The threat from terrorism

Last Updated: 17 May 2016
Terrorism remains a serious threat to the UK. Read about the work of counter-terrorism analysts John and Helen.

The methods used by terrorists have changed substantially in recent years; new tactics and technologies make it increasingly difficult to identify and disrupt plots against the UK. In addition, the ever-increasing importance of the internet for recruiting, inspiring and coordinating attacks around the world places GCHQ at the forefront of the fight against terrorism.

These rapid changes require a dedicated and innovative workforce to ensure that we maintain our ability to identify those planning attacks. We work closely with MI5 and law enforcement to provide the intelligence that could support prosecution and disrupt attacks before they occur. GCHQ also contributes to the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), the cross-government body that analyses information from all sources to provide national threat assessments.

We are keen to recruit people with a range of skills to help keep the UK safe. You can check for current vacancies on our careers website.


Counter-terrorism analysts

John's story

I joined GCHQ in early 2005 straight from university, and was immediately in the thick of things following the 7/7 attacks in London, which happened only a few months in to my time as a trainee Counter-Terrorism (CT) analyst.

Following the attacks I was moved in to the Target Development team within CT- my role was to take a closer look at individuals that had been identified by the Security Service (MI5) as a possible threat. Specifically, my focus was on Al-Qa’ida (AQ) networks based abroad, who were planning attacks against the UK; the learning curve for this job was steep, but the work itself was immensely rewarding, and I learned a lot from my more experienced colleagues.

I was promoted in 2008 to become the Senior Analyst for AQ. In this post I got to travel to conferences overseas and regularly briefed Ministers on the threat from international terrorism. I also did two short tours in JTAC, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre in London. JTAC is the body that sets the UK threat level. The work is different from what I was used to: JTAC’s work involves piecing together intelligence from lots of different sources to understand what it means about the threat to the UK, whereas CT work in GCHQ is focused on terrorist communications. These short tours were a great learning opportunity, and it was fascinating to see how the intelligence that GCHQ produces has an impact on government decisions.

After three years in this role, I moved abroad to become GCHQ’s CT representative with one of our close partners. This was a fantastic opportunity, and gave me a much wider view of both CT and GCHQ’s close relationship with our allies, as well as the experience of living overseas. Now I’m back in the UK I’m working with the policy and compliance team in CT. This is a really important part of the business, and something that we put a lot of effort in to getting right.

With the changing picture of terrorism facing the UK, ten years of working in CT has given me the chance to develop expertise in the subject matter, as well as getting a breadth of experience with different departments. Most importantly, I feel that I’ve had the chance to make a real contribution to protecting the UK.​

Helen's story

​I joined GCHQ in 2007, working as an administrator in the internal training team. However, I was keen to work closer to the ‘cutting edge’ of GCHQ’s mission protecting the UK, and in 2009 I was lucky enough to be successful at promotion to an analyst position in Counter Terrorism (CT). As I had no analytical experience I attended a series of in depth training courses to acquire the skills required of a GCHQ analyst. I knew from my previous role how important training is in GCHQ, and my management took the time to identify the right development and training opportunities for me, enabling me to gain plenty of knowledge and to feel confident in the work I was doing.

I have been working in what is known as Target Discovery in CT- this involves trying to identify people located abroad who are seeking to do harm in the UK. These people may not be previously known to MI5 or our other partners, so it is painstaking work and sometimes quite frustrating. Every analyst in GCHQ is required to undertake extensive training on the legal aspects of our work, to ensure that we are aware of the legislation that underpins everything GCHQ does. This training, along with the more technical training and the support of my management, has given me the confidence to know that the work I am doing is proportionate, and is making a difference to keeping the UK safe.

With recent events, the focus of my work has changed, and I am now doing target discovery analysis looking at members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant based abroad (e.g ISIL). This has required a few new training courses to ensure that I have the right skills to do my job, but after eight years in CT, I can honestly say that I still enjoy (nearly) every day at work; I still find it a really rewarding area full of stimulating challenges, and I am constantly learning and developing.