Analysis of the threat that modern terrorism poses

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From the latter half of the twentieth century onwards, facets of terrorism (both the perpetrators and their actions and objectives) can be identified that collectively describe 'modern terrorism'. This essay will begin by identifying some of these facets and with an analysis of the threat that modern terrorism poses. The essay will briefly set the context of the threat from an international perspective but will focus on the threat to the United Kingdom (UK). Although there will be some commonality, the threat to a Western, sectarian, liberal democracy will differ from the threat to an Islamic monarchy or sectarian Islamic state. The justification for focusing on the UK is that an in-depth analysis of the threat from a global perspective is beyond the scope of this short essay. The threat to the UK and the subsequent analysis of the degree to which the UK's military can be used to solve it is deemed most relevant to the essay's audience. The term solvable also needs defining. For example, the role of the military is likely to be very different in the context of neutralising the threat of terrorism to the UK from eradicating international terrorism completely, even if the latter is actually feasible.

The current UK strategy for countering international terrorism is known as CONTEST. The aim of the strategy is "to reduce the risk to the UK and its interests overseas from international terrorism, so that people can go about their lives freely and with confidence". [1] The strategy comprises four strands: Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare. The first two of these elements aim to reduce the threat of a terrorist attack being committed in the UK; the last two aim to reduce the vulnerability of the UK to an attack. [2] The military may have a role to play in any four of these sub-strategies. Therefore, in order to answer the essay question each will be examined in turn before reaching a conclusion as to the degree to which the threat from modern terrorism is solvable by military means.

Modern Terrorism

The UK's National Security Strategy states that international terrorism is the 'principal national security threat'. [3] Terrorism, however, is not a new threat: "between 1969 and 1998 over 3,500 people died in the UK itself as a result of Irish-related terrorism". [4] One of the key facets of modern terrorism though is that it is international and is not concerned with achieving single nationalist or political objectives. More traditional terrorists such as the IRA had nationalist objectives and resided in proximity to where they executed their attacks.

By contrast, Islamic Extremism seeks to achieve religious objectives and uses religion to justify the use of violence. These terrorists offer 2 choices to the world's population: fundamentalist Islam or death. The lack of a single, tangible objective and the global nature of both the terrorists' nationality and the locations in which they conduct their attacks are the embodiment of modern terrorism. One important consequence of this is the confinement of the threat; Islamic Extremism is transnational since its aims are not confined to a single nation state. As a result, the security of any state can be threatened, by any number of individuals but, most significantly, potentially by its own citizens if they are susceptible to the modern terrorists' rhetoric. This was the case for the terrorist attacks in London in 2005, which were perpetrated by British citizens. Modern terrorism is not dependent on state sponsorship.

Another facet of modern terrorism that results from its international nature is the structure of the organisations that are "increasingly are adopting a decentralised, non-hierarchical cell structure, connected by technology such as the Internet and satellite telephones and inspired by a common ideology or religion". [5] 

This quote identifies another facet: terrorists' access to, and use of, modern technology. This is relevant for terrorist communications both internal and external to their organisations but more notably for the availability of weapons technology. The proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and the readiness of modern terrorists to use them is a source of significant threat. This was demonstrated "by the Aum Shinri Kyo's nerve agent attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, the proliferation of nuclear expertise from the Former Soviet Union States and the more recent Anthrax attacks at the end of 2001". [6] 

Threat and Solution

The most apparent threat from terrorism is to the personal safety of the individual citizens of the nation states in which attacks take place. This threat is exacerbated in the case of modern terrorism because of the increase in the number of states that are liable to be attacked; because the religious ideologies of modern terrorism require mass civilian casualties to create effect, rather than the act of terror itself; and because modern terrorists are prepared to use unconventional techniques, including WMD. This threat is the same to any nation state and is therefore global.

However, the threat to liberal, democratic societies, such as the UK, is more complicated than this. There are less obvious, second-order impacts. The primary function of a State is to "establish, maintain and defend basic social conditions and values, including particularly security, freedom, order, justice and welfare". [7] In return for this citizens sacrifice elements of their personal freedom to obey laws and they pay taxes. A threat from modern terrorism is the potential to undermine peoples' belief in the ability of democratic States to achieve this function and therefore by extension the nation state system itself. Acts of terror such as the attacks by al-Qaida in the United States of America in 2001 may cause citizens to question the ability of Government, legislation, the police and the security services to effectively enforce the rule of law [8] .

Democracies support the flourishing of multi-cultural societies. This is particularly true of the UK. However, the ability of modern terrorists to exploit and magnify existing minority problems in these multi-cultural societies represents a significant threat. The use of technology such as the internet makes this easy for terrorists to achieve. The effect on society can be severe as some align themselves with the terrorists (in the case of Islamic Extremism they become 'radicalised') and others adopt xenophobic tendencies towards those they perceive as the threat. "Commander Janet Williams…told a gathering at RUSI that 'radicalisation' was the greatest threat to British homeland security" [9] . The UK's interventional foreign policy over the past ten years has also contributed to this.

The definition of solvable could range from containment and isolation to eradication. The idealist solution would be to regard modern terrorism and its threat holistically and eradicate the threat by identifying and removing the root cause of modern terrorism.

Yet for terrorism to be conquered, the twenty-first century must witness a closing of the gap between the developed countries and the rest of the world, which widened during the twentieth century. It is only, Sid-Ahmed claimed, when underdevelopment is corrected that people will no longer be willing to kill themselves to harm their enemies. [10] 

However, this solution is not likely to be feasible for a number of reasons. Terrorism has existed as a tactic since history was recorded. Therefore, while one might eradicate terrorists, eradicating terrorism is impossible. This solution would require perfect cooperation between the international system that struggles to agree on a common definition of terrorism. The international law and enforcement agencies for such law do not exist. Finally, the scale and cost of resources to achieve this and the compensatory reduction in peoples' civil liberties are likely to make it socially and politically unacceptable. "The response, therefore, needs to be tempered between the equally abhorrent factors of anarchy and repression, hence the challenge is how to deal with transnational threats whilst retaining liberty". [11] 

A more practicable solution is to distinguish between the threat of modern terrorism and eradicating terrorism altogether, recognising that the latter is not feasible and even if it were it would require resources and levels of international cooperation that do not exist. Instead a counter-terrorism strategy is required that combines strands that can be nationally resourced but recognises that international cooperation is necessary to tackle a transnational problem. This strategy must focus on the current terrorist threat but be flexible enough to meet the next nuance of international terrorism. CONTEST is a strategy that fits this requirement.

The role of the military in CONTEST

"The Pursue strand of CONTEST aims to reduce the terrorist threat to the UK and UK interests overseas through the detection and investigation of terrorist networks and the disruption of their activities". [12] This element of CONTEST is not innovative and, as with countering the IRA, it relies on intelligence. The disparate nature of modern terrorist organisations makes gathering this intelligence more complicated, however, but the actions that result from it remain a police and security services lead in the UK. There are numerous Government services gathering this intelligence but the military intelligence community does contribute; strategic intelligence gathering is the first Military Task specified in the revised Defence Strategic Guidance. [13] 

Many of the actions of Pursue that result from this intelligence rely on legislation to be effective. Examples include prosecution, control orders, exclusion of foreign nationals from entering the UK, revocation of citizenship and deportation. Improvements to this legislation will reduce the threat to the UK. However, the Government does also recognise the need to improve our capability to disrupt terrorist activities overseas. [14] Modern terrorists have the ability to project fear into the UK and conduct attacks without actually being within its borders, principally by using the internet to promote radicalisation. For example, they can put instructions on how to build bombs on the internet and use religious rhetoric to convince a UK citizen to build and detonate one. Consequently, to solve the threat to the UK there will be occasions when intelligence is gathered that necessitates the ability to project capability and pursue at the source of this external influence. This capability can best be delivered by the military. "Terrorist bases and facilities can be located, these can be attacked and destroyed by either the careful insertion of trained military operatives or the precise application of standoff-range firepower". [15] The UK's military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 - 2003 (before it transitioned to a counter-insurgency operation) is a good example of this. However, UK law precludes covert strike operations conducted by other nations such as the United States of America. Whilst effective legislation and kinetic operations are vital elements of Pursue, it is also important to uphold the values of the liberal democracy that is being protected. Otherwise, the terrorists may be advantaged since "actions taken in support of the Pursue agenda can be exploited by apologists for violence and indirectly facilitate radicalisation". [16] 

There are other, less kinetic roles for the military in Pursue. The UK military conducts counter-terrorism capacity building in priority countries such as the Yemen to 'develop the ability of those nations to counter and disrupt terrorist activities'. [17] These can comprise singleton advisors to several-man training teams. These are an important aspect of the military's role in solving the threat from modern terrorism.

The intent of Prevent is to stop radicalisation, reduce support for terrorism and discourage people from becoming terrorists. [18] This is achieved by challenging the ideology behind violent extremism and supporting individuals and communities that are vulnerable to radicalisation. There is no role for the military. The key stakeholders are the FCO, DFiD, the Home Office and Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG).

The third component of CONTEST is to Protect against terrorist attack by "mitigating the risk of attacks on the critical infrastructure, crowded places and on transport systems; by strengthening our border". [19] The Police, British Transport Police and UK Border Agency lead on this effort and are resourced accordingly. [20] However, there may be a role to play for the military during periods of heightened threat to bolster national capability for short, finite periods of time. Examples of support that could be provided are: advanced search teams and dogs; maritime security assistance from the Royal Navy; Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) assistance from the Defence Science Technology Laboratory at the strategic level or the Joint CBRN Regiment at the tactical level; the MoD Police with additional armed police support; or just additional manpower if required.

The Prepare element of CONTEST seeks to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack where it cannot be stopped. The Home Office is the lead department and has responsibility for managing an ongoing attack and directing the recovery from its aftermath. [21] Although the initial response to any terrorist incident will be managed by the police service, there is a clearly defined role for the military in supporting this activity and special niche capabilities exist that can be deployed in support of the police if required. Many of these are the same capabilities that might be used in the Protect that are described above. These include bomb disposal teams and advanced search and survey teams. "Other specialist capabilities, including Special Forces, are held at high readiness and regularly exercise their response to potential threats and incidents". [22] 


Modern terrorism is not reliant on state sponsorship and is transnational with no clearly definable aims. As a result it can threaten the security of the international system and is not confined to one nation state or a localised region. Its ideology and methods are much more varied than the nationalist objectives of the late twentieth century and its access to technology has far reaching impacts. It can threaten the existence of a democratic society without the terrorists actually being in the country they are attacking. Consequently, the strategy adopted to solve such a threat must be wide ranging and diverse in its scope; it must be more pragmatic than simply seeking to solve the threat by destroying the terrorists, as this will not solve the problem of terrorism.

CONTEST is such a pragmatic solution. Although the 4 strands vary in the ease with which their effectiveness can be measured, they offer one example of an all-encompassing strategy. Despite currently being focused on Islamic Extremism, CONTEST could be adapted to counter other modern terrorist ideologies. It is perhaps one of the most comprehensive and wide-ranging approaches to tackling terrorism developed by any major nation.

However, the degree to which the military is employed in this solution is limited. It is led by the police and other law enforcement agencies with the military able to provide some specific and specialist support to these agencies when required. It is recognised that the use of military capability in counter-terrorism and military intervention in conflict prevention is a 'double-edged sword' as far as fanning the terrorists' flames is concerned.

The domestic and foreign policy outlined in CONTEST must be supported by international legislation that complements such national counter-terrorism strategies. Currently not even a commonly accepted international definition of terrorism exists. Any solution to a transnational threat must be dealt with by an international means. Until international diplomatic and legislative efforts complement national strategies then some countries who attempt to use their military to solve the threat from modern terrorism risk undermining the efforts of those that recognise that police and national law enforcement agencies must take primacy.