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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 March 2008, 14:32 GMT
The diversity of modern security threats
By Gordon Corera
BBC Security Correspondent

Armed police
The citizen is more directly affected by today's threats

Since the end of the Cold War, the security threats facing the UK have been transformed.

In the past, it was the over-arching fear of nuclear annihilation, with the government developing its plans and responses largely in secret.

Today, the threats are more diverse and include failing states, terrorism and organised crime - threats which cross boundaries and where the citizen is more directly affected.

Today's publication of a National Security Strategy is both a recognition of that change and that more needs to be done to develop a response.


Modern threats are complex, interdependent and cut across traditional government departmental divides, challenging established interests and ways of doing things.

Globalisation has compounded many of these risks - with the growth in international travel, for instance, increasing the speed of flu pandemics spreading or facilitating greater migration of people away from areas suffering from climate change.

Drawing the National Strategy together, according to some close to the process, proved considerably harder than expected.

Critics had argued that the government has been too fixated on terrorism and that this presents the chance to rebalance the focus in the public mind about the risks and threats that are out there, ranging from climate change to flu pandemics to energy security to cyber-attacks.

But these risks and threats also include more traditional subjects like international organised crime and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The aim is in part to draw the public into the debate, as well as ensure more joined up government to tackle a range of issues which cut across traditional departmental divides.

Post 9/11

The problems of both communicating and responding to threats has been vividly illustrated in the case of terrorism since 9/11.

At times the balance has been out of kilter, leaving the public confused about the nature of the threat
The years since 9/11 have seen considerable problems in trying to work out how to calibrate that risk and how to create alert and not alarm.

At times the balance has been out of kilter, leaving the public confused about the nature of the threat.

The government has also struggled to join up its response to a threat which stretches from Afghanistan to West Yorkshire.

It is only in the last year that the government has established the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, based in the Home Office, to act as a strategic hub and try to organise both policy and communications.

In government there has also been an almost competitive attempt by certain interests to try to get their risk prioritised.

Terrorism has obviously come top but then others have tried to compete by saying that climate change or flooding are at least, if not, more of a threat then terrorism.

The hope will be that by establishing an over-arching framework, policy priorities can be aligned and organised more coherently.

The central problem will be turning this ambitious framework into coherent action.

A National Security Committee, already up and running, should provide that focus and a new National Security forum will provide external input into its thinking.


One of the issues of debate is how far government departments will have to focus their work and priorities around the new strategy.

That could be a particular challenge for some, particularly the ministry of defence and also the Department for International Development (DFID).

For the military, its capacity remains centred on fighting traditional conflicts and to a certain extent the new priority of terrorism.

But there are debates as to how far it should become involved in using its resources to deal with domestic issues like flooding or wider international objectives like climate change or energy security.

Re-orienting thinking and even more controversially procurement around these priorities would be an uphill task.


Some in Whitehall and the military have argued that because of its huge budget for delivering aid, DFID's overseas work should be more focused in supporting government policy and national security interests.

The danger is that much of this talk of threats and risks creates a sense of anxiety within individuals

For instance, they argue, DFID should be more focused in working in concert with the military and others in reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But DFID, as well as some independent aid organisations, argue that it would be a mistake to divert DFID away from its core mission of reducing poverty.

They argue that this might mean that certain countries or regions where there is a real problem of poverty and need for aid would not be assisted because it was not important in terms of wider national security priorities.

The danger is that much of this talk of threats and risks creates a sense of anxiety within individuals without offering a sense of either what is being done by the state or what individuals are doing.

The new strategy looks to try to address that by involving the public more.

The publication of the strategy is in itself part of that process, as will be developments like the publication of a national risk register and also the shift towards intelligence and security chiefs giving evidence to scrutiny committees in public for the first time.

Engaging people and reshaping government are both major long-term challenges and today's strategy can only serve as a starting point.

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