As a tactic, terrorism is as perennial as warfare itself, but it was during the 1970s that international terrorist groups began to be seen by the Western powers as a global problem. Atrocities such as the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics massacre in September 1972, and other ‘spectaculars’ such as the hijacking of passenger aircraft gave the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Carlos the Jackal, the Red Army Faction, ‘Black September’ and the Japanese Red Army international notoriety. The aftermath of bomb, rocket and gun attacks, not to mention prolonged stand-offs between hostage-takers and security forces were naturally the focus of media attention, and also the inspiration for filmmakers. Furthermore, major incidents put pressure on governments to either concede to the demands of the terrorist groups concerned or to risk the execution of hostages by defying their captors.
I wrote about the British official response to the rise of international terrorism during this era in an article recently published in International Affairs, which can be downloaded here. Until the Munich massacre British policy on counter-terrorism was focussed on Northern Ireland, but after September 1972 the government of Edward Heath was forced to begin contingency planning for a similar emergency on UK soil. The results included the designation of the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) as a crisis management centre. Successive Prime Ministers convened COBR to deal with a succession of emergencies both domestic and foreign, particularly because it has conveyed the impression of a decisive response to a threat to public safety. More recently, David Cameron has used COBR in response to the murder of British hostages by ISIS in Syria, and also the possible spread of Ebola from West Africa to the UK.
More controversially, British contingency planning forty years ago also devised measures for calling in military support in response to terrorist incidents which were beyond the control of the civil authorities. Armed police units had resolved hostage crises such as the Balcombe Street Siege in December 1975 (as shown in the Youtube clip above), but Munich and other future emergencies (notably the hijackings of Air France Flight 139 on 27th June 1976 and Lufthansa Flight 181 on 13th October 1977) indicated the likelihood that the intervention of the British armed forces could be required, either in a hostage rescue mission or to pre-emptively deter attack on key targets such as airports and the North Sea oil fields. The counter-terrorist Pagoda Troop of the 22nd Special Air Service and M Squadron of the Special Boat Service both draw their origins from the contingency planning and exercises of the 1970s. Likewise, the deployment of troops at Heathrow in response to a reported al-Qaeda threat in February 2003 followed precedents set by repeated instances in 1974 when the Army was sent to patrol the runways of the same airport – this time to deter Palestinian terrorists from shooting down airliners with Strela surface-to-air missiles.
During my research I discovered that the planning process was often affected by inter-departmental quarrels within Whitehall. During the mid-1970s the Ministry of Defence, Home Office, Department of Energy, and the Scottish Office were at odds over which agency was ultimately responsible for the security of the North Sea oil terminals. A second problem involved the difficulties of conducting an anti-terrorist operation overseas, not just because of the cuts that the armed forces had experienced in the 1974-1975 Defence Review, but because of the possibility that terrorist groups might benefit from the protection offered by sympathetic governments – the German and Palestinian hijackers who took Air France 139 were given sanctuary and military support by the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. The prospect of carrying out an Entebbe-style rescue similar to that launched by the Israelis was not welcomed by Whitehall officials, and the recent murders of David Haines and Alan Henning by their Islamic State captors demonstrates that overseas hostage rescue remains an insurmountable challenge for the UK.
One key difference between the contemporary environment and the 1970s was that the involvement of the armed forces in domestic counter-terrorism aroused genuine concerns over civil liberties and the constitutional order. Britain in the early 1970s was in a condition of political and economic turmoil due to the ‘oil shock’ that followed the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973, the energy crisis and the ‘three day’ week, and industrial unrest. For critics on the left, troops patrolling Heathrow had sinister connotations, particularly at a time when former Army officers like General Walter Walker and Colonel David Stirling were suspected of raising private armies. The official response to Munich and other terrorist acts therefore aroused fears that Britain would experience a military coup similar to Greece in 1967 and Chile in 1973.
The fear of tanks in Whitehall diminished during the decade, and indeed provided the comic buffoonery exhibited by ‘Jimmy Anderson’ (Geoffrey Palmer) in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Nonetheless, the implications of introducing the military to counter-terrorism in the 1970s remain pertinent today, not least because we have yet to resolve one of the most fundamental of them; once you have brought the armed forces into the fight against terrorism, how do you de-escalate and withdraw them?