Terrorism Common Sense from MI6

Refreshing commentary from Nigel Inkster, former Assistant Chief and Director of Operations and Intelligence of MI6:

"Efforts to establish a global repository of counterterrorist information are unlikely ever to succeed. We need to be wary of rebuilding our world to deal with just one problem, one which might not be by any means the most serious we face."

Asked what dangers were more serious than terrorism, Mr Inkster suggested that British government planners were more concerned regarding the possible results of global pandemics, or perhaps the worst-case outcomes of climate change.

"We need to keep terrorism in some kind of context," he said. "For example, every year in the UK, more people die in road accidents than have been killed by terrorists in all of recorded history."

The secret-service mandarin suggested that the Global War On Terror initiated by the Bush administration could never be won.

"We can't kill or arrest our way out of this problem... we will never solve this issue and live in a terrorism-free world. It has to be managed."

Inkster said that there was definitely a need for police and sometimes military action in fighting terrorism, but suggested that it was now widely acknowledged in the spook community that the Iraq invasion -- and now the Israeli assault on Gaza - were definite factors in radicalisation of British domestic terrorists.

"A move away from the rhetoric of GWOT will help," he said, saying that the "more nuanced message" of the Obama administration was already showing results.

As for recommendations, Inkster said that it was important to promote good government and economic opportunity around the world.

"If I hear one more speaker suggest that the root of terrorism is poverty I'll probably become a terrorist myself," he joked. "But we have to acknowledge that it's a factor."

As for the West, he said: "We should keep our nerve and our faith in our own values. Our own behaviour -- especially with respect to the rule of law -- is very important."

Posted on February 19, 2009 at 6:17 AM • 40 Comments

Comments

anonymous gwFebruary 19, 2009 7:55 AM

"Asked what dangers were more serious than terrorism, Mr Inkster suggested that British government planners were more concerned regarding the possible results of global pandemics, or perhaps the worst-case outcomes of climate change."

How can we secure ourselves against Global Warming^W Climate Change?

And is it proper to use fear of GW (whether that be Global Warming, George W., or God's Will) to implement the necessary policies?

Brandioch ConnerFebruary 19, 2009 8:03 AM

What the ... ?

"We can't kill or arrest our way out of this problem... "

and

"...but suggested that it was now widely acknowledged in the spook community that the Iraq invasion -- and now the Israeli assault on Gaza - were definite factors in radicalisation of British domestic terrorists."

And that from a "former Assistant Chief and Director of Operations and Intelligence of MI6".

I thought that EVERYONE knew that. Except for the USofA's "Religious Right".

A simple reading of history would tell you that.

Here's something else that I thought everyone knew. If you want to reduce radicalism, you have to REPLACE it with something else. And that something has to be more appealing than radicalism.

MailmanFebruary 19, 2009 8:03 AM

"If I hear one more speaker suggest that the root of terrorism is poverty I'll probably become a terrorist myself," he joked.

And just like that, he was put on the no-fly list in the United States.

TobyFebruary 19, 2009 8:07 AM

Does the fact that these sorts of statements can only be made by former heads of intelligence services prove that Western intelligence services have been politicised and have, therefore, lost the impartiality that's so desperately required for them to perform their functions properly?

bobFebruary 19, 2009 8:12 AM

While I approve of his his position on GWOT, he unfortunately impeaches himself with political bias because it is difficult in the extreme to believe that, with only three weeks in office, a "...'more nuanced message' of the Obama administration was already showing results....". Especially when he then beats the "global warming" drum.

Even if the terrorists were getting "stimulus package" money [and I doubt if anyone actually knows for sure whether terrorist organizations are on the list of cash recipients or not as fast as they shot that thing through congress] things couldn't be changing that quickly. If things are actually getting better, then sunspot cycle, climatological season or simply running out of terrorists would each probably be more likely.

Frank Ch. EiglerFebruary 19, 2009 8:44 AM

"...but suggested that it was now widely acknowledged in the spook community that the Iraq invasion -- and now the Israeli assault on Gaza - were definite factors in radicalisation of British domestic terrorists."

This dude stops a few convenient links short of the guiltier parts of the causal chain.

kangarooFebruary 19, 2009 9:16 AM

Bob: It's actually quite easy to believe. Terrorists succeed when they can swim in an ocean of non-terrorists who will look the other way.

More important than any detail, the attitude of people, whether they're hopeful, angry or depressed, determines whether terrorism succeeds. Terrorism is all about fantasy -- not about reality.

And we know that fantasy can be moved quite quickly in aggregates of people.

=====

Bruce, why doesn't anyone ever talk about the obvious -- that this is a propaganda war, and the easiest way to win a propaganda war is via education. A $100 billion US for global literacy would pretty much reduce terrorism to a secret war between global elites, which would make the GWOT easy to win.

I guess no one wants to actually reduce this thing.

Former RepublicanFebruary 19, 2009 9:38 AM

Brandioch Conner said: I thought that EVERYONE knew that. Except for the USofA's "Religious Right".

No, it's the Neo-Conservatives who see killing and arresting as the way out. I know it seems like a small nitpick, but it does make a world of difference. "No compromise" foreign policy is the hallmark of a Neo-Con, the Religious Right just goes along with it because they take the Neo-Cons' word on it.

AnonymousFebruary 19, 2009 9:39 AM

@kangaroo

No, the leaders just want to find a way to reduce it without creating an educated class that might question why they are the leaders.

NickoFebruary 19, 2009 9:44 AM

@kangaroo: The problem with spending $100B on a global literacy project is that it won't have the desired effect until after the next election, so you'll never get politicians to sanction it.

Many of the world's problems have solutions which are relatively straightforward but are costly and/or painful in the short term, and which have only indirect or longer term benefit to the 1st world countries who would need to bank-roll them, and so are politically unpalatable. Until you have an electorate which is far-sighted and appreciates the bigger picture this isn't going to change.

Garrett GFebruary 19, 2009 10:17 AM

Short term solution to terrorism = kill terrorists

Long term solution = jobs (using the existing mechanism--globalization--as our vehicle for this).

GeorgeFebruary 19, 2009 10:32 AM

Who, including the bushista junta, ever believed that the Global War On Terror could be won? The "War" is merely an improved version of the War On Drugs, which also can never be won. But neither was ever intended to be winnable, since the supposed end goal of eradicating either drugs or terrorism is impossible. The real intent is continual expansion of power (law enforcement in the case of drugs, the Unitary Executive in the case of terrorism) for those who are "fighting" the War, and the elimination of constraints and barriers that the "fighters" find inconvenient. The only achievement thirty-plus years of the Drug War can claim is the highest incarceration rate in the world and the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment. The Global War On Terror has been more "successful" in eliminating more burdensome constitutional constraints in a much shorter time.

There will always be knowledgeable people who dare to speak the truth about these unwinnable Wars. But those who build empires from fighting the Wars will always drown those voices in an ocean of Fear.

NostromoFebruary 19, 2009 10:34 AM

A danger more serious than terrorism? The dismantling of our civil liberties by power-hungry politicians using the terrorists as their excuse.

KilroyFebruary 19, 2009 10:39 AM

Just airdrop gameboys and comic books over Iraq and you'll see attacks virtually stop.

"Son, take this gun and go shoot the americans."
"No Dad, I'm about to get to level 6 on my game! I'll do it later!"

Tangerine BlueFebruary 19, 2009 11:44 AM

> A danger more serious than terrorism? The dismantling of our civil liberties

Well said.

crash dummyFebruary 19, 2009 11:48 AM

> "For example, every year in the UK, more people die in road accidents than have been killed by terrorists in all of recorded history."

I doubt that; even if he only means terror in the UK. 30 years of Irish terrorism + PanAm 103 might be more than 2,943.

AntimediaFebruary 19, 2009 12:18 PM

The "leaders" of the world are perfectly happy "managing" terrorism so long as they aren't the ones being targeted and beheaded. Which says a great deal more about their opinion of the hoi polloi than it does about their ability to deal with the problem of terrorism.

Wang-LoFebruary 19, 2009 1:57 PM

I'm not sure I can accept Nigel Inkster as an authority on what I should be afraid of -- his name is much too easy to pronounce.

-Wang-Lo.

MarkHFebruary 19, 2009 2:19 PM

@crash dummy:

>> "For example, every year in the UK, more people die in road accidents than have been killed by terrorists in all of recorded history."

>I doubt that; even if he only means terror in the UK. 30 years of Irish terrorism + PanAm 103 might be more than 2,943.

When in doubt... check the numbers! From wikipedia, deaths caused by IRA in the Troubles were about 1800, and Pan Am 103 killed 270.

Unless more than 800 have been killed by OTHER terrorists in UK history, the toll falls below annual traffic deaths.

For an even more impressive comparison, look up the number of citizens of the State of Israel who have ever been killed by terrorists in the state's history, PLUS the number of IDF combat deaths in all of Israel's wars -- and compare this with the average annual death toll on Israel's roads. Objectively, Israel's highways are far deadlier, than vengeful Arabs.*

In the U.S., more die from road accidents every few weeks than the total who have ever been killed there by terrorists.

Worldwide, traffic-related death rates probably exceed terrorism death rates by more than 100 to 1.

*As in interesting cost-benefit exercise, Israel recently concluded a large scale assault on Gaza (which, by the way, killed many civilians). This was nominally in response to rocket attacks that have caused, over the past several years, something like 2 Israeli deaths per year. I don't know what the cost to Israel's budget was for this campaign, but it would be interesting to see what the same number of shekels could do if applied to road safety. Because road safety is quite poor in Israel compared to many developed countries, it is likely that investment in safety improvements could yield strong results. Maybe the lives saved would exceed 2 per year!

Bryan FeirFebruary 19, 2009 2:54 PM

@MarkH:

Drifting further off-topic, but I suspect the only cost-benefit analysis done on that assault had to do with political costs and benefits. The fact that it was done shortly before an election that was known in advance to be close is unlikely to be a coincidence.

ModeratorFebruary 19, 2009 4:55 PM

Please don't use this thread as an excuse to hold forth on your favorite political topic. *Especially* guns.

AnonymousFebruary 19, 2009 6:48 PM

@MarkH: "Unless more than 800 have been killed by OTHER terrorists in UK history"

That is the case, as it happens. You cited 1800 deaths caused in the Troubles by the IRA. Deaths caused by loyalist paramilitaries did exceed 800.

It's possible that Inkster is counting IRA murders as "terrorism", but not UVF etc. murders.

Or perhaps he has his figures a bit wrong. He is after all not an expert on road safety, and the numbers are close enough to make his point: whether he needs one year of road deaths, or 9 months, or 18 months, is irrelevant.

Or perhaps he is comparing the number of *civilians* killed in the Troubles against the number of road deaths. If you exclude active IRA and loyalist paramilitaries and British armed forces, you'd be well below the 2900.

Or perhaps he has counted the number of civilians killed in bombings and other large scale untargeted attacks, and left out execution-style murders of people whom the IRA (and loyalists) specifically wanted dead. It's hard to say what definition of terrorism MI6 works with...

In any case, such comparisons are politically quite risky. A drugs advisor to the British government recently got into all kinds of trouble for pointing out in an opinion article that horse-riding in the UK carries a comparable risk of death as use of ecstasy (MDMA).

Aside from that he thinks ecstasy should be down-classified, his complaint was that the primary justification given by ministers for ecstasy's Class-A categorisation is that it's lethal; that this reasoning alone does not stand up to inspection next to other comparably risky recreational activities; and that what is needed is a more sophisticated consideration of this kind of risk in policy-making.

Which is pretty much what Inkster is saying about the threat of terrorism.

In both cases a comparison of raw death count is not enough to guide policy. It is simple fact that people are more willing and able to tolerate 2900 road deaths than 2900 deaths at the hands of terrorists. A democracy should reflect this "relative preference" for dying in one way rather than another. Provided of course that members of the public understand the relative risks and still express a desire to prioritise fatal terrorist attacks over fatal road traffic accidents.

MarkHFebruary 19, 2009 6:49 PM

@Moderator: Perhaps my previous post seemed political, or off-topic -- but the post was very specifically about the objective evaluation of risk, which is necessary to the formulation of effective security policy.

When Nigel Inkster compared traffic casualties to terrorism casualties, he clearly was arguing that the response to terrorism should be scaled in accord with awareness of the objective level of risk.

I think that the example of Israel's Gaza incursion is relevant, because it is a precise illustration of Inkster's message about weighing risk. The incursion was advertised as being an action to improve security. Perhaps even more strongly than the response of the West to terrorist attacks, the Gaza incursion offers a security lesson: a security policy that is not guided by a realistic assessment of risks, offers little gain in security compared to the resources expended.

GriskuparFebruary 20, 2009 5:52 AM

An excellent illustration of the importance of the subjunctive: "Asked what dangers were more serious than terrorism, Mr Inkster suggested that British government planners were more concerned regarding the possible results of global pandemics, or perhaps the worst-case outcomes of climate change."

Should be "suggested … be more concerned".

BF SkinnerFebruary 20, 2009 6:15 AM

@Brandioch Conner "to reduce radicalism, you have to REPLACE it "

Oddly enough I think that's what GW thought he was doing. He just sort of forgot to calculate the offset of what the rest of the world sees as American arrogance and lack of nuance...Oh and our continued support of really awful regimes like the House of Saud.

I think we probably will have to "kill and arrest" the worst, the most committed. But how many is that really? A couple dozen or hundred in
a population of 1.5 billion?

@Toby - Of course the intelligence agencies have been politicized but this is nothing new. The Wilson affair in England where they were subverting the PM, The intention of the Joint Chief to remove JFK if he wasn't as hawkish as Eisenhower, Bush I's time as director in the CIA where the intel on the USSR went from contained to explosive danger. These agencies are run by people and men who want power know how to position like minded people in places that are useful to them (cf Chaney and Yoo). It's why the choosing of the people to run these agencies is so important. Impartiality may be too much to ask for when survival is the line.

A QuestionFebruary 20, 2009 3:54 PM

Why do we always examine these questions only from the side of the "West?"

For instance, the chronic but ineffective rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza - that other posters here say caused 2 Israeli deaths per year - were the causes of several hundred of Lebanese and Gazan deaths. How "cost effective" is that?

Can we examine these sorts of things from both sides or is there a valid reason for what looks like bias?

Brandioch ConnerFebruary 20, 2009 11:45 PM

@A Question:
"Can we examine these sorts of things from both sides or is there a valid reason for what looks like bias?"

There's no bias.

In the example you cited, the people launching the rocket attacks WANT the disproportionate response because that justifies their attacks and converts more people to extremism.

Killing 2 Israelis a year means that two families may become more extremist than before.

Getting Israel to kill hundreds of people in retaliation means that hundreds of families my become more extremist than before.

To solve the problem, you have to break the cycle.

Tom71February 21, 2009 3:27 PM

I'd really like to know how they measured that the "more nuanced message of the Obama administration" has already shown results.

San Francisco KidFebruary 22, 2009 4:57 PM

I agree with most of you. Bush is Hitler and Obama should end the War on Terror and abolish the Department of Defense. Let's give that money to homeless people.

Besides, so what if a few thousand people were killed on Sept 11th - the the little Eichmanns deserved it.

MarkHFebruary 23, 2009 2:08 AM

@San Francisco Kid: Do I detect sarcasm?

I don't read any of the comments here to mean "the US and UK should make no security response to the threat of mass murder by extremists," or even to mean "every security response made by these countries is wrong."

Personally, I take the threat very seriously. Responding to this threat is way too important, for us to tolerate getting it way the hell wrong. So my position, is that it is important that national security responses be rational, and effective.

If, for example -- and a very strong has been made for this -- the US and UK have taken actions that actually increased the threat of terrorism, and the number of these murders worldwide -- then these were truly horrible mistakes, and it is VERY VERY IMPORTANT that we learn from them, and figure out how to do better.

I'm sure many will disagree with this, but analysts who seem to know what they are talking about say that just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, al Qaeda was nearly beaten down. Huge mistakes in the west gave this hideous organization the reviving breath of life, and thousands of eager new volunteers. Wow!

If I understand Bruce's writings, he has been striving to tell the world that (a) perceptions of risk, (b) perceptions of safety/security, and (c) assessment of proposed security measures, are very often mistaken. Ordinary experience and intuition are pretty rotten for these purposes. Because of this, looking at data and conducting reasoned analysis are vital to effective security.

I think that's what Inkster was talking about, and what many of the commenters here write about.

MarcFebruary 23, 2009 6:06 AM

"If I hear one more speaker suggest that the root of terrorism is poverty I'll probably become a terrorist myself," he joked. "But we have to acknowledge that it's a factor."

If I hear one more security expert acknowledge that poverty is a factor in terrorism I'll...

Timothy McVeigh wasn't poor, the 9/11 hijackers were actually fairly well off. A large income disparity in a society makes it more likely to produce terrorists. As such, the way to discourage extremism isn't making everyone rich, but providing an outlet for discontentment within the system. An example is helping build a middle class to allow upward social mobility.

This goes to the heart of security against many such threats.

NikFebruary 24, 2009 1:48 AM

While I agree with his overall position, he (Inkster) needs to do some better research. UK road deaths are ~3500 per annum; he's way off claiming "every year in the UK, more people die in road accidents than have been killed by terrorists in all of recorded history." -- over 3,000 were killed in the "troubles" in Ireland alone.

Clive RobinsonFebruary 24, 2009 3:32 AM

@ Nik,

"While I agree with his overall position, he (Inkster) needs to do some better research."

One problem is the definition of "killed by terrorists"

"Official" figures tend to be a heck of a lot more conservative than others for reporting reasons, to avoid double counting etc.

For instance some of those killed in NI where for "punishment reasons", some just disapeared so are not "officialy dead", oh and there are those killed by the various security services.

Unfortunatly the same sort of "official" happens with road deaths where construction and other workers killed by vehicals are recorded as "industrial/workplace" and those killed off of "public roads" etc or who die sometime later.

Then there is the issue of what is the UK...

Historicaly and often officialy NI is not part of the United Kingdom only England, Scotland and Wales are. It's why you see in official documents etc,

"United Kingdom and Northern Ireland"

Or the more ambiguous,

"United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland"

Which could mean either.

Then there are expressions such as "Mainland UK" "on the mainland" etc.

As the figures are of similar magnitude it makes the differences "drop into the measurment noise".

All in all it is a mess that a spin doctor could have a field day with...

Clive RobinsonFebruary 24, 2009 4:52 AM

@ Marc,

"If I hear one more security expert acknowledge that poverty is a factor in terrorism I'll..."

It depends on what you mean by "poverty".

I and others would argue It is actually the root cause of some if not the majority of terrorist activity and in many cases other civil unrest and wars.

Poverty has many meanings but one is peoples inability to earn sufficient money to be able to sustain the basic needs of life.

It follows on from this that if a significant number of people in any given region are in this state there is also the inability to provide basic infrestructure, education, health care etc.

This in turn leads on to social disparity between that region and other more affluent regions. For instance if you compare the whole of New York to drought riden parts of the world like sub Saharan Africa you will see considerable disparity. This is the cause of Aid packages, be they from Governments or NGO's such as charities.

But what if you then compare various parts of New York, Washington or Detroit?

You have poor areas and affluent areas in quite a small region, does this give rise to aid packages and charity?

Well not realy a lot of people belive it gives rise to significant crime levels and significant social discontent, that has at times given rise to violent social unrest.

As you noted terrorists themselves tend not to be poor, but sufficiently well funded to carry out their aims and objectives either directly or through others.

For those actually carrying out the terrorist activity directly it is usually the sense of injustice of poor-v-rich that puts them on the path.

But for those "directing minds" that carry out terorism indirectly through others the reasons are usually political not social injustice (ie bringing down the House of Saud by attacking the US).

You can then argue that the sentiment that causes charity (a sense of guilt at being more affluent) is also the same that is used and manipulated to produce those that carry out terrorism directly.

Even if you do not agree with this, then there are secondary arguments about the causes of terrorism such as "nothing to lose", "lacking education", "political oppression" etc. that in turn can be shown to have their roots in social disparity which directly affects peoples ability to move out of (relative) poverty.

But the important thing to remember is that the issues to do with poverty cannot be just solved by throwing money at it. There is the danger of building a "dependancy culture" which is what drug dealers try to do to their "customers" to raise profits. And incidently what some people belive China is doing with Africa currently.

el chubboFebruary 25, 2009 5:23 PM

i think the UK needs to devote some real resources to monitoring this Inkster guy carefully. after all, he said he would become a terrorist if he heard one more person say that poverty causes terrorism. maybe he's part of a sleeper cell. if he worked for us, he'd be in Git'mo already. those limeys need to wake up & smell the ammonium nitrate.

John David GaltFebruary 28, 2009 11:02 PM

@anonymous gw: Good point, but Britain, like all EU countries, is committed to the "precautionary principle" which amounts to letting fear of things like GW determine government policy.

I propose a new precautionary principle: (parodying David Hume) "Imposing extraordinary demands on other people should require extraordinary proof."

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