John Reid: We must be more alert than ever

The terror threat is constantly evolving. But is our capacity to deal with it?

September 3 and September 11; eight days that separate anniversaries of death. Last week saw the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland marking the beginning of the Second World War. This week marks the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks by al-Qaida in the United States.

The fallout from those atrocities has subsequently framed international relations and domestic politics across the world. It was, at least in part, from the experience of WW2 that we derived the United Nations; the European Union, the European Convention of Human Rights; a legacy of opposition to racism; international monetary mechanisms and a resolve that it would never happen again. A resistance to the possibility of world war recurring was embedded in our institutions and way of thinking.

And the legacy of the 9/11 attacks? Most obviously in the immediate aftermath came the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Tightened security procedures and structures domestically (most noticeably here in the UK with the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism) and heightened international cooperation. We have also seen, of course, the spread of terrorist phenomena such as suicide bombings, including to the streets of London in July 2005, and, as this week's UK court verdicts on the August 2006 airline plotters confirm, to the skies overhead too.

So does our response match the challenge we face? Of course, much has been done to strengthen security structures around the world. But let's understand the magnitude of the challenge. The complexity of the threat environment we face underlines the degree to which today's terrorists have a different mindset and "new" ways to cause harm. For the first time in history both of the orthodox elements of threat – intention and capability – are now almost completely unconstrained; terrorists embrace a willingness to kill millions and have available the destructive capacity to do so.

Above all perhaps, the inexorable process of globalisation has rendered everyone increasingly inter-dependent and vulnerable. The threat we face is seamless, running across the boundaries of defence, foreign affairs, domestic and social life. Driven by technological advances in transport, communications, and electronic networks, globalisation has delivered opportunities in terms of mobility, movement and exchange of people, ideas, values, resources, commodities and finance.

But this same globalisation process and associated technology has also brought new threats, or intensified existing ones. For instance, it has left nations and peoples ever more vulnerable to phenomena such as international crime, terrorism, cyber-attack, health pandemics, energy-politics, resource shortage and financial crises.

The degree of instability and uncertainty accompanying this measure of interdependence tends to mean that crises (defined as crucial turning points in events rather than as catastrophes) are recurrent and thus the rule rather than the exception.

The sheer mass of information engulfing decision-makers can have a paralysing effect. And the speed with which threats spread is magnified in proportion to the degree of interdependence. We need look no further than the current flu pandemic which began in Mexico; or the financial crisis that has cascaded across the globe from the US sub-prime housing sector to see the "globalisation" effect in practice.

This bias towards instability is exacerbated by the fact that the nature of the potential crises we face is constantly evolving. Thus, in the context of international terrorism, we must not only guard against relatively low-technology attacks that feature the daring, persistence and lateral thinking demonstrated by both the 9/11 attackers, and the plotters who were found guilty in court this week of planning to blow up airliners over the Atlantic; but also even more sophisticated threats involving nuclear, biological, and radiological devices whose transportation has been facilitated by increasingly seamless global networks.

The fact that crises are recurrent and constantly evolving means it is essential to continually upgrade our capacity to deal with them by identifying, exposing and remedying our deficiencies. This is a relatively uncontroversial ambition, shared by many. It underpins the government's approach to updating our National Security Strategy.

But while government commitment is essential, it won't be done by government alone. That's partly why we are establishing the Institute for Security and Resilience Studies at University College, London. The new Centre will address projects of vital importance to national and international security. The goal is to assess and embed resilience as well as analysing threats; and to extend this analysis into action in outlining policy options to shape our preparation, response and recovery to crises.

This insistence on "embedding" resilience throughout organisational structures and culture is essential given the nature of contemporary society. Where there is, for instance, global availability of information through the internet, satellite and mobile communications, resilience to threats must be embedded in a decentralised way (rather than top-down). To the degree that resilience can ever be said to have depended on an elite management at the top of organisations, this is no longer the case – hence the need to bring together practitioners from the public, private and third sectors with academics in order to combine theory and practice in targeted projects.

Such partnership-working is also paramount because of the scale of the challenges we face. If we are to be able to keep up, and potentially be one step ahead of our adversaries, we will need to pool our ingenuity to innovate and deliver solutions.

Ironically, while today's threats are "new", in a sense what we are looking for is a recall of the past. Just as innovators such as Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers, and institutions such as Bletchley, were vital in the technological battles to beat the enemy in yesteryear, so we must now pool our skills and expertise today in our battles against contemporary menaces and foes.

The goal must be nothing less that ensuring that government, business and society can not only cope with, but flourish, in the increasingly uncertain times in which we live.

Dr John Reid, a former Home Secretary and Defence Secretary, is MP for Airdrie and Shotts, and Chairman of the Institute for Security and Resilience Studies at University College, London