Jacqui Smith: The pressures a Home Secretary faces after a 'terrorist attack'

Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA Archive

Jacqui Smith was Home Secretary between 2007 to 2009, including during the attempted terror attack on Glasgow Airport.

In an article for ITV News, she explains what one of her successors, Theresa May, must be going through as she deals with the murder of a soldier in Woolwich.

It just so happened that I was on the phone to a senior official at the Home Office as the news began to emerge about the Woolwich attack yesterday.

"I expect you can remember days like this", the official said to me.

I can certainly remember the combination of anger and concern that I felt on the occasions when an incident was serious enough to be reported straight to the Home Secretary’s office.

Fortunately, I was never faced with the death of a victim – and particularly in such a brutal and appalling way as the young man in Woolwich.

The first reaction is to feel desperately sorry for the family and friends of someone who loses their life in such a tragic way.

Just days into her job as Home Secretary, a terrorist attacked Glasgow airport. Credit: Alistair Robertson

But the job for ministers, officials and investigators, at a time like this, is not just to respond on the basis of the strong emotions they will undoubtedly be feeling.

There are important steps that they have already started taking.

Firstly, there must be clarity about what has actually happened.

The first item on any meeting of COBRA – the government’s emergency response committee named after the Cabinet Office Briefing Room A – is to share knowledge and information so that everybody is operating with the fullest possible set of information.

This must also inform any public statements made by government figures.

Theresa May and other senior officials made pretty guarded statements about what happened yesterday – that is absolutely right.

Theresa May leaves Downing St, London after a meeting of COBRA. Credit: John Stillwell/PA Wire

Until facts are clear and confirmed, official voices should resist speculation. In the Twitter age when the smallest snippets of information circulate immediately, there must be a trusted and reliable source of information.

But ministers can and should remind us of the way we should respond to events like this. It was clear from their public ranting that the alleged murderers are keen to communicate a particular message.

It is a message of division and hatred and ministers are right to remind us that previous terror attacks on London’s streets have not destroyed the values and way of life which are so important to all communities in this country.

There are experts within government on communication to reassure and limit the impact of terror attacks.

Ministers will be using their research to ensure that the messages given out emphasise what unites us as a country regardless of faith or political background.

If this is a terror attack planned or inspired by Al-Qaeda or other Islamist extremism, the aim is to terrorise, to divide and to attack our values of tolerance and rule of law.

This ideology pre-existed any of the specific foreign policy, military or domestic grievances that the terrorists may cite. It is aimed at destroying our way of life and the grievances, for example, our action in Afghanistan, are a vehicle for the terrorists’ ideology not a cause of it.

The next task is to investigate what actually happened, who is responsible and whether they were previously on the radar of police and security services. I have the utmost respect and confidence in these agencies to carry out the painstaking investigation and intelligence linking to get a clearer picture of whether those who carried out the attack acted alone, were actively tasked by others or simply radicalised and inspired.

Even when I produced the first public counter terror strategy back in 2009, we were clear about the potential threat from individuals who became radicalised from the internet or extremist preachers.

There have been other incidents of this type of attack – foiled and successful – and they are obviously very difficult to track and identify in advance.

Once the initial shock and statements have been made, there will be an ongoing job of ensuring that neither those with a similar world view to the terrorists nor those who claim to be opposed to them are able to use these events to spout hate.

In attacking both the police and the Muslim faith, the EDL protestors and a planned BNP rally show that they have no interest in the rule of law and the values of tolerance in our country. I hope the Home Secretary is thinking hard with the police about how they can be prevented from causing further distress and using this terrible act to prompt further hatred.

Around 40 members of the EDL ran at police. Credit: ITV News

Whatever its cause, yesterday’s killing is a shocking and sad event.

For the family and friends of the victim, it will be a continuing sadness. But there is some hope in the immediate response of local people, Muslim leaders and followers and the government.

The act was aimed at terrorising and dividing – a calm, united, law-abiding response is the strongest way that we can deal with the immediate and longer term impact.

Jacqui Smith was the Home Secretary between 2007 to 2009. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.