Richard Aldrich: A global battlefield

The New Terrorism: The problem is balancing security, freedom and the globalising quest for luxury
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The Independent Online

Since 9/11, the world of secret intelligence has been focused on the "new" terrorism. Draconian laws have been passed and fresh government agencies created. Existing intelligence assets have been "surged" towards the new targets and retired intelligence officers recalled to duty. The size of MI5 will soon approach twice its Cold War levels. While the effort has been relentless, the focus on targeting the "new" terror has been disturbingly narrow, and perhaps misplaced.

In retrospect, it turns out that the "new" terrorism is not all that new. After 9/11 we were told that fundamentalists were not interested in bargaining and simply wanted to kill for the sake of killing. In reality, the timing of the bombing of Madrid and the recent attacks on London have been highly political. We were supposedly to expect catastrophic atrocities, perhaps with chemical and biological weapons, but instead the terrorists used conventional methods. It now seems more likely that we will see more events like Bali and Madrid, but few 9/11s.

Pre-empting the so-called "new" terror has been an American-led intelligence doctrine. Its hallmark has been to focus on "states" of concern, on particular groups and on "getting" individuals. In fact the important developments have been at a deeper level, involving networks, connections and processes.

The most troubling aspect of "new" terrorism is actually its "new" context - embedded within accelerating globalisation. Globalisation is fundamentally shifting the balance of advantage away from states in favour of terrorists. Remarkably, in the week of a G8 summit on global issues, few are recognising this connection. Globalisation is making terrorism easier to practise, rendering developed states more fragile.

Many have asserted that "globalisation works" and there can be no doubt that increased trade volumes have lifted large regions of the world out of poverty. But there are also costs. Around the world global trade has expanded unevenly, rewarding some, but punishing others. Globalised communications have offered profound cultural provocations to some groups. Simultaneously, it has provided the antagonised with new weapons and new ways of spreading their messages. Al-Qa'ida has used the internet - the network of networks - for propaganda, communications and even to spread terrorist expertise. GlobaliSation has created a "networked world" in which shadowy groups move elegantly, while states move clumsily.

What does this mean for the intelligence services? We are accustomed to talking about a "global village". In reality our security agencies are confronted with a global mega-metropolis of seven billion souls that are increasingly connected. Twenty years ago, the international communications of individual persons who were a matter of concern were easy to monitor. Now the world sends an estimated 36 billion emails a day. This number is set to double every two years. Intercepting communications has been a vital aspect of intelligence work for more than half a century. But now the US code-breaking agency NSA and its UK partner GCHQ struggle to cope. MI6 recognised this trend in the mid-1990s and set up a new global issues section. By 1997 its staff numbers were already rising. Open borders were an open invitation to terrorists, people-traffickers and other miscreants. Eventually, most G8 states responded by requiring their secret services to pre-empt these threats. Action against everything from drug-smuggling to football hooliganism has become "intelligence-led". But the result has been over-stretch. Intelligence cannot fix both terrorism and all the slippery problems of globalisation.

There are other reasons why political leaders have been attracted to the intelligence-led approach. It allows some escape from responsibility as all sorts of problems can often be attributed to "intelligence failures". The real intelligence failure here is a weak understanding of the nature of intelligence. Intelligence is quite good at finding out what has happened recently. It is not much good at predicting the future. One of the most experienced chairmen on the JIC, Percy Cradock, once observed, that the first principle of intelligence work is to know its limitations - what it can do and what it cannot. Alas, both Bush and Blair lacked experience in foreign affairs before entering office and have a correspondingly poor understanding of the world of intelligence. In Whitehall and Washington, expectations of the intelligence services are now improbably large and growing.

Globalisation is also the missing link in the debate over civil liberties. Since 9/11 this debate has been mired in a predictable struggle between left and right. Praetorians have called for more surveillance, while civil libertarians have bemoaned the erosion of rights and freedoms. In reality, most of the new security measures introduced after 9/11 were already sitting in the in-trays of officials, including ID cards. Some of these measures were being developed in the hope of countering the pernicious side-effects of globalisation. In short, officials had already recognised that the difficult problem was not balancing security and freedom. The problem was balancing security, freedom and the globalising quest for luxury. In this complex three-way trade off, luxury was often the dominant factor.

Globalisation therefore comes at a price. The challenge is evaluating what we are prepared to pay and what "luxuries" we can do without. One luxury that is dispensable is the right to anonymity. The globalised revolution in communications has been one of the great promoters of anonymity, through email, the internet and pay as you go mobile phones. Some continue to believe that it is acceptable to be in a public space, or in cyberspace, and to remain faceless. In fact, throughout history, the hidden face, in a balaclava or a hood, has been intimidating. By contrast, human interaction based on honest, open and reliable identification has a superior and uplifting quality. Civil society is encouraged when people are known and can be held accountable for their actions.

Misplaced anxieties about identification have been persistent. In the 19th century, the urban crowd felt that the introduction of street lighting was a pernicious intrusion on freedom. In the 20th century the same debate occurred over CCTV cameras. The debate will be repeated over ID cards. In reality, ID cards will erode anonymity but, if they are set up correctly, should not make serious inroads into privacy. By contrast, the prospect of vehicle tracking is indeed a real threat to privacy.

Curiously, ID cards, like passports, are a rather old-fashioned concept. The technology may be futuristic, but the concept harks back to an old world of real borders and sovereign states. Sovereign states have been terribly unfashionable in recent years, but their precise virtue was they provided distinctions between domestic and foreign. In this bounded space we could have some hope of a balance between security, freedom and luxury. The alternative, a globalised world policed by pugnacious liberal internationalism, has meant projecting our values, sometimes through armed intervention. Such projections can be a two-way street. The corollary is that unpalatable groups will intervene in our own country and allow us to taste their values in return.

Richard J Aldrich is a professor at University of Nottingham and was recently a Leverhulme Fellow