Fighting terrorism is expensive and increasingly more difficult. It is expensive in money terms and because of the risks to civil liberties — and it is more difficult because increasingly in Britain, the threats are from homegrown terrorists.
During the last five years, since the horrendous attacks on New York and Washington by Al Qaeda terrorists, the United Kingdom has been subjected to a number of attacks. Sadly, a few have been successful but the majority have been foiled in one way or another.
Today, it is estimated by the Security Service — usually referred to by its World War II code name of MI5 — that there are perhaps 300 active cells or groups in the UK and around 2,000 actual “terrorist-minded” individuals. The intelligence and security services, led by the police, have been successful in bringing more than a dozen individuals to court this year but this could be the tip of an iceberg.
The best estimates available in London are that by 2008 annual spending on counter-terrorism, intelligence and resilience in the UK will reach £2.25 billion ($4.50 billion) a year. That is double of what the UK spent in the years before September 11 and even during the battle with Irish terrorists.
This huge figure does not take into consideration the nation’s actual counter-terrorism spending which is impossible to calculate outside of government departments like the Home Office and Department for Transport. Last March, an extra £86 million of spending was announced to be split between UK’s civilian intelligence agencies purely for counter-terrorism spending.
This does not include funding for the Serious and Organised Crime Agency which conducts secret operations against terrorist groups and those funding them from organised crime, such as drug trafficking.
In the last five years, the British government has invested nearly £100 million with the National Health Service for counter-bioterrorism, has bought more than £190 millions' worth of decontamination and rescue equipment for the nation's fire and rescue services and given over £20 million to build a chemical, biological, radiation and nuclear protection capability to the Metropolitan Police Service. A further £12 million has been spent on the other 42 national police forces.
Another interesting investment is in the work of government at all levels including working communities to prevent extremism. This is currently in the hands of Parmjit Dhanda. He is responsible to Prime Minister Gordon Brown as the government's community cohesion minister. He also sits on the security committee formed by Lord West of Spithead, the former First Sea Lord, who is now a Home Office minister in the House of Lords.
Increasingly, there is a shift away from counter-espionage to counter-terrorism. Although the three secret services — the Security Service which looks after domestic matters, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) which is focussed on Britain's overseas interests and the Government Communications Headquarters which monitors communications — are increasing their staffs. There are now advertisements on the web and in newspapers for experts in languages and information technology.
The British homegrown terrorists are becoming bolder and more sophisticated. They are different from the Irish groups which attacked Britain in the 1970s and 1980s because unlike the Provisional IRA, the Islamic groups are prepared to die. This has resulted in the response having to be more robust with more firearms, police officers being trained and equipment — which costs money.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the UK invested heavily in automated television equipment. It is estimated that an average person spending an average working day in London will be filmed more than 300 times by TV equipment. His or her face will be matched with known terrorists and if driving a motor vehicle, there is a good chance of having its vehicle identification or number plate checked automatically a further 50 times. The cost of this equipment is impossible to calculate because so many people have now installed CCTV and other devices, many of course not linked to central data banks, but many which are connected.
There is increasing concern in Whitehall, the centre of British government, that British-born terrorists are using Freedom of Information and Racial Equality legislation against the bulk of the population. The new breed of terrorist is also well educated and trained — with links to Pakistani camps and Mujahadin fighters in Afghanistan. British security officials talk privately of groups setting up explosives laboratories in back street houses, deserted farm buildings and even in woodland far from usual security matters.
New explosives are being developed by terrorist cells, using everyday chemicals from factories or, less easily detected, from supermarkets. Hair colouring, fuel oil and other chemicals can be bought in small quantities and mixed later.
Last year, there was a major scare at London Heathrow because Islamic extremist groups were caught trying to take the raw materials of a bomb aboard three airliners bound for America. The result has been hyper-activity at airports around the world and huge investment in technology to sniff for explosives and their raw materials.
International air travellers will be subjected to even greater security as technology develops but it will become less obvious and intrusive – but that will have a cost too.
Preventing terrorism is expensive. The cost of not preventing terrorism is even higher.
Top security and Intelligence analyst based in London.