Terrorism during the Holiday from History: how Western Security Services Dealt with Terrorism between 1989 and 2001

Constant Hijzen

The end of the Cold War was a decisive moment for Western intelligence and security services. Their failure to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of communist rulke in Central and Eastern Europe, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, as well as the national socio-political changes that followed the end of the Cold War, put their very existence on the agenda. Although there are important national differences, Western governments started to reorganise their intelligence communities. These changes might have felt short to meet the challenges of the post-Cold War world, which became particularly evident when the threat of terrorism rose to a new level after 9/11, but attempts were made to find new use for intelligence and security services.

In the Netherlands, for example, a new head of the security service was appointed, Arthur Docters van Leeuwen, who was assigned the task to modernize the security service. Would he fail, his service ran the risk of being abolished, a risk that was very real after November 1989, when more politicians, citizens, and civil servants rendered the BVD as a Cold War relic, and therefore now obsolete. Within government, Docters van Leeuwen argued that the security service undoubtedly had the right to exist, but in a different way. The security service was in his view fundamentally a serving element in government, and therefore it should supply reports that other branches of government could use to properly do their work. The security service specified certain ‘values’ that were essential to the normal functioning of the democratic process, tried to establish what kind of threats were presented to those values and, considering the ‘resistance’ of those values to those threats, it assessed the risk. Being part of a broader changes in the public sector, the security service was fundamentally redesigned along the lines of New Public Management: its threat perceptions, organization, and legitimacy were defined in a completely different way.

These innovative conceptual notions were however too complex for the outside world. In parliament and in the press, Docters van Leeuwen referred to tangible and concrete threats in order to justify the continued existence of the Dutch security services. Among these was terrorism. The security service wrote that the democratic order was threatened by state terrorism, Arabic and Palestinian terrorism, leftextremist violence, national terrorism (such as the ETA and IRA), and Dutch politically violent terrorism.[1]

In other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, we see comparable references to the continued threat of terrorism, which was generally depicted as an important object of attention of these agencies in the post-Cold War world. Since the 1970s, Western intelligence and security services have dealt with political violence and terrorism, which then gave rise to many new problems and questions, ranging from the political and societal level (should countering political violence and terrorism be a task for intelligence organizations?) to the level of personnel and operations (how to recruit trustworthy interpreters, how to train agent handlers?). Even though the problem of political violence and terrorism became less salient throughout the 1980s, it was publicly referred to as a topic of study for many agencies – perhaps needless to say – also before 9/11 and the attacks in Madrid and London in the years thereafter.

Although many authors have argued (post-9/11!) that the reorganisations and overhaul after the Cold War fell short of being able to address new threats[2], it is interesting to see that many of these agencies were active in the field of counterterrorism throughout the 1990s – and they publicly referred to this problem as one of the international threats that legitimised their continued existence.

In this paper, therefore, it will be explored what several Western intelligence and security services did in the field of counterterrorism between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 (so 1989-2001). Although the literature generally focuses on the American efforts in counterterrorism, here the focus will be on Europe, particularly the United Kingdom (Security Service or MI5), Germany (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz), and the Netherlands (Binnenlandse Veiligheidsdienst).

Based on secondary literature and primary sources, it will be explored how these agencies perceived and depicted the problem, what they did against it, and how they communicated this to the broader public, thus providing highly relevant insights in the dynamics of the transformation of Western intelligence into the post-Cold War world and the role of a particular threat in these transformation processes.


[1] C.W. Hijzen, Vijandbeelden. De veiligheidsdiensten en de democratie, 1912-1992 (Amsterdam 2016) 321.

[2] E.g. G.F. Treverton, Intelligence for an age of terror (New York 2009).

Karl Lorentz Kleve