United Kingdom, Counter-Terrorism Policy

United Kingdom, Counter-Terrorism Policy


Prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, counter-terrorism programs in the United Kingdom focused mainly on the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a militant group committed to ending British control of Northern Ireland. After the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, on its way from London to New York, by Libyan terrorists in December 1988, the British government redoubled its domestic counter-terrorist efforts against a broader range of threats. Parliament also responded to the rise of fundamentalist religious terrorist groups by passing the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act in 2001, an action that was criticized by many civilrights groups.

Authorities in Northern Ireland detained suspected terrorists from the late 1950s onward during the IRA's "border campaign" of bombings. With a new wave of bombings under the IRA beginning in the late 1960s, including 153 bombings in 1970 alone, British authorities detained 2,000 suspected IRA members between 1971 and 1975. After bombs exploded in two pubs in Birmingham, England in November 1974, killing 21 and injuring 162 others, Parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act of 1974. The act allowed authorities to arrest suspected terrorists without a warrant and detain them for up to a week without filing charges against them. Suspected terrorists could also be deported from England to Northern Ireland.

The policy of internment raised international criticism, as did the practice of "hooding," in which detainees would be isolated and forced to wear hoods over their heads. After an investigation by the European Commission of Human Rights in 1976, the practices of food and sleep deprivation, noise bombardment, forced standing at attention, and hooding were condemned by the body. Despite the commission's decision, the practices continued. Some historians assert that the counter-terrorist policies contributed to an increase of IRA violence in retribution, as 2,161 people died in the 1970s in the conflict between the IRA and British authorities.

Whereas the counter-terrorist campaign against the IRA relied on military force, surveillance, and other covert and overt measures, there was a notable emphasis on technology in the wake of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing in 1988. Libyan terrorists had successfully hidden plastic explosives on the flight, which sent the aircraft plummeting into the village of Lockerbie, Scotland, after they detonated. In response, the British Airports Authority (BAA) undertook an extensive reevaluation of its security measures. The BAA reforms resulted in a five-stage system to screen all checked baggage at British airports, including xray machines and later, three-dimensional scanners and equipment that could detect trace elements of explosive devices. All passengers at BAA airports were also screened through x-ray machines and metal detectors and a predetermined number of passengers were individually hand searched by security officers. All carryon items were also x-rayed and articles that failed to pass inspection were individually inspected. Although the measures were sufficient to prevent terrorists from attacking a BAA facility or the planes that ran through them, a series of robberies in 2002 on BAA runways demonstrated that the system still had flaws.

In December 2001, British Parliament passed the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act. The law allowed authorities to detain suspected terrorists for up to six months without filing charges and for additional six-month periods after reviewing the suspect's case. It also retained provisions that made it a crime to fail to report information on terrorist activities. In order to allay fears of civil-rights advocates, a provision was added to limit the powers of police and other security services from looking through confidential records.



English, Richard. Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Geraghty, Tony. The Irish War: The Hidden Conflict between the IRA and British Intelligence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Gerson, Allan. The Price of Terror: Lessons of Lockerbie for a World on the Brink. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

Taillon, J. Paul de B. The Evolution of Special Forces in Counter-terrorism: The British and American Experiences. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.


British Airports Authority. "About BAA." < http://www.baa.co.uk/main/corporate/about_baa/our_business/security_page html > (March 5, 2003).

Human Rights Watch. "U.K.: New Anti-Terror Law Rolls Back Rights." < http://www.hrw.org/press/2001/12/UKbill1214.htm > (March 5, 2003).


Airline Security
Bomb Detection Devices
Intelligence and Democracy: Issues and Conflicts
Interrogation: Torture Techniques and Technologies
MI5 (British Security Service)
MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service)

Pan Am 103 (Trial of Libyan Intelligence Agents
Interrogation: Torture Techniques and Technologies

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