Security Forward Risk and Intelligence Forum’s quarterly meeting was held at Pewterers’ Hall in the City of London on Thursday, 16 January.
The meeting was chaired by Peter Fraser-Hopewell, his first time in the role of Guest Programme Chairman. We commenced with our Round Robin session during which participants share their current in-tray with the group, as well as introducing themselves and identifying issues of particular interest or concern. This is a valued session and, as we operate under The Chatham House Rule, the conversation is very open and usually most informative.
‘Speaker in Residence’ Lt Col Crispin Black, responding rapidly to world events, presented: "The Assassination of Qassim Solemaini: Developing Deterrence Or Developing Chaos?". He began by pointing out that military assassination has always been controversial and the effects often unpredictable. SOE's 1942 assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich in Czechoslovakia is a good example - the level of reprisals by the Germans (entire villages leveled and their inhabitants shot; thousands of civilians dispatched to concentration camps) meant that the British abandoned assassination as a weapon of war.
An additional difficulty in the current climate is that the media on both sides of the Atlantic tend to take the dimmest view possible of any decision made by President Trump. Security and military 'experts' seem near unanimous in their condemnation. And yet, possibly serendipitously, because of the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner by the IRGC, the Iranian theocracy does seem to be under increased pressure. The drone strike was certainly a display of both the USA's military and intelligence power. The mullahs who run Iran, whatever their plans for retaliation, will sleep less soundly in their beds.
On balance, whatever president Trump's motivations, the demise of Solemaini played well both with his base and with some swing voters. Perhaps that was the most important factor in his decision. Finally, there is no doubt that the sudden brutal removal of certain key military figures can have a degrading effect on an opponent's morale and military capability; but it is a matter of opinion (or taste, or morality, or repugnance, or international law) whether such assassinations should be carried out clandestinely (with deniability) - or in the full glare of global publicity.
Following coffee and a good deal of networking, our second speaker was Professor Michael Clarke, Director General of The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015. His presentation, "Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit & Security in the 2020’s", was based on his book of the same name. As an experienced speaker and Chairman, he held the floor commandingly and gave a fascinating talk which engendered a lively discussion.
Before dinner we had our traditional cocktail derived from a presentation theme. This time we braced for dinner with an English Bulldog, a gin and vermouth concoction in homage to Boris who claimed to have introduced the game of Bulldog to the school in Brussels attended by him and Ursula von der Leyen [1 measure proper gin, 1/2 measure dry vermouth, 1/4 measure fresh lime juice, dash of Angostura Orange Bitters, tonic].
Our ‘dinner speaker’ is often an author. Dr Aimée Fox was due to give this talk but had a personal emergency which prevented her from joining us. However, she had prepared her presentation in advance and it was delivered by our Programme Chairman Keith Holland in her absence. Dr Fox is a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at Kings College London based at the UK’s Joint Services Command and Staff College. All the participants were given a copy of her book "Learning To Fight: Military Innovation And Change In The British Army 1914-18".
Our next meeting should be rather special as we are being hosted by Alderman & Sheriff Professor Michael Mainelli at The Old Bailey. We will also have a slightly different format. The Programme Chairman for this meeting will be Chris Smith and we will be sending out details in due course.