Terrorism needs international action, USW lecture told by former security chief

Lord Ricketts gave a talk entitled ‘War and Terrorism: Lessons from a Government Insider’ as part of the Global Choices; Talking Points series

Lord Ricketts gave a talk entitled ‘War and Terrorism: Lessons from a Government Insider’ 


‘THE scourge of terrorism will not be defeated without the closest international co-operation.’

That’s what the UK’s former National Security Adviser, Peter Ricketts - Baron Ricketts of Shortland - told an audience during a lecture at the University of South Wales (USW), which was delivered as part of the institution’s Global Choices: Talking Points series.

His talk – entitled ‘War and Terrorism: Lessons from a Government Insider’ – focused on the changing threat Britain, and other countries, are now facing from terrorism.

He told the audience that he began as a diplomat in the early 1970s, and had ‘spent much of my career dealing with wars and crises of one kind or another’. These included the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact, the 9/11 attacks on the US, and, as David Cameron’s National Security Adviser, the Arab Spring.

Now retired, he told the audience that we are in unprecedented times.


Listen to more of Lord Ricketts' thoughts

“The difference is that we are now living through more simultaneous upheavals than I can ever remember. Why is the world in such an unstable state?,” he said.

He explained that hopes of a long period of peace following the collapse of communism soon ended with George W Bush’s attempt to impose his will on Iraq and Afghanistan, damaging the US reputation for supporting peace and security, while also weakening the United Nations.  

And that, he said, caused further problems.

“The coalition, including the UK, failed to prevent post-conflict Iraq descending into sectarian division and violence, which is still destabilising the region,” he said.

“Radicalised Sunni militia proved a fertile recruiting ground for Al Qaida and then ISIL. Now Syria is the epicentre of a Shia/Sunni struggle that is destabilising the region.

“In the US, and the UK, the judgement of public opinion is that we failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, at huge human and financial cost.

“This has shaken confidence, fairly or not, in the competence of our armed forces, our diplomacy and our intelligence. It has made our lawmakers suspicious of being drawn into further conflicts, especially on the basis of intelligence.”

Lord Ricketts added that there are, however, consequences of not intervening in international crises, just as there are of intervening.

“We and the Americans have learned again in Syria the hard lesson that, without a credible threat of force, diplomacy is left on the sidelines,” he said.

“For the first time in modern history, neither of us is playing any significant role in handling a major Middle East crisis. The Russians have grabbed the leading role by a very brutal use of military force. They may find they pay a heavy price for having turned the Sunni communities of the region into enemies.”

He added that Western Europe was bound to suffer the impact of the upheavals in the Middle East.

“Isis has proved very adept at exploiting our open societies, attracting thousands from Europe to join their fight, and using social media to incite terrorism here,” he said.

“The five million refugees who have left Syria are mainly a burden on the neighbouring countries. But the one million or so who arrived in Europe in 2015, in addition to the hundreds of thousands crossing from North Africa, have pushed migration to the top of the list of what Europeans say worries them most, which has been a major driver for the growth of far-right parties in many European countries. “

Lord Ricketts added that another reason for anger in many countries is still down to the financial crash of 2008-9.

“This pitched all Western countries into some version of austerity, the effects of which are still being felt today in many countries, including the UK,” he said.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States and the backing for Brexit in the UK  show how the two countries which embraced globalisation most enthusiastically are the ones that have suffered the biggest political upheaval, Lord Ricketts added.

“In France, Marine le Pen tried to ride the wave of popular anger with a protectionist, anti-immigration campaign,” he said.

“Emmanuel Macron, with no previous political experience, had the courage to campaign on a much more positive vision of France’s future: that it was capable of reforming, would benefit from free trade and from rebuilding a leading role with Germany in the EU. Against the predictions of polls and political parties, he won. He will, I’m confident, get a majority in the current legislative elections.  

“The Far Right also failed in Austria and the Netherlands, and it looks like Mrs Merkel will win a fourth term in Germany this autumn.”

Lord Ricketts explained that Trump’s plans are still to be confirmed, while Russia’s policies under Vladimir Putin could see the country attempt to rebuild its reputation as an international power.

“This is the troubled world into which Britain will be emerging from a 40-year experiment with the EU,” he said.

“But this is also another of those moments, like 1949 or 1989, where there is risk, but also an opportunity, to chart a new course.”

But what would our post-Brexit national security policy look like, Lord Ricketts asked.

“The recent series of terrorist attacks makes this the most urgent issue. We have of course lived with threats from terrorism for many years. Those of my age will remember the murderous IRA attacks of the 70s and 80s,” he said.

“The 7/7 bombings on the transport system in London showed the risk from a small minority who had grown up in this country but become so alienated that they were open to recruitment into what has aptly been called the ‘death cult’ of suicide attacks against innocent civilians.

“I don’t myself think there is any one simple explanation for why a small minority of young Muslims here and elsewhere in Europe turn on our society in this way. It follows that combating the ISIS-inspired death cult is very complex.

“An elaborate attack like 9/11 involved a lot of planning and communication, which could have allowed the intelligence community to detect and stop it.  The latest crude assaults using vehicles as battering rams and knives as murder weapons, involves minimal preparation.

“So the task of our security authorities has got even harder. They need the maximum help from within the Muslim community: friends, families, colleagues to spot the moment when someone who may have been expressing radical views suddenly gets serious about committing a murderous crime. The Prevent programme has been vital in training local authority workers and others who come into contact with potentially vulnerable people, to spot the signs of radicalisation.  

“But the voice of authority will never influence the small fraction of alienated young people who might be recruited into violence. We need the active support of the giants of the internet to remove material inciting to violence, and to find new role models who could encourage those tempted by the messages of hate to think again.

“Meanwhile, because the threat will never be zero, we will need to be resilient against any future attack. As the Manchester and London events showed, our counter-terrorist police capability is already at a high level, and the emergency services are well-prepared. As members of the public we have to be vigilant. 

“Perhaps the most powerful contribution we can make is not to be deterred from going about our life by these cowardly and pointless crimes.

“The scourge of terrorism will not be defeated without the closest international co-operation.  I can assure you, having been close to these things, that the operational co-operation with our allies has become instinctive.

“It is vital that Brexit does not disturb this work with our European neighbours. The Prime Minister has said that securing this continuing co-operation should be a priority in the Brexit negotiations.

“The same is true in the fight against cyber threats, whether they come from states or criminals. This is a threat which is growing fast as our world becomes more inter-connected.”

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