The Bomber Will Always Get Through

by Lord William Rees-Mogg

London, England: It is sometimes possible to identify terrorist risks before they occur. Indeed, I raised the issue of the vulnerability of the World Trade Centre in New York back in 1997.

The Twin Towers had been attacked already; they were obvious symbols of the United States. Jim Davidson and I had just published The Sovereign Individual, which deals in some detail with the theme of “vulnerability to violence”. I was asked to write a brief foreword to the English paperback edition, and I gave the Twin Towers as an example of the vulnerability of modern urban civilisation.

The modern world was not built as a fortress, with strong walls and narrow entries, which can be well guarded. For the terrorist, modern communications, air, rail, road and sea, combine mass use with points of maximum vulnerability.

In the mid-1930s, Stanley Baldwin, then the British Prime Minister, forecast the great danger of the coming war: “The bomber will always get through.” Unfortunately, it is equally true to say that the terrorist will always get through today.

Our main defence lies in intelligence

Before 9/11, counter-intelligence against terrorism was inadequate in all countries, as has been shown by the committees of enquiry. Since 9/11, some countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have reorganised their intelligence. Before 9/11, information was often in the wrong place. There has certainly been a great improvement in the transmission of intelligence inside the Washington machine, and that improvement goes right up to the President.

Unfortunately, as Spain shows, there has been no similar improvement in intelligence, or in its organisation, in most continental European countries. In physical terms, we all present soft targets. There are many thousands of high value, high vulnerability targets in all the advanced countries of the world. In intelligence terms, some of the soft targets are better protected than others.

The US and the UK form, in effect, a single intelligence area. Britain more or less invented “sigint” – the interception of communications – in the First World War, and developed it further in the Bletchley penetration of German codes in the Second World War.

UK-US co-operation proved invaluable

American investment and electronic know-how had overtaken British by 1945. Nevertheless the cooperation in sigint has been maintained. Normally, the American intelligence community is remarkably reluctant to share information. But in some areas, particularly the Middle East, Britain’s MI6 has particularly good human sources, known as “humint”.

France and Germany were penetrated by Soviet agents throughout the cold war, but the Anglo-American partnership has paid off for both countries. Unfortunately, the European nations are not in the loop, and – except France to some extent – they are not able to look after themselves at all effectively.

From the terrorists’ point of view, this makes a difficulty. Nothing would be easier than to create a major terrorist event in France itself. It has a large and radicalised Islamic population. There are internationally famous symbolic buildings and vulnerable high-speed trains. France has a sophisticated intelligence service, but it does not have the resources of the Anglo-American system.

Why bin Laden won’t attack France

Yet it would serve no political purpose for Al Qaeda to knock down the Eiffel Tower, because France was on the side of Saddam Hussein in the United Nations. Indeed, one of the factors influencing French foreign policy may have been in consciousness of French vulnerability to Islamic terrorism.

Osama bin Laden believes in spectacular terrorist events. He likes to act on a big scale. He will now have to decide things: whether he has the resources to mount a spectacular event in the US before the Presidential election, whether his system has been penetrated by US intelligence, and what the political effect of this infiltration might be.

No doubt, a spectacular attack before or during the Presidential election campaign would gratify his anger, and his vanity. That was what Al Qaeda did in Spain. But I am fairly sure it would have the opposite result if the United States had to face a major terrorist event a week before polling day. That would help to re-elect the President.

And helping to re-elect George W. Bush would be quite as counter-productive politically from Al Qaeda’s point of view as it would be to knock down the Eiffel Tower, if for very different reasons.