IISS Manama Dialogue 2017 Fourth Plenary Session
John Raine, Senior Adviser for Geo-political Due Diligence, IISS

As Delivered

Thank you, John, and thank you, Toby. Tragically, a discussion of counter-terrorism flows quite naturally from a discussion of Iraq, where we have just seen, we hope, the conclusion of a dramatic and successful counter-terrorism campaign.

Yesterday, Minister Akbar from India asked the rhetorical, I think, question: the Middle East is in the middle of what? The Middle East is in the middle of the international security agenda. And that is very largely because of terrorism – not entirely, but largely. And when I was listening in the keynote speech to Sir John’s reflections on the Middle East over the last 30 years, I was trying to think of a time when the Middle East has not been centre stage, because of terrorism. It is very hard to think of a time. Terrorism has been with us for a long time, and from that, we must always remember that it is a distance event. It is very unlikely that we are able to deliver what in military terms would be a decisive manoeuvre against terrorism. It is within the fabric both of Middle Eastern, European and arguably African and southeastern society too. We must configure to be capable over time against terrorism, and effective in the moment.

Having said that, terrorism has most definitely phases. I have a strong sense that we are entering another new phase of terrorism, and therefore the international attempts to counter it. It is worth reflecting on what the characteristics might be of the next generation of terrorist threats. In the session that I just had the privilege of chairing, I thought there were some wise insights from some enormously experienced military officers and civilian officials as to what has happened and what is likely to happen in the camp of our adversary amongst terrorists.

First of all, we have seen a remarkably high level of adaptability in our adversary. We should expect, modestly, that the terrorists are already planning a next generation of capabilities, targets and deployments. It would be foolish to assume that they were seeking merely to repeat what they did last time. Secondly, we should assume that terrorists will make not just the same use of contemporary capabilities and utilities as we make, but better use. And this is particularly relevant to cyber and the next generation of cyber- and data-related capabilities. It is perhaps a broader feature of the age that these key enablers are accessible to individuals and not only to states, to the point where they can be effectively weaponised across borders and with amplified effect far greater than you would expect from the number of people planning their deployment.

After the adaptability that we have to cope with, is the decidedly transnational nature of terrorism. It is different, I suspect, in this phase from what we were used to in the phase from 2001, where we were dealing essentially with transnational organisations, familiar enough to us in their structures to be able to be penetrated and dismantled. We seem now to be dealing with transnational ideas or means where emulation and inspiration have taken the place of command and control structures. That is immensely difficult for those of us who have always worked both within regulated structures and against regulated structures. The adversary now has neither – neither regulation nor a recognisable structure.

We, too, are international in our effort, and the internationalisation of the response was clear, both from colleagues with whom I shared a panel today, just looking at their uniforms and the countries that they represented, but also from the enormously consensual nature of the comments that they made and other comments from the audience. There is an awful lot we agree on internationally in our counter-terrorism approaches. I would go so far as to say that an international response is now the default setting for the community. It is no longer possible to find countries who believe that they can operate in isolation. We heard how even in Egypt, where we have a particularly local problem, if I may describe it as such, international partners are actively engaged at the invitation of the Egyptians. In the case of Pakistan, Pakistan has been central to the international coalition against terrorism since 9/11, and remains so.

However, there are serious challenges. First of all, internationalisation sounds rather unfashionable at a time when the international structures themselves are under stress. We have to retain a commitment to doing something that may feel a little bit last decade, and political direction, social or nationalist movements which militate against international cooperation, need to be firmly resisted in the field of counter-terrorism. I feel as though the insulation of counter-terrorism cooperation from many of those structures will be an advantage as we face the next generation of threats.

Secondly, international effort is constrained by the widely varying frameworks within which countries operate. My policy recommendation or aspiration would be that all members of the coalition invest heavily in ensuring compatibility of frameworks, both legal, political and military, such as to match the effort that was put into compatibility of weapons systems within established coalitions. The use of weaponry, whilst devastatingly effective in counter-terrorist theatres, can be entirely undermined by the absence of compatible legal and policy frameworks.

Thirdly, I would like to say little bit more about cyber and the virtual domain, with particular relevance to the demographics of the Middle East. It is a striking and formidable achievement that the Middle East and particularly the Gulf hosts some of the most digitally advanced and ambitious countries in the world. Levels of penetration of iPhone usage, internet connectivity are phenomenal, and as we heard in the session on cyber, there is also, however, a discrepancy between the appetite for digital connectivity and the ability to defend against cyber attacks.

My strong recommendation would be that this is the domain in which we will win or lose the next phase against the terrorists. Speaking with relevance to my own country’s experience, we have woken up to this. We hope it is not too late. There is a great temptation to add on discussion of cyber once we have talked about the more familiar dimensions of terrorism, in particular military response. I would suggest that we invert now the priorities that we accord in our respective countries, and place cyber at the top, closely followed by the societal challenges that we need to meet in order to prevent the emergence or the recurrence of terrorism.

Then I think only thirdly, without any disrespect to the enormous sacrifice that was made by our military, only thirdly should we regard counter-terrorism as a military activity. Those priorities, I feel, reflect more closely the society within which we live and the society which we wish to build. And, perhaps more importantly, I think those are the priorities of our adversary.

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