Counter Terrorism Strategy

National security in the post-Osama era

Defence strategy

With the death of Osama Bin Laden earlier this year and the flux of uprisings, ongoing rumbling of the Arabian spring and the recent terrorist attacks in Norway, it seems appropriate to take stock and reflect on the manner in which governments safeguard their populace from adverse events.

Responsibilities of states toward their people is perhaps better described as national security, which comprises a collection of activities aimed at protecting people and national interests, both at home and abroad. Independent think tank Demos has defined it as: “The confidence and capacity of the individual, community and state to anticipate and respond effectively to threats or hazards that may endanger their safety.” In this context the role of a national security strategy should be “to integrate preventative and contingency measures in order to anticipate and respond to significant threats or hazards to the nation”.


From 2008-2010 three national security strategies have seen the light. Following last year’s publication of yet another national security strategy, the accompanying strategic defence and security review and its hasty implementation, have earned the government few positive marks.

The onset of real world events have sown serious doubts and lead us now to question whether they are fit for purpose. I wish to argue that the latest version of the strategy and its accompanying review fall short of their aim to provide an ‘integrated’ or ‘joined-up’ view.

However, this short article will not offer enough time or space to discuss all issues at hand. But by reflecting on several issues I may be able to convince you that we urgently require a more reliable guide to future threats and one which will enable the government to act in a manner that is effective and yet provides value for money so needed in austere times.

Although the recent strategy documents proposes that the answer is to call for a joined-up approach, UK government remains structured with separate budgets for home, defence, foreign affairs, intelligence and development. It could be argued that time has stood still for a long time and that very little has changed to the way in which the state manages its affairs. Yet the world has become a continually, fast changing densely populated place. The demise of the Iron Curtain not only heralded the end of the Cold War, it announced the onset of a transformation whose pace and interconnectedness have never been experienced before, while new uncertainties are offering both tremendous opportunities as well as posing dangerous threats.

National economies have grown into becoming an interwoven worldwide phenomenon with people living in what could be termed a global village. Commercial activities have stitched the fate and fortunes of nations together while more and more individuals are being able to determine their own destiny, and are able to communicate and share ideas beyond traditional boundaries of state.

It is no surprise that such advances have been accompanied by difficult and persistent problems. Conflicts over ideologies have given way to those concerning religion, ethnicity and tribal identity. Furthermore, we have seen nuclear dangers proliferating and weapons of mass destruction have become available to poorest nations. Inequality and economic instability have intensified while climate change and a dependence on natural resources are causing great damage to the environment, resulting in food insecurity and dangers to public health. The US National Security Strategy (2010) states that the same tools that empower individuals to build enable them to destroy.

Rather than an approach that is based on the appraisal of trends, threats and risks, this time the government seemed to have used the financial crisis as the main basis for its national security strategy. Why is it so incomprehensible that the safety and security of the citizen and protection of national interest are part of a continuum? Rather than applying a rational holistic approach that covers that entire continuum, the Treasury has been demanding very deep and narrow cuts which have made very little strategic sense.

Then during the first days of the release of the National Security Strategy, it was explained that it would bring together disparate foreign policies into one, coherent whole as a grand strategy to handle the challenges of the coming century. Surprisingly, a few months into the new year, the onset of an Arabian spring came as a complete surprise. As a nation, acting individually or collaboratively within international structures we simply do not possess the capabilities to monitor, assess and anticipate changes in public opinion and intentions. Yet, BBC World’s Nik Gowing warned for this shortcoming back in 2009 in reflecting on the potential of social networks and proliferation of smart phone and video technologies which has turned every citizen into a journalist with immediate access to an audience.

But search and exploitation technologies have been developed to explore the power of social media. Closer collaboration and involvement from academia and industry in national security capability development could make these available and offer real solutions to next generation intelligence challenges.

Our world is changing in a rapid tempo. Revolutions across the Middle East, increasing challenges of climate change and resource scarcity, and the persistence of transnational threats such as state fragility, weapons proliferation and terrorism are accelerating the complexity of our international affairs which can no longer be seen as independent from our internal affairs.

I confirm that there is a need for a more coordinated and integrated approach on national security, which breaks through the traditional boundaries of individual departments. It should come as no surprise that in a complex world responsibilities are shared between all tiers of government, the private sector and citizens. It will also be required to accommodate the needs for cooperation with non-profit and international organisations. But equally important, one does need to ask how to activate the private sector without financial underpinning from government.

We live in a more complex society with an increased dependence on complex systems.

We face ever-changing interdependent threats with international dimensions surpassing national boundaries which manifest earlier and in a more complex fashion. It will therefore not be possible to single out any particular threats – which was sadly proven again with the recent Norwegian terror attacks. To be effective calls for an all-hazard approach. For the populace to feel safe and secure there must be greater transparency and openness. The fact that the National Security Strategy tier 2 and 3 risks have become reality within a couple of months of publication means that the development of such a framework cannot be limited to the efforts of a national security council. It must focus on the potential disruption of society throughout and encompass all security domains, e.g. territorial, security, economical, ecological, social and political stability.

It should not only be shown which threats we face and what their impact is, it should show how authoritative sources are used as a sound basis for planning. It should define the objectives and the tasks, i.e. what the nation needs to do and provide planning assumptions to assist in defining what we need to have. This should then be laid down and articulated as clearly defined policy with aims and roles and responsibilities.

We must heed the traditional departmental stove-pipe based approach and instead clearly focus on development of capabilities and realisation of benefits that have the citizen and national interest in mind rather than the machine of government. This would offer both increased and lasting effectiveness as well as a method to prevent the traditional incoherent ‘salami slicing’ approach to cost cutting.



View the latest
digital issue