New Forest East



Dr Julian Lewis: The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr Bruce George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, invited me to expand on my earlier intervention about the Intelligence Services' assessment in the 1990s of the rising threat from Islamic fundamentalist extremism, and I shall do so with the limited knowledge that I have.


That knowledge simply goes back to an incident in, if I remember correctly, 1994 or 1995, when, perhaps looking backwards a little too much and forwards too little, I was concerned about membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee and in particular the fact that people were being appointed to that Committee who had a history of sympathy with the former Soviet Union. I discussed the matter with a senior parliamentarian – it would be invidious to identify him – who said, “Quite frankly, Julian, we are not bothered about that any more”. Surprise surprise. What was a genuine surprise was that he then said, “We are concerned about whether any members of the Committee have links with Muslim fundamentalism”.


I was impressed by the fact that, at that early stage, when there had been no significant eruption of Muslim extremism in this country, the committee should have been already thinking about such matters. We cannot lay at the door of the Intelligence and Security Services the accusation that they were not thinking about these matters long before 11 September 2001; clearly they were doing so. We have to wonder why, when they had appreciated that Muslim extremism would be the next threat over the horizon, the strategic defence review carried out in 1998, several years later, did not pay more attention to that threat.


The Chairman of the Defence Committee criticised the post-11 September Government pronouncements in various Ministry of Defence documents as being too bland in stating that in the defence of the United Kingdom, the fight had to be carried to the potential enemy long before he got too close to home. I think that criticism a little unjustified. If there is a primary point that I want to convey in my contribution, it is that passive defence against terrorism is never enough; only a form of offensive defence can hope to be successful.


That problem is not new. Strangely enough, the strategic planners of the United Kingdom – in the days to which I refer it was still just about at the tail end of what was called “the British empire” – had to face something very similar. At the end of the Second World War, they had to assess what the arrival of mass destruction weapons meant for the future defence of the country. Some of the top scientific brains in the country were then still available to the Government service because they had been recruited as scientific advisers to the respective service Ministries throughout the Second World War. They turned their attention to the prospect of whether there was any straightforward or practical way to counter the threat posed by the advent of biological and, as they were then described, atomic weapons. They quickly came to the conclusion that it was important to keep up the techniques of conventional military warfare and maintain the traditional roles of the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force in safeguarding sea communications and defending the United Kingdom's air space, as no one knew what sort of conventional conflict might yet take place. However, because only a few mass destruction weapons were needed to cause massive devastation, the only real defence against them was the ability to threaten immediate and devastating counter-attacks, thus deterring people from launching an offensive in the first place.


There is a parallel with today's situation. In the international threat facing our homeland, a small number of people may use the technology that the west itself has developed. Modern airliners, for example, may attack modern buildings, resulting in the deaths of many people following detailed organisation by a few individuals. That mini form of mass destruction is difficult to stop because only a few people undertake it. As we heard from the Minister of State for Defence in response to one of my interventions about individual terrorists undertaking copycat operations, there is no way in which society can protect against every deranged individual who may want to attack it. There is therefore a parallel, as a small number of people pose a disproportionate threat of damage and destruction.


However, there is also a difference in the solution to the problem – deterrents cannot be applied to people who are so filled with hatred that rational consideration of their own interests cannot be deemed applicable. If we are dealing with those who are so full of hatred that they are prepared to commit suicide to bring down their perceived enemy, we cannot hope to deter them from attacking. However, if we cannot hope to deter them and cannot necessarily, because of the mass destruction multiplier effect, hope to prevent them from carrying out those attacks, it follows that the MOD's basic approach is correct – we must stop them launching the attack in the first place. The best way to do so is, indeed, to attack their bases or at least their centres of power.


[Mr Paul Keetch (LD): The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned one key aspect of the campaign against terrorism, although he may be coming on to it – intelligence. Is it not the case that it may not be necessary to launch a pre-emptive attack with the aim of stopping an attack? With adequate intelligence, one can know that an attack is being planned, so it can be detected and stopped. Is it not the case that we probably do not know how many attacks have already been thwarted by excellent Intelligence? Will the hon. Gentleman join me in paying tribute to those people in British Intelligence who are protecting us in that way?]


The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my remarks very well indeed. I endorse entirely what he said, but I have not yet elaborated on what I mean by offensive defence. It is not enough to talk about intelligence as a way of finding out what is intended – that is of value only if we take counter-action. We should, of course, praise the thwarting of individual terrorist initiatives, as the hon. Gentleman said, but that alone is not a sufficient answer to the problem. As in the case of attack with nuclear weapons – only one or two have to get through to cause indescribable and unacceptable damage – so with terrorism. Only a small proportion of those attacks need succeed and escape the best attempts of the Intelligence Services to thwart them for the results to be unbearable and entirely unacceptable.


We must bear in mind the fact that what has happened so far has not been anything like as bad as it could have been. That may surprise hon. Members, but it is true. My mind goes back to the emergency debate held on 14 September last year in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, when I outlined in my contribution the sort of draconian measures that would be necessary in a free democracy if we protected ourselves against a series of suicide attacks on a par with what goes on within the borders of Israel or the occupied territories. I leave aside the rights and wrongs of that conflict – I am looking at this purely in technical terms.


A comparison could be made with the long history of the confrontation of our country's Intelligence Services and armed forces with the IRA. In the course of that long struggle – I hate to say this because I know that it will be misinterpreted – a sort of rules system was in operation. The people who carried out terrorist attacks on British society did so in a ruthless but calculated way. If a particular political initiative was coming up, they would decide whether they wanted to derail it, and whether they should have a bomb explosion, assassinate a soldier or whatever. It was almost like a horrible lethal form of chess. Similarly, I suspect – although I do not know – that the response of our Intelligence and Security Services was strangely analogous. When the IRA went beyond a certain level of offensive behaviour, the security services were free to take firmer and more deadly action than was normally allowed.


The system that developed was therefore graduated for political purposes. One factor, however, makes that comparison with the more recent international terrorist threat slightly strained. It would have been easy for the IRA to cause many more explosions and casualties – for example, by not giving bomb warnings, which they often did – had they wanted to do so. They did not do so because they were playing the deadly game that I have described – but such considerations of restraint do not apply to international terrorists of the type who attacked the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Such people are out to cause maximum casualties at every opportunity. The fact that that has not occurred in this country so far is a measure of genuine weakness on their part, rather than a wish to restrain themselves. Where they have been able to strike, as in Indonesia, they have done so. We must ask ourselves why they have been relatively weak in their subsequent activities against their most hated enemies – first, the United States, and secondly, Great Britain.

Our Government, with the full support of the Opposition, have stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States. The terrorists' response to the United States and our country has been low level because they have been put on the back foot following the counter-action against the terrorist base in Afghanistan. Any branch of that deadly network must also be concerned because, wherever international terrorism raises its head, it simply provokes the authorities to suppress it. We know that in Pakistan there was, shall we say, an ambivalent relationship between the Pakistan intelligence service and extreme Muslim fundamentalists. Since 11 September, the Pakistan authorities have been forced to crack down. We know similarly that parallel work will take place in Indonesia.


I see that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr George), the Chairman of the Select Committee, has resumed his seat. It seems that despite the critical remarks that he made about it being too bland to talk about keeping the threat away from us as far as possible, rather than relying primarily on defensive measures at home, that must be the essence of our counter-terrorism strategy. It is vital to keep these people on the back foot. The best defence of the United Kingdom is to keep them on the run.


I shall conclude with a small suggestion that I hope the Minister will take on board. In my first intervention on the Minister of State, I referred to the danger of copycat terrorism and to the vulnerability of open democratic societies to anyone who wants to send a white powder through the post or set himself up as a sniper, whether it be for terrorist purposes, for motives of extortion or for any other indefensible reason. The trouble that we face in the modern world with the new feature of international terrorism is that the potential terrorist need not even know, let alone be in touch with, the leader of his organisation. We now have terrorist websites on the internet. There is the ability for instructions to be given from a cave in Afghanistan, for example, or from somewhere on the Pakistan border to those who wish to sacrifice themselves to the terrorist cause. All that can be done without any direct chain of command.


I wonder whether the Government, given the threat that we face, have paid any serious attention to something that I know does not appeal to those who believe in the freedom of cyberspace. It is something which I know would be technically difficult, but at least it could be worked upon, perhaps on a voluntary basis, with the internet service providers that are responsible for managing a great deal of the material that goes into cyberspace.

Serious talks should be held between Government agencies and with the firms responsible for the management of the content of the internet, with a view seriously to assist in limiting the potential for renegade individuals, copycat terrorists and various other deranged enemies of a free society to obtain ideas, instruction and deadly plans as a result of internet cyberspace communications.