Page last updated at 13:36 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Countering a changing terror threat

By Gordon Corera
BBC Security Correspondent

An armed police officer patrols Heathrow
The strategy looks more at dealing with unconventional attacks

The UK's strategy for countering international terrorism is a reworking rather than a fundamental overhaul of the existing framework known as Contest.

The document does though contain a far more detailed analysis of where the threat has come from, why it has changed and where it may go in the future.

Officials say it is unprecedented to place this much analysis in the public domain.

The strategy argues that al-Qaeda as an organisation is likely to fragment and may not survive in its current form.

However its ideology and the factors that sustain terrorism will persist -leading the threat to mutate, with a greater role for self-starting groups.

New technology

Additionally, there are fears that terrorist organisations may have access to new technology and so become capable of conducting more lethal operations.

Terrorist groups have long sought to use unconventional weapons - biological, chemical, nuclear and radiological - but it is now feared that greater availability of technology coupled with problems like theft and smuggling means they are more likely to be able to get their hands on what they have been seeking.

As a result, the focus on dealing with unconventional attacks has been upgraded from the previous strategy (coming closer to the US pre-occupation with this particular danger).

More is also written about the enablers for terrorism. Much has been said about radicalisation and why individuals turn to violence, but the authors of the report have sought not to lose sight of the bigger issue of what makes terrorist groups as a whole thrive - such as conflicts, failing states and ideological trends.

Pakistan connection

The international context also receives more attention than in the past, with sections on Pakistan and Afghanistan and on the relationship between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.

This is a clear recognition that since the majority of UK terrorist plotting has some connection to Pakistan, improving co-operation and communication with both the government in Islamabad and the population in Pakistan will be vital to combating terrorism within the UK.

The 2012 Olympics also now looms large in the mind of counter-terrorist officials with an awareness that counter-terrorism is going to have to be integrated in a vast security operation not just in London, but other parts of the country which will be involved in staging aspects of the games.

There had been speculation that the government might take a more aggressive line in the new strategy but that does not appear to be the case

Making sure that delivery of the strategy filters down to the local level by working with the right people is one recurring theme.

The strategy covers four main areas of work known as 'the Four Ps' - Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare.

The most sensitive part of the strategy relates to Prevent - which aims to deal with radicalisation. There has been considerable debate and often argument both inside and outside government over which groups should be engaged with and funded as part of this work.

Some argue that groups whose views are often distasteful to the majority of the population need to be dealt with since they have the capacity to reach individuals vulnerable to radicalisation. Others say that doing so legitimises and supports them and risks undermining community cohesion.

There had been speculation that the government might take a more aggressive line in the new strategy, but that does not appear to be the case and the agenda largely seems to have been tweaked with some new projects and a greater focus on the internet.

There is talk of doing more to challenge non-violent, extremist ideology and promoting shared values like democracy, tolerance and human rights. Exactly how this will work in practice though, remains unclear.

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