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Terror and Security

Lecture at the University of Southern California

By the Rt Hon Charles Clarke

October 19th 2017


I would like to start by thanking Professor Jonathan Aronson and Professor Lord Eatwell for their invitation to participate in this course. I am honoured and delighted to do so. I am going to talk about ‘Terror and Security’ and I begin by pointing out what you all will know: that the terrorist threat is very much with us:-

- Last Saturday there was a huge truck bombing in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. It killed at least 281 people. The atrocity was committed by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, allied to al-Qaeda, which is seeking the overthrow of the UN-backed government in Somalia, established in 2012, and has carried out a string of attacks in neighbouring Kenya.

- This Monday a 29-year-old New Jersey man, Ahmad Khan Rahimi an Afghan-born US citizen was convicted on all charges of planting two bombs in Manhattan, New York City on 17 September 2016, just over a year ago, injuring dozens of people.

- This Tuesday, the head of the UK’s security service MI5, Andrew Parker, whom I know very well and is a sober analyst, stated that the tempo of counter-terrorism operations was the highest he had seen in his 34-year career at MI5. There is "more terrorist activity coming at us, more quickly" and it can also be "harder to detect". At the moment MI5 is running 500 live operations involving 3,000 individuals involved in extremist activity in some way.

- This Wednesday the bid of US President Donald Trump to impose travel restrictions on citizens from eight countries entering the US has been overruled by two federal judges, in Hawaii and Maryland, before it could take effect this week. Both judges cited Mr Trump's campaign description of it as a "Muslim ban". The policy targets were Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea, as well as some Venezuelan officials.

I cite these very contemporary examples just to make clear that those who hoped that the death of Osama Bin Laden signalled the beginning of the end of the terrorist threat to the world were not correct. In the same way the good news that on Tuesday a US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters says it has taken full control of Raqqa, the city which Islamic State (IS) made the headquarters of its self-styled "Caliphate" in early 2014 - and in doing so implementing an extreme interpretation of Islamic law and using beheadings, crucifixions and torture to terrorize residents who opposed its rule – in no way means that the danger from terrorism is removed.

The importance of terror in the global economy

But I need to explain at the outset why a lecture on ‘Terror and Security’, should feature as part of your course entitled ‘The Global Economy 2030’.

The reason is that the goal of the main terrorist threat which the world faces at the moment, notably from ISIL / Al Quaida and their associates, is to bring down and destroy the liberal world order which, since the 16th century has been the foundation of our economic success as well as the cultural and political strength of our societies

In common with most of the developed world the United Kingdom and the United States are both societies which value the free economy which has built prosperity over centuries, both in our countries and across the world.

That free economy is intimately linked to the other freedoms which are at the core of our societies:-

  • free speech and freedom of expression, including a free media;

  • a society which respects all faiths, races and beliefs;

  • a society founded on the rule of law;

  • every citizen having a democratic stake in our society with women playing a full role in our society.

We can all point to aspects of our societies which fall short of these aspirations and we all know that our society, based on these values, will continue to evolve and develop.

But we also know that our achievements are based on centuries of struggle by millions of people and our values are not slight or passing. They are deeply-rooted, profound and embraced by the overwhelming majority of our citizens, from whatever faith group or minority ethnic group they come. Indeed I note in passing that most of those who have migrated to our countries, and indeed those who now seek to do so, have done so precisely because they embrace these values.

Our society, characterised by common values, diverse backgrounds, faiths and life styles has been a stunningly successful model of integration, not least economically.

And when we consider the development of the Global Economy over the last 40 years or so we know that our type of democratic society has been the ambition which has driven enormous political, social and economic change over that time.

In those 40 years:-

  • Fascist or militaristic Greece Spain and Portugal have been succeeded by democracy;

  • Apartheid South Africa has been succeeded by democracy;

  • Colonialist Southern Africa has been replaced by democracy

  • Latin and Central American dictatorship has been replaced by democracy;

  • The whole of totalitarian Central and Eastern Europe has been succeed by democracy;

  • And in South-East Asia too forms of democracy have replaced dictatorship.

I perfectly well understand that in each of these parts of the world massive problems remain and there are still significant issues which remain to be addressed. In some counties some aspects of the new democracies are under threat.

However, it remains the case that the changes I describe are absolutely enormous changes in one generation and changes in the right direction. They prove that change for the good can happen, and moreover that it can happen without enormous violence or bloodshed.

And the fight for democracy is at the core of this change. Our task is to strengthen that, to increase the capacity of democratic institutions, to establish the rule of law and to develop international co-operation to address and overcome the challenges that we face.

(I note here in parentheses that the inward looking nationalisms which have led to the BREXIT vote in the UK, the strong nationalist election challenges in some European countries and the election here of Donald Trump do not in my opinion offer any answer to the problems that we face. But that is not my main theme today.)

Over the same time frame we have moved from the bipolar US-Soviet Cold War world of 1945-89 to the unipolar world from 1989 to about 2006 when the US was the single world power and then, following the mid-term congressional elections responding to the tribulations of Afghanistan and Iraq, to a zero-polar world where the United States no longer seeks to determine events in large parts of the world. Perhaps this zero-polar world can more accurately be seen as a multi-polar world whose many risks and difficulties are steadily becoming more difficult to resolve.

That is the context in which terror poses the threat it does.

What drives on ISIL, the varied successors of Al Quaida and their disciples in many countries through the world is their idea of the Caliphate, a regime of power and control which is utterly opposed to all the values which are fundamental to our societies. Unlike previous organisations which resorted to terrorism, like some of the national liberation movements of 20th century, these are not in pursuit of political ideas like national independence from colonial rule, or equality for all citizens without regard for race or creed, or freedom of expression without totalitarian repression. Such ambitions are, at least in principle, negotiable and in many cases have actually been negotiated. The 1998 Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland is a case in point.

However there can be no negotiation about the re-creation of the Caliphate or about the imposition of Sharia law or about the suppression of equality between the sexes or about the ending of free speech. These values are fundamental to our societies and simply cannot be negotiated away.

For this generation of terrorism our society itself is an affront and reproach to the ideologues who believe that only their way of living life is the right one. That is why their terrorist attacks in the last three years include a gay nightclub in Orlando, music concerts in Paris and Manchester and a Christmas Party in San Bernadino here in California, in 2015.

The ISIL/Al Quaida struggle is not a battle for social justice driven by poverty, social exclusion or race discrimination in which the poor and dispossessed are main actors. Instead the drivers of this generation of terrorist threat are well educated, prosperous and driven by an ideology which is utterly opposed to the core tenets of our society and economy.

I also think that it is wrong to claim, as some do, that the terrorists’ motivation is driven by some desire to seek justice in the Middle East – the part of the world where political and economic progress has been most difficult to achieve in the past half century.

The only common thread in the approach of AQ and ISIL in that region is a violent and destructive opposition to democracy in any form. Wherever they find any form of democracy, in Israel, in Palestine, in Iraq or in Afghanistan they seek to destroy it, exactly as they are trying to do at the moment in Somalia.

The most important conclusion to draw from this analysis, if you accept it, is that there is not some particular government policy decision, or even some overall policy stance, which we could change and thus somehow remove our societies from this terrorist firing line.

It is also important to appreciate that the methods of this generation of terrorism are different from those of previous times. They recognise no common bonds with people who have different belief and so they are prepared to kill indiscriminately. Indeed mass murder is their explicit objective, their measure of success in their terms. It is why the fear of their gaining control of a weapon of mass destruction is so potent. They would in principle be ready to use it. Similarly they would in principle be ready to use cyber terrorism to bring down core elements of our international economic relationships.

Their approach bears more comparison with self-destructive cults, like the 19th century nihilists, than modern political movements. Their modern nihilism is innovative, flexible and cunning because they approach their task with all the resources of modern technology and all the focus of modern zealotry.

The existential risk posed by these terrorist organisations threatens the whole economic and social system upon which our prosperity depends. That is the first order reason why the consequences of terrorism need to be considered within the framework of our economic future.

But there are second order implications too. Terrorism is used as an explicit threat to damage economic inward investment, or particular industries such as tourism, in certain parts of the world such as North Africa, parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans in Europe and some parts of Asia. Israel is under constant threat as to its very existence.

The costs in terms of lives lost and destroyed by terrorism are immense. However the direct economic costs of terrorism are less significant than the indirect economic consequences which can be dramatic.

There are, for example, a number of interesting analyses of consequences of a different form of terrorism, that in Northern Ireland and the enormous costs involve were one of the factors which pushed all sides towards the Northern Ireland peace process.

A final consideration is the need to reduce the world’s dependence on key resources, such as oil and gas. One of the most important reasons for seeking energy sustainability within our economies is to reduce our vulnerabilities to those who control key resources. This can overlap with concerns about terrorism, for example in relation to Saudi Arabia, Iran and some other countries.

So I hope that you will agree that Terror and Security’ needs to be considered properly within the context of ‘The Global Economy 2030’.

The Nature of the Islamist terror threat

The conclusion I draw from this assessment is that our societies need to contest and then to defeat the threat that terrorism poses. This is not entirely the trivial conclusion that it may seem, but I draw it out because there are people who argue that the number of deaths from terrorism, though appalling, is substantially less, for example, than the number of people who die in car accidents and their argument runs that it would be better to focus our resources on improving road safety rather than contesting terrorism.

I hope that the reasons why I reject this view are clear from what I have said. But it is important to state the need for us contest and then defeat the threat from terrorism. So how do we do that.

I start by addressing the nature of the threat, then understanding who is committing these attacks and for what reasons, what techniques they do use, or might in future, and then what measures we can take to prevent them.

In describing the nature of the threat I draw on a very helpful study published in June this year, and which I mentioned in the reading list which I suggested for this course. It is 'Fear Thy Neighbor: Radicalization and Jihadist Attacks in the West' by Lorenzo Vidino, Francesco Marone and Eva Entenmann. It is a collaboration between the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in the Hague, and the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan. A summary of this, with the numbers updated to include attacks until the end of August this year, can be found on the BBC website

The survey covers the period from June 2014 (when ISIL declared the Caliphate in existence) until June 2017 (or the BBC summary to August 2017*). A rather simplified summary of the main attacks is set out in this table. It includes the 11 most lethal and includes the countries where attacks took place. It briefly describes the nature of the attack and makes a comment on some of the believed connections of the perpetrator and their status:-

Over that time:-

- 424 (395*) people (not including perpetrators) were killed by jihadists in the West, and almost 1800 injured. The biggest 11 attacks caused 386 of those deaths.

- There were 63 (51*) attacks. These took place in 10 (8*) EU or North American countries. The largest number of attacks was in France, followed by the US. The authors now estimate that there is an average 5 terror attacks per month in the west.

- 85 (65*) individual perpetrators were involved in committing the attacks, of whom 2 were women. Of the 65 to June, 43 lost their lives during attacks, 21 were arrested and 1 is still at large, thought to be in Syria.

Of the perpetrators:-

Relationship to ISIL

8% were acting on direct orders of ISIS leadership

66% were individuals who had some form of connection but acted independently

26% had no direct connection but were inspired by AQ. An example of this category is the San Bernadino attack near here in December 2015 when 14 people were killed. The FBI described them as "homegrown violent extremists" inspired by foreign terrorist groups. But they were not directed by such groups and were not part of any terrorist cell or network. They had become radicalized over several years prior to the attack, consuming "poison on the internet" and expressing a commitment to jihadism and martyrdom. They had traveled to Saudi Arabia in the years before the attack.

>20% were converts to Islam, higher in North America


The average age was 27.5

The age range was 15-54

The vast majority were in their ‘20s, 25% > 30, 6 > 40

Criminal history

74% were known to authorities before attack

50% had a criminal background

26% had served time in prison

18% are known to have previously been foreign fighters, but they tended to be involved in the most lethal attacks

National Status

73% were citizens of country where the attack happened

14% were legal residents or legal visitors from neighbouring countries

5% were refugees or asylum-seekers at time of attack

7% were in the country illegally or awaiting deportation

In September 2014, the IS official spokesman, Abu Mohamed Al Adnani delivered a speech, widely described as a call for “Do It Yourself Terrorism”, in which he sought to incite and inspire all believers to carry out attacks on the West. These incitements were frequently repeated.

In addition it is estimated that there are over 7,700 western foreign fighters, and another 35,000 extremists from 120 countries, who have answered answered the call from ISIS to go and fight. These include, according to Andrew Parker, 800 people from the UK, of whom 130 have been killed.

This summary analysis gives us a clear sense of who it is that are actually carrying out their attacks and their relationships with ISIL.

However I need to digress here to discuss briefly the problem of what we should describe as “terrorism”.

Other forms of terrorism, and attacks which are not really “terrorism”

The main thrust of this lecture addresses terrorism which is sponsored by Islamic fundamentalists, but of course there are other terrorist threats.

The types of attack which I think can be described as “terrorism” include those which explicitly seek to make economic or political threats, for example against particular countries, economic sectors or even particular businesses. They include those which use force and threats in a way which is designed to threaten our political and economic system.

I have mentioned “terrorism” in the context of “national liberation” struggles in the 20th century, and there is an enormous number of examples in countries across the world. For the reasons mentioned earlier, I don’t believe that in general these represented the kind of existential challenge which that of the Islamic fundamentalists does to our global economic and social system.

That said, however, every resort to terrorism does require action to address it and, of course, often political solutions, however loudly dismissed at earlier stages, are the basis of achieving stability.

It is in my view also reasonable to describe some of the ultra-right attacks which have taken place as “terrorism”. The most recent UK example was the murder of the British Labour member of Parliament Jo Cox whilst she was attending her constituency surgery. There are similar examples in the US such as the Oklahoma City bombings, killing 168 people in 1995 and the Los Angeles Airport shooting in 2013.

There are also terrorist-style campaigns designed to prevent particular forms of perfectly legal business. The string of anti-abortion terrorist attacks in this country is a good example, as was the ‘animal rights’ terrorist activity in the UK which sought to close down all research using animals. We were ultimately able to prevent actions.

These forms of what I will, perhaps controversially, label ‘lower order’ terrorism can and should be dealt with by good policing methods which successfully identify the culprits and bring them to justice.

And finally there are appalling attacks which I think it is difficult to describe as “terrorist”. The best recent example is the Las Vegas shooting on October 1st this year, when Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people and injured 546. I see this as the latest in a long string of such attacks, such as those at Hungerford (1987) and Dunblane(1996) in Britain, in Oslo (2011) and of course literally hundreds of such attacks in the USA.

Whatever the reasons for these, and whatever the law enforcement means which are needed to prevent them – for example reducing access to weapons - I do not include this type of violence within the category of “terrorism”.

How to contest the terrorist threat

The best way to contest these terrorist threats, whether the existential challenge from Islamist fundamentalism, or the other varieties which I have mentioned, is through effective policing and criminal justice measures, intensively applied.

I identify the following five key points:-

First, control access to potential weapons

The terrorist organizations that I have been describing are ready in principle to use a whole range of deadly and destructive weapons and techniques including Weapons of Mass Destruction (nuclear and biochemical); poisons (such as the sarin which was used to attach the Tokyo subway system in 1995 and killed 12 people); guns, daggers and other conventional weaponry; and vehicles such as aeroplanes, trucks and cars; they are ready to disrupt our cybereconomy, possible catastrophically.

Obviously there are varying degrees of difficulty in controlling access to such potential weapons. However it can be, and indeed is, possible for governments to control much of these, and to inhibit their use for these purposes. It is obviously one of the reasons why such high priority is rightly given to controlling access to WMD.

Guns are more difficult, not only in the US where the debate has been so intense for so many years. Many people in Europe felt that the Brussels attack in March 2016 was made much more possible by very weak gun control in Belgium, in contrast to other European countries.

The fact that progress can be made in these areas is illustrated by the fact that the incidence of successful plane hijacking has been significantly reduced in the last 10/15 years.

For a long time hijacking aeroplanes was the terrorists’ weapon of choice, until tighter and harsher airport security made that much less feasible, albeit at a cost to the ease of travel.

A consistent and determined strategy to reduce the access of potential terrorists to destructive weapons is necessary. Of course an enormous amount has already been done.

Second, strengthen potential terrorist targets, including critical national infrastructure

An enormous amount has already been done to limit the capacity of terrorist attacks to damage the fundamental economic infrastructure of any country. Transport hubs, power stations, water supplies etc are all potential dangerous targets and, as with the controlling access to potential weapons, a consistent and determined strategy to ‘harden’ potential targets has to be followed through.

Third, identify potential terrorists and terrorist organizations

The key means of identifying potential terrorists, their networks and organizations is the collection of intelligence in a variety of forms.

The 'Fear Thy Neighbor: Radicalization and Jihadist Attacks in the West' report, which I quoted earlier, comes to the important conclusion that the existence of what they call ‘radicalization hubs’, such as salafist groups, radical mosques, prison networks, training camps and bookshops are a vital factor in explaining what turned some individuals towards terrorist action rather than just rhetoric.

It also explains the highly geographically differentiated nature of the threats.

Interestingly the G8 Security summit which I hosted in Sheffield in June 2005, and which was attended by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Attorney General Al Gonzalez for the USA, spent some time discussing the role of prisons in enabling terrorist networks to gain strength.

It is essential for us to work closely with the mainstream faith communities and to understand their preoccupations, in order to isolate extremism. An interesting discussion of the challenges for this approach is given in ‘The Islamist’ by Ed Husain, published in 2007, whose personal journey has led him to be an active advocate of the kind of approach which I am describing here.

Tracking down these networks is essential. Use of a variety of other forms of surveillance can be essential. Following the attacks in London on July 7th 2005, when I was Home Secretary, which killed 52 people plus the 4 bombers, the CCTV films of their movements were an important tool in understanding how they had operated and how they committed their attack.

This also means working internationally and sharing data between countries, which has been an essential means of preventing a number of scheduled attacks.

These issues of intelligence and surveillance are essential for our societies to discuss. There is always, of course, a balance between liberty and security and any society at any time has to decide what that balance is.

Getting the balance right, however, is at the core of identifying who potential terrorists are and who they are not.

President Trump’s blanket approach to banning Muslims from certain countries travelling to the USA is the opposite of that intelligence-led approach which is why I think the Courts are turning him down and I think will continue to do so.

The report I have quoted here says that 73% of the perpetrators were citizens of the country where they committed the attacks (as, by the way, were the 4 7/7 murderers in London in 2005). Another 14% were legal residents or legal visitors from neighbouring countries.

Linking migration to terrorism is fundamentally mistaken. Blanket bans of the President Trump variety achieve nothing in inhibiting terrorism. Proper use of intelligence and surveillance does.

The challenge is to get that right.

Fourth, attack the terrorist organizations at their source

There will be continued debate about the effectiveness and purpose of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and here is not the place to go into them in any detail.

However I do believe that it is right to contest ISIL / Al Quaida where they are, and, for that matter, to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

I welcome the fact that ISIL has lost control of the headquarters of its so-called Caliphate, in Raqqa in Syria and that intervention from the US and UK and others has made that possible.

Intervention remains necessary, though of course only on the basis of properly considered and applied principles which need full discussion.

Fifth, build and strenghten our democratic societies

But the most important way to contest this terrorist threat is by building and strengthening the democracy of our society, by isolating extremism in its various manifestations, by strengthening the legal framework within which we contest terrorism and by developing more effective means to protect our democracy.

I cited, as one of my suggested readings for this course, the book, “Identity and Violence: the illusion of destiny” by Amartya Sen, which was published in 2006. The reason I did so is that I think he articulates clearly the importance of the right of every individual to choose their identity and not to be categorised in some general description, like “Muslim”. That value seems to me fundamental.

I assert throughout all this the need to retain and strengthen our human rights and the values which underlie them. But I say at the same time that the right to be protected from the death and destruction caused by indiscriminate terrorism is at least as important as the right of the terrorist to be protected from torture and ill-treatment.

I believe that our peoples expect not only the protection of individual rights but also the protection of democratic values such as safety and security under the law.

We need a legal framework which sets the difficult balance in these rights.


I want to conclude by thanking you again for the chance to discuss these issues with you.

Our societies are strong enough and resilient enough to maintain themselves against the kinds of terrorist attack we have been facing.

But to do so the subject really does need the attention it deserves, and, even more important, to be addressed at the level of real policy and not easy slogans. That is the responsibility of all politicians and public commentators.

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