Libyan Embassy siege prompted major shake-up of Whitehall's counter-terror team, new files reveal

Foreign Office files show how the department's permanent secretary ordered the formation of an elite “security coordination unit", able to call on officials from right across the civil service

By Jonathan Owen

25 Aug 2016

Senior civil servants created an elite counter terrorism unit based in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in response to the threat posed by the IRA and other groups, according to files released by the FCO to the National Archives this week.

The files, marked secret, reveal how Antony Acland, the then permanent secretary, pushed ahead with a major restructuring of how the FCO responded to terrorist attacks – just weeks after the Libyan Embassy siege in London in April 1984.

In a document dated 22 May 1984, he said: “I have no doubt in my mind that the present arrangements are unsatisfactory.”

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He decided to create a structure bringing the key parts of the national security apparatus, including the permanent under-secretary's department and the protocol department, into "a closer working relationship".

Acland stopped short of making the unit a “fully-fledged department to handled counter-terrorism” as he was concerned “that such a department might find itself underemployed when there is no actual or potential crisis".

Instead, he opted for a “security coordination unit co-located with PUSD” which would report to him and to ministers.

The new unit would take over the counter-terrorism functions previously carried out by the Maritime, Aviation and Environment Department (MAED) and “would be the first recipient in the FCO of relevant intelligence reports".

Acland added that the head of the unit “would be known in Whitehall as the initial FCO point of contact on all counter-terrorism matters".

He told FCO officials that the foreign secretary needed confidence that the head of the new unit "will have the resources to deal with all the FCO aspects of a crisis".

This would mean having “first call” on officials from other departments, who should “report direct to the head of the new unit and not to the heads of their normal parent departments” in times of a crisis.

His memo concluded: “I should like the secretary of state to be able to tell the prime minister that we have reorganised our arrangements for handling counter-terrorism. The new arrangements should be in place as soon as possible, and in any case by the end of the first week in June.”

One of the first tasks of the new unit was a secret rehearsal in west Berlin for a terrorist attack.

In a secret memo on the ‘Cabana’ counter terrorism exercise sent to all heads of department, Acland warned: “Acts of terrorism and hijacking continue to increase” and said: “exercise Cabana provides a useful, and timely, opportunity to test our preparedness”.

Officials from the FCO and other Whitehall departments would be involved in the “simulated incident” – which was planned for November 1984 – as well as a military team.

“Mr Renton has agreed to head the ministerial team and will travel to Berlin".

He added: “With over 200 military and civil personnel involved (most of them not FCO) it is important that we all do what we can to make the exercise realistic and rewarding…it is important that it goes off really well.”

He stressed the need for total secrecy: “Details of our plans to stage Cabana must not be revealed outside the Office. West Berlin is the best site for this exercise; but it is a particularly sensitive one. A defensive line will be prepared to cover Mr Renton’s presence in Berlin.”

In an annex to the document, he outlined the scale of the exercise, which would involve a team of officials, a ministerial party, a “technical support Team from our Friends and one or two Special Project teams from 22 SAS."

He added: “The total numbers involved could be in the region of 100 men plus equipment.”

Acland explained that the purpose of sending an FCO minister was to “gain high level access to the host government in order to ensure that the intelligence and military elements were allowed into the country" and to "provide 'political control' should it become necessary to commit British military forces in an attempt to resolve the incident".

More stories from the FCO Files:
Diplomats asked to dig up info on Geoffrey Howe's dinner guests, FCO papers reveal
Thatcher kept FCO officials in the dark over Reagan security briefing, new files show
FCO files reveal British officials were ordered to thwart Yasser Arafat visit


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