and it is in some ways a quite impressive document. Unlike many such reports, this one is a short (39 pages), clear and concise work which includes not only a comprehensive risk assessment, but also details on how government spending should be shaped accordingly.

It has clearly been formulated with unconventional warfare in mind; of the two new air craft carriers being built, for example, only one will be operational at a time and neither will house fighter jets until 2020, when the Joint Strike Fighter will go operational. This is not good news for those who would like to see Britain retain the ability to take part in another overseas conflict such as Afghanistan, and perhaps reflects the government’s view on Britain’s future role in any such action. However, the tier system employed by the report goes some way toward explaining this approach.

Threats to national security have been divided into three “tier levels”. Among the “tier three” threats are conventional military attacks on the British mainland and a Chernobyl style nuclear power plant meltdown. “Tier two” includes a rise in organized crime and the risk of an insurgency or civil war in a failed state creating conditions conducive to terrorists who aim to attack Britain. “Tier one” is, of course, the most significant, and predictably includes the threat of international jihadist terrorism. Rather less expected is the report’s identification of Northern Irish Republican dissidents as a clear and present threat. Considering the recent rise in their activities, 37 attacks this year alone, Republican dissidents are certainly a worthy inclusion – a point which will soon be made in an upcoming ICSR report on Northern Irish militants.

My one criticism of how the threats have been ordered is the inclusion in “tier two” of the ‘risk of major instability, insurgency or civil war overseas which creates an environment that terrorists can exploit to threaten the UK.’ This is a reference to, among other regions, Somalia, which hasbeen identified as a training base for international jihadists seeking to attack Britain and the United States. The immediate terrorist threat to the UK and powerful jihadist insurgencies in the Horn of Africa are inexorably linked, and should not be put in separate categories.

Within the tier one section of the strategy, there are a few quotes worth pulling out. The first refers to a possible shift in strategy from al-Qaeda:

Senior Al Qaeda figures have urged Muslims in the West to conduct attacks without training or direction from established groups. Such lone terrorists are inherently unpredictable and their plots are difficult to detect. Al Qaeda may consider smaller-scale attacks against softer targets which would nonetheless attract considerable media attention.

This is indeed correct, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s recently released English language magazine, Inspire, directs readers to follow just this sort of lone-wolf, small-scale tactic. The head of Mi5, Jonathan Evans, also noted recently that al-Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki ‘encourages his followers to think about mounting small-scale attacks that can cause widespread fear without always trying to stage a September 11-style “spectacular” which risks alerting the authorities.’

The strategy also makes reference to the problem of online radicalisation, another topic on which ICSR has produced an authoritative report on, and continues to research:

Terrorists use cyberspace to organise, communicate and influence those vulnerable to radicalisation.

This is beyond any doubt, and Interpol also publically recognised this recently when its, Ronald K. Noble, said:

The advent of the Internet has made the process of radicalization easier to achieve and the process of combating it that much more difficult, because many of the behaviors associated with it are not in and of themselves criminal…

The threat is global; it is virtual; and it is on our doorstep.

One final quote that could be worth following up refers to the prevention of terrorism:

Although we have had success in disrupting the great majority of planned attacks in the UK, international terrorism can affect British interests at home or overseas. It is easier to disrupt terrorist capability than to remove terrorists’ underlying motivation, but we must still work to stop people from becoming terrorists in the first place.

Again, this is a very good point, and something the British state has tried, and so far failed, to achieve through the Prevent strategy that was recently scrapped by the Department of Communities and Local Government. Part of the CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent was formed to do precisely what this strategy recommends and stop terrorism at its root, but it was scrapped in July by the Department of Communities and Local Government, the official body tasked with administering the programme. How this will now be pursued is still unclear, and we shall await more details from the government.

NOTE:

ICSR Co-Director, Dr John Bew, appeared on BBC Newsnight to discuss the strategy, the report can be viewed here.