The vital work of the security services to protect against terrorism should not be overlooked, a former MI6 chief has said, as the world marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on the U.S.
Sir Richard Dearlove, who headed the secret intelligence service between 1999 and 2004, told a memorial event in London that “we owe a debt to the diligence and skill of the women and men of our intelligence and security community.”
He was speaking in front of a four-tonne twisted piece of steel from the ruins of New York’s Twin Towers which has been forged into a memorial artwork at London’s Olympic Park.
Sir Richard told those gathered at the memorial: “On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 I ask you to also remember the work of my former colleagues in helping to keep us safe in this day and in this world.
“Events in Afghanistan remind us that their task is not finished. It is appropriate today to recognise their patriotism and selfless devotion to this task.”
Sir Richard said the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. in 2001 in which Islamic terrorists hijacked aeroplanes and flew them into buildings had “shocked and terrified in equal parts”.
It was an “assault of unprecedented ruthlessness and ferocity on our society and on our values”, and it still shadows modern political and social life.
Sir Richard recalled what it was like to be in a position of responsibility at that time and the challenge of having to respond the attacks in which 2,977 people from more than 90 nations were murdered. There were 67 Britons among the dead.
Sir Richard was flying back to London from Sweden when the attacks happened.
He went straight to Downing Street and within 36 hours he was travelling to Washington with a small group of senior intelligence and security officials on the only flight across the Atlantic which was allowed as U.S. airspace was closed in the immediate aftermath.
The former MI6 chief said: “We had reason to expect a major terrorist attack, but tragically intelligence did not indicate where or when precisely.”
His role was to tell the U.S. that the UK would pledge its resources “to the coming pursuit” of al-Qaida and its affiliates, as it was already clear who was behind the bloodshed.
He recalled that as he flew over New York and Washington, “the plane descended over the still-smoking ruins of the Twin Towers”.
After touching down in the U.S., Sir Richard was launched into “an intensive schedule of high-level meetings” which were “business-like but emotionally charged”.
Sir Richard recalled that Washington was “like a ghost town—the attack on the heartland of U.S. government and business had no 20th century precedent”.
He added: “We felt we were on the cusp of a global terrorist offensive against the West’s interests, wherever they might be located.”
Some days later, Sir Richard was in Washington with the then UK prime minister Tony Blair who was personally working on joint security initiatives with U.S. President George W Bush.
Sir Richard said: “We did not know where the fight against al-Qaida would lead us, but we did understand that to gain and hold the initiative would require skilful planning, courage, execution, and significant risk.”
A response which became know as the War on Terror followed.
Sir Richard said: “Though there were divergences of method between us, the strategic alignment of our intelligence and security resources yielded important results in countering the overall terrorist threat.”
The work of the security services is still vital and is not recognised in “public end-of-day applause,” he said.
Sir Richard added: “They quietly and discreetly get on with their jobs out of sight and often out of (people’s) minds, too.
“Their successes largely go unacknowledged, but they are among the first to be blamed when things go badly, as they must do sometimes when the nature of the threat stretches from large-scale conspiracies to lone wolves, and their targets are infinite and random.
“To be able to stop terrorist attacks you have to gain the courage to risk mistakes, even serious ones. The choice between intervention and gaining more intelligence is always a fine one.”
By Helen William