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Anti-terrorism Strategy

Volume 455: debated on Monday 15 January 2007

5. What recent discussions he has had with officials and Ministers on co-ordination of the anti-terrorism strategy. (114679)

I recently conducted a review of the terrorist threat and our counter-terrorist response, the conclusions of which are with the Prime Minister. The threat from international terrorism is seamless and is no longer easily divided into foreign affairs, defence or domestic affairs. Our counter-terrorist campaign will need to be seamless, integrated, politically driven, forward-thinking and dynamic, and have at its heart the recognition that above all this is a battle for hearts and minds, a struggle of ideas and values.

In 2005 the Prime Minister’s delivery unit said that the Government’s counter-terrorist strategy

“measured meetings and reports, not real world impact”,

and that

“no one seemed to be in charge”.

Last month the Home Secretary again identified the problem. He said that we need

“a seamless, integrated, driven, politically overseen counter-terrorism strategy”.

It is 18 months since the July bombings. When will we have a workable strategy?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that the situation is a dynamic situation. It is not a static one. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we know now that the first AQ-related conspiracy plot in this country was in 2000, and that was in Birmingham. Since then, the threat has been growing. It is serious and it will, I believe, be with us for a generation. As that terrorist attempt expands, we must expand and respond in a continually improving fashion. Therefore the idea that, just because I have outlined what we must do now, that precludes improvements over the past year or two is not consistent. The current terrorist threat level is at its second highest level, classified as severe, which means that a terrorist attack is highly likely. It indicates a continuing high level of threat. We must therefore do everything to continually improve our response to it. That was the purpose of my report to the Prime Minister and will be carried through in the strategy, the functions and the structures, but we are doing that continually.

Just before Christmas, I visited the unit dedicated to fighting serious organised crime and terrorism in the east midlands, which is based in Derbyshire. It has received only pump-priming funding for its establishment and first couple of years of operation. Will the Home Secretary assure me that steps will be taken to ensure that the very good work that it is already doing will be maintained and further developed with additional resources?

My hon. Friend points out an improvement that did not exist before. The assurance that I will give is that the security services will have the resources, capabilities, structures and politically driven oversight that are necessary to meet the level of threat that we now face. We now know that the first plot connected with al-Qaeda was in Birmingham in 2000, and the threat has grown apace year by year. The security services are aware of approximately 30 plots in the United Kingdom. As of September last year, 98 people were awaiting trial for terrorist offences, and we believe that a considerable number of people were involved in those plots. The subject is serious, and it is not always easy to get the balance right between putting too much information too often into the public domain, which disrupts our normal way of life, and retaining information that may be necessary for operational purposes but of which the public feel they should be availed. We try to get that balance right.

We regularly read in the papers that the Home Office is aware of British nationals who are training in terror camps overseas and that some of those people have returned to Britain. Will the Home Secretary confirm that he has a list of those people and will he state how many British nationals are currently training in overseas terror camps and how many of them have returned?

The security services have a list, but I am not going to reveal the details or imply—as the hon. Gentleman implied in his question—that the ones we know of are all those who are so engaged, because that would be misleading. As one of my counterparts in the United States pointed out, the difficulties are the unknown unknowns. Since we know that a considerable number of people in this country are engaged in conspiracies and that some of them have trained abroad, we must assume that there are others of whom we do not yet know, and to say otherwise would be to mislead the House.

What criteria does my right hon. Friend use in assessing whether an individual or organisation is a suitable partner in the fight against terrorism? What assessment has he made of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee?

On our criteria for engaging with people, the basic political criterion is the working assumption that the division in this country is between terrorists and the rest and that it is not between Muslims and other sections of society. It follows from that that we cannot defeat domestic terrorism, or indeed terrorism which is international and domestic, by security or military means alone. We can defeat it only from these two premises: first, that we get maximum unity among those people, Muslims and everyone else, who oppose the use of terrorism; and secondly, that we understand that, although the struggle may manifest itself in security terms, military terms or other terms, it is at heart a battle for hearts and minds—a battle over values. That is why the starting point for our defence against terrorism in this country is the defence of our values. Anyone who contributes towards that is a potential ally in that struggle.

Why will the war on terror last for a whole generation? Why could it not be brought to a successful conclusion earlier, and why would it end at the end of one generation?

First, I have not myself used the expression, “war on terrorism”. Secondly, I have pointed out that it is, in essence, a struggle for ideas and values. Thirdly, the nature of that struggle is such that it is inside Islam as well as outside it. Fourthly, it is a global struggle that manifests itself in different theatres in different forms. Fifthly, I cannot give a guarantee of any time scale, but if I am asked for an estimate—which is obviously, since it is a social rather than a physical science, a human estimate rather than one of 100 per cent. predictability—it is that this will probably last as long as the cold war did.