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Former Chief of British Secret Intelligence: Stop Viewing the ISIS Threat Through 9/11 Eyes

On Monday, former chief of British Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Richard Dearlove gave an insightful and provocative lecture entitled, “Terrorism and National Security: Proportion or Distortion?,” before the Royal United Services Institute.

The primary themes of his talk were: government, media, and commentators are misanalyzing the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism; extremist groups are focused on sectarian conflicts in the Middle East in which the US and UK are peripheral and not a central or direct target. The west should realign its intelligence priorities to confront these realities in proportion to their threat and dedicate other resources more proportionately to national security concerns such as Russia and China.

Sir Dearlove raises an alarm bell that current thinking about the threat from ISIS is distorted by seeing the situation through the prism of 9/11. And he argues that the publicity and the frame that has been applied to youths in British Muslim communities travelling to fight in Syria and Iraq will be counterproductive.

Sir Dearlove is also careful to “add a qualification” to his argument: the possibility of WMDs in extremists’ control. And he discusses “the weakness” in his assessment: knowledge about how the conflict might yet evolve.

The video of the lecture is below. Just Security has created a transcript of most of the lecture (thanks to one of our industrious interns, Adrian Lo).


Terrorism and National Security: Proportion or Distortion?

A lecture by
Sir Richard Dearlove KCMG OBE
Master, Pembroke College, University of Cambridge and former Chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).

July 7, 2014
Royal United Services Institute, Whitehall, London


[As a “starting point,” Sir Dearlove recalls how British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), commonly called MI6, allocated resources historically. During the Cold War, SIS “never allocated more than 38% to the threat from the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. That is to say, that even with the single overarching threat the intelligence community still managed to maintain a broad spread of requirements." In the late 1970-80s, in dealing with Irish terrorism, the place that the Irish terrorism threat occupied in our national security stance was “balanced and proportionate to the whole policy.” “We deliberately avoided the danger of making our national security policy dance to an Irish gig.” Discusses increase of resources in 1990s toward international terrorism and Palestinian-related terrorism.]

It [9/11] was a defining event with a before and after. A massive reaction to it was inevitable, because we didn’t know at the time what the follow-ons might be. What should not have been inevitable, however, was the way in which 9/11 has come to dominate and still influences our thinking about national security. it has cast a very dark, long, and enduring shadow.

Terrorism, the violence apart, is about communication. It’s the delivery of messages other than through a political process. And 9/11 delivered a message which was all the more forceful because it was played out live on TV screens in the very heart of the world’s greatest capitalist city. A massive response was therefore to be expected, and we observed in those western nations directly threatened by Al Qaeda a steady and large scale growth in counterterrorist resources. Given the number of conspiracies that have been dismantled, the number of attacks stopped, that approach seems to have been at the time entirely justified. However to achieve this result—and the agencies have clearly done a very good job—counterterrorism resources have grown to over 50% of the resources of the three agencies, and are probably still close to that level or even above it.

The key question must be: does the threat still justify this overwhelming deployment? And remember this is much bigger than the deployment we made against the Soviet Union and its allies at the height of the Cold War.

What has happened to the threat since 2001? It’s been through a number of mutations––and I’m not so interested in discussing the Al Qaeda mutations, which I would describe as variations on a theme––but I am more interested in what has happened since the Arab Spring. I believe that there may have been something of a fundamental change, and to illustrate this shift in the genetic sequence of Islamist terrorism, allow me to recount two anecdotes about Saudi Arabia. […]

[He discusses statements heard in his career that suggest “split strategic thinking” of Saudi leadership, and divisions in the Middle East. He asks how much Saudi money “I’m not suggesting direct government funding but I am suggesting maybe a blind eye being turned” is “channeled toward ISIS and reaching it?”]

For ISIS to be able to surge into the Sunni areas of Iraq in the way it has done recently has to be the consequence of substantial and sustained funding: such things simply do not happen spontaneously.

Now the fact is what we have hitherto referred to as Al Qaeda has, if we are cool-headed about it, largely failed to mount terrorist attacks successfully in the West compared with what its original intentions were, and this is true particularly in North America and the UK. There are of course exceptions by the Boston marathon bombing, but these fall short of achieving any sort of strategic impact. The franchises of AQ have therefore mainly fallen back on the softest of options, targeting other Muslim communities in the Muslim world, areas of peripheral crisis in the Muslim world—northern Nigeria, Mali, the tribal areas of Pakistan, Somalia, northern Kenya—targeting minority communities within the Muslim world.

But more importantly, they have become the shock troops in the long-awaited war between Sunni and Shia Islam currently being fought out in Syria, and now to an extent in Iraq. Every significant Muslim diaspora, but especially those in Europe because of their proximity to the conflict, is profoundly affected by this civil but religious war. So its reverberations are now reaching down and infecting our own Muslim communities. Sectarian passions are aroused, and also amongst the young, very easily exploited. But is this radicalization for a Muslim-on-Muslim conflict the same as the specific targeting of US and Western interests that Al Qaeda conducted before and after 9/11? I have yet to be convinced.

I think there’s a subtle but important shift in the motivations of radical Islamization. And if there hadn’t been, why go to Syria to fight? Go to somewhere else to be trained and, as it were, somewhere safer, but then make the West your primary objective and your primary target. I’m willing to be told by authoritative research that this analysis is not correct, but I think we could at least leave the question open until we have a better understanding of what the answer should be. At the moment we are using the events of 9/11 and its consequences to provide the answer, rather than thinking rationally about the contemporary political causations of these problems.

So really what I wish to advocate is the possibility of moving away from a post-9/11 mindset to a different way of thinking and talking about the impact on us of radical Islamist terrorism. Rather than seeing the counter-terrorist threat as a frontal assault on our values and our societies, perhaps we can begin to think of it as the byproduct of a tragic but seminal conflict in the Middle East. And if we are an incidental target—bystanders who will occasionally be dragged into the conflict by British Muslims—it does begin to open up the possibility that our national security resources should no longer be dominated by an issue, which from time to time can threaten our safety, but does not really wrap itself around our vital interest and threaten fundamentally our national security when it’s viewed in a broad, regional context.

I also feel deeply uncomfortable to see our media making national security monsters out of rather misguided young men from our Muslim communities, who frankly cut rather pathetic figures. Thanks to the media coverage, they achieved celebrity status beyond their wildest dreams, and are probably actually encouraged by the attention toward fulfilment of some of their more extreme radical fantasies. Surely, better to ignore them and assume the means to control them if and when they do return home are sufficient to meet the threat that they pose.

I’m also concerned at the extent to which media pressure may influence our national security policy. If and when there is another successful terrorist attack in the UK mounted by young Islamists, the blame machine will again grind the whole issue very, very finely. So the threat of this unrelenting scrutiny also contributes to the demand for more resources, ever greater investigatory powers, and dare I suggest even the cause of ministers’ warning us again and again about the seriousness of the terrorist problems we face. And of course, it’s somewhat ironic that the media, in attaching themselves to the cause of Edward Snowden, should be obsessed with exposing the consequences of the investigative system, the appetite for which they have themselves partially created.

However, in one important respect I need to add a qualification to my argument. AQ and its affiliates and successor organizations like ISIS appear to remain fixated on kinetic terrorist attacks. They are relatively easy to mount, it’s what they know, the technology is tried and tested, and they appear to be able to draw on a limitless supply of suicide bombers. However I am surprised that some of the more chilling threats that we did worry about and we should still probably worry about have not materialized. And I am of course referring to the possibility of CBRN—chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks. A single successful urban attack using any of these methods would probably have very far reaching consequences. It would represent an escalation that could fundamentally change, in the opposite direction from what I’m saying how we do terrorism, and destroy my argument about proportionality. However, with the exception of a possible radiological contamination event, I think that this threat is more latent than actual. The technology bottleneck is a narrow one. Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons are largely state developed and controlled, and unless an ISIS-type movement were to rest control on aspects of a state program, we should have the means to exercise surveillance and control of that bottleneck. Resources do need to be devoted to monitoring this, but it can, in my view, be done economically by realistic risk assessment rather than very expensive and blanket risk minimization.

[He discusses an article he wrote about two years ago, and why he failed to predict the return of politics and radicalization of the Arab Street; he states that he underestimated the potency of the Sunni-Shia split.]

[He states that it is “difficult to see how Iraq can be put back together as a single, functioning state.” Adds that west’s invasion of Iraq contributed to destabilization, but its impact was small compared to larger historical forces now being played out across the region.]

In conclusion, I’m advocating that it’s time to move consciously beyond the field of influence that 9/11 understandably created in our national security policy. Counterterrorist activity will remain an important requirement, but it should no longer dominate our national security thinking and planning, rather a problem that we have learned to live with, and it should seldom be given, either by the government or the media, the oxygen of publicity. Tracking the progress of this war in the Middle East will itself be an important intelligence requirement, especially how it impacts our own Muslim communities. But we should be looking at that requirement as a major political problem for the Middle East with ourselves only marginally affected and standing on its periphery. This is a very different way of looking at the problem ourselves, rather than as the primary target of a violent and alien terrorist movement.

Of course the weakness in this assessment is that it fails to take account of how the conflict might evolve––the example to call on being the West’s support for the anti-Soviet Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and the role the Mujahideen alumni played in the establishment of what became al Qaeda. However I strongly doubt that this is a pattern likely to be repeated, despite some of the blood curdling claims made on our TV screens by young British jihadis. And that is because this new conflict is essentially Muslim on Muslim.

[He states that it is “time to move away from the distortion that 9/11 understandably created in our national security stance” and to focus more resources on China, Russia, and European questions including the rise of populist parties in Europe. He proceeds to summarize themes of the lecture.]


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About the Author

is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.