Jtac and Cuta: a Comparative Study

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Table of Contents

  • Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre
  • Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA)
  • Comparing JTAC and CUTA
  • Conclusion

Terrorism is an international wide spread phenomenon that humanity has used as a tool to get political gain over their perceived opponents for centuries. Think about what the Zealots were to the Roman, think about the Jacobins who ruled the revolutionary state, think about the ETA in Spain or ISIS in Syria, … The list of terrorist acts and organisations is seemingly endless. Terrorism itself has taken on many different forms and new variants of it have been developed since the beginning of time: repressive terrorism, social psychiatric terrorism, insurrectional terrorism, fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, but also international terrorism, state terrorism and global terrorism are terms we seem to get in touch with more easily nowadays (Goethe, 2003; Bergesen & Lizardo, 2004). According to Roser, Nagdy and Ritchie (2018) the number of terrorist attacks has known a significant rise compared to the amount of terrorist incidents before the year 2000. As a country, you are required to protect the public, and so it is not strange to learn that countries started creating organisations specifically for the assessment and evaluation of terrorist threats. In the United Kingdom, the Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre (JTAC) was created in 2003 (MI5, 2018). A couple of years later, in 2007, Belgium established their Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA) (Crisiscentrum, n.d.). This analytical account studies both JTAC and CUTA and wants to explore the differences and or similarities between these two organisations. First of all, both JTAC and CUTA will be discussed in detail. Next, differences and or similarities between the organisations will be noted as well as their possible implications. This second section will lead to the conclusion and will be followed by some suggestions for future research.

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Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre

In June 2003, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, also known as ‘JTAC’, was established (MI5, 2018). Some see this as the most significant development in the analytical element of the UK’s management of terrorism (Gregory, 2005). JTAC is an independent organisation, responsible for the analysis and assessment of all intelligence connected to international terrorism, both outside and within the borders of the United Kingdom (MI5, 2018). The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre falls under the authority of the Director General of MI5 (Gregory, 2005). On his turn, he reports on all activities undertaken by JTAC to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) (MI5, 2018). The JIC is tasked with the coordination and with both overseeing and directing British intelligence work (Phythian, 2006). The legitimacy of actions undertaken by the different intelligence gathering and or assessing agencies of the United Kingdom, are, on their turn, overseen by “the Home Secretary, who personally signs warrants for [their] most intrusive activity; by Parliament, in the Intelligence and Security Committee; by two commissioners (former senior judges); and by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal” (MI5, 2018).

JTAC is known for being a well-equipped and organised institution by the broader intelligence world for two reasons: (1) the information exchange at a cross-agency level and (2) the high degree of expertise in dealing with international terrorism (Gregory, 2005; Harbisher, 2015). The great efficiency and expertise JTAC enjoys, can be explained by the studying the members more deeply. This anti-terrorism department has brought together counter-terrorist expertise stemming from either the police, key government departments or key government agencies (MI5, 2018). This allows them to have different perspectives and analytical skills within JTAC itself. The “key government departments” they refer to are, inter alia, the public transportation centres and the UK’s Visas and Immigration controls (Barnisher, 2015). The remits of the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre are described in the CONTEST strategy of the United Kingdom, also known as the British Counter-Terrorism manifesto (Harbisher, 2015). The main goal of CONTEST, the counter-terrorism strategy, is reducing “the risk to the UK and its citizens and interests overseas from terrorism” (bron, 2018). It is a rather national action plan put in place for the fight against radicalisation and terrorism based on four different aspect. The four P’s of importance for this specialised strategy are: (1) Prevent, (2) Pursue, (3) Protect, (4) Prepare. Firstly, they try to prevent their citizens becoming terrorist and or supporting it. Secondly, they try to stop terrorist attacks. Thirdly, they are tasked with protecting and strengthening the United Kingdom against terrorist attacks. Fourthly, they try to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack by for example “planning scenarios for emergency responders” (Barnisher, p 13, 2015; Bron, 2018). Of these four, Barnisher states that the prevention remit is the one of most interest as it deals with the key factors for radicalisation (in this case we refer to radicalisation in the broader sense of the word, distancing ourselves from the tendency to link radicalisation with Islam) (ibid, 2015). The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre produces two types of ‘end products’. On the one hand, it provides in-depth reports on terrorist networks, capabilities and trends (bron, s.n.). On the other hand, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre assesses international terrorism threats and issues warnings related to such threats (ibid, s.n.). When it comes to the assessment of threats, JTAC is responsible for (1) the citizens of the UK and (2) for the UK’s interests in foreign countries, as was mentioned above. The Joint Threat Analysis Centre considers five threat levels:

Threat Level The threat is:

  • Critical Imminent
  • Severe Highly likely
  • Substantial Strongly possible
  • Moderate Possible, yet not likely
  • Low Unlikely

The threat level set by JTAC is based upon several factors including: (1) Available Intelligence, (2) Terrorist Capability, (3) Terrorist Intentions and (4) Timescale. The first factor can be described as assessments of threats “based on a wide range of information, which is often fragmentary, including the level and nature of current terrorist activity, comparison with events in other countries and previous attacks” (MI5, 2018). The second factor helps indicating the potential scale of the attack and studies the capabilities of the terrorist which includes their methodology (ibid, 2018). The third factor, Terrorist Intentions, are being evaluated through the use of publicly available information and intelligence to examine the aims of the terrorist, also evaluating who the possible targets are (MI5, 2018).

Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA)

In Belgium, CUTA is seen as the successor of the Antiterroristische Gemengde Groep (AGG) (bron, 2018). However, there is one difference to be noted between the AGG and CUTA; while AGG actively collected intelligence to analyse, CUTA does not. The Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis relies on information gathered by supporting and partnering institutions. Therefore, Vercauteren (2018) does not regard CUTA as an intelligence agency. The Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis depends on (1) the minister of Home Affairs and the minister of Justice (ibid, 2018). The committee of Intelligence and Security includes the chiefs of every intelligence or security agency in Belgium (ibid, 2018). It serves as a preparatory platform for the strategical committee consisting of all the ministers responsible for security and de security advisor of the Prime Minister (ibid, 2018). All operations executed by the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis are reviewed by the Standing Committee I. This Committee has three members: a chairman and two counsellors, all of them appointed by the Senate for a six-year term (Vast Comité van Toezicht op de inlichtingen- en veiligheidsdiensten, 2018). Sometimes, for the assessment of ‘liability’, they also work together with the Standing Police Services Review Committee (ibid, 2018) .

The four main remits for the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis are: (1) Analysis, (2) Coordination, (3) Proposition of administrative measures to the authorities in play, (4) Managing the ‘Dynamische Databank’. Firstly, the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis, as the name implies, is responsible for the analysis of every possible threat relating to terrorism and extremism that might have consequences for the security of the State both on a national and on an international level (ibid, 2018; Joris Deene, 2018). This first task can be further divided into three levels: (1) the punctual and strategical threat evaluations, (2) threats related to people, organisations or events, (3) direct threats for Belgian interests, the Belgian population or any other important Belgian governmental institution in foreign countries. CUTA is also responsible for threat evaluations of critical national infrastructures, such as the port of Antwerp. They also make sure that there is an exchange of information with homologue foreign services and that relevant information gets passed to all the related Belgian services (ibid, 2018; Buitenlandse Zaken, Buitenlandse Handel en Ontwikkelingssamenwerking, 2016).

Secondly, CUTA is responsible for the coordination of plan R. Plan R refers to ‘Actieplan Radicalisme’ which was drawn up in 2005 and was revised in 2015. Plan R used to be called ‘Plan Moskee’ and is operating on both local (local task forces) and national levels (Vercauteren, 2018). The philosophy behind plan R is the pre-emptive detection of radicalisation, before any offences have taken place (Buitenlandse Zaken, Buitenlandse Handel en Ontwikkelingssamenwerking, 2016). This action plan against violent radicalization has four ambitions: (1) “mapping potentially violent and extremist streams in society”, (2) reducing “the impact of radicalizing entities through administrative measures”, (3) coordination of the national task force, (4) implementing active local task forces (Vercauteren, slide 9, 2013). Thirdly, CUTA can propose administrative measures in order to help authorities fight radicalisation and terrorism. Such administrative measures may include revoking an identity card or passport and the freezing of assets (Vercauteren, 2018). Fourthly, the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis is also currently working on what is called the ‘Dynamische Databank’. This is supposedly a database in which information on Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF’s), Homegrown Terrorist Fighters (HTF’s) and Hate propagandist is saved and can be quickly retrieved by different institutions that fight radicalisation. CUTA is allowed to store information on these three types of profiles for 30 years, after that they are obliged by law to erase them out of the system (ibid, 2018). As mentioned above, CUTA relies on supporting and partner services for the gathering of intelligence (Vercauteren, 2018). The supporting services are: the State Security Service, the Belgian General Information and Security Service, both federal and local police, the Federal Public Service Finance, Home Affairs FPS (Immigration Office), FPS Mobility and Transport, FPS Foreign Affairs (bron, 2018). Partner institutions are the Algemene Directie Crisiscentrum , Public Prosecution Service, regions and communities of Belgium, the Belgian Financial Intelligence Unit and the Directoraat-generaal Penitentiaire Inrichtingen (EPI) (Vercauteren, 2013).

When assessing threats, CUTA considers the following threat levels:

  • Threat Level Threat Level The threat is
  • Very High Level 4 Serious and imminent
  • High Level 3 Possible and probable
  • Medium Level 2 Average and little probable
  • Low Level 1 Non-existent and improbable

CUTA issues punctual and strategic assessments reports that reflect (1) the possibility of the manifestation of threats, as well as (2) the evolution of an already detected threat. CUTA as an organisation cannot actively take any measures (Vercauteren, 2018). The Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis is solely responsible for giving out assessment reports and advice directly linked to terrorism. The organisation responsible for establishing measures is the Algemene Directie Crisiscentrum which has been discussed above. However, the reports and advice of CUTA do also help inform policy makers on the current threats faced by the state and its population (bron, 2013).

Comparing JTAC and CUTA

The Joint Threat Analysis Centre, as well as the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis are independent organisations responsible for the analysis of terrorist threats. Both of the organisations are relatively small and specialised in the assessment of risk or threats related to terrorism and extremism against the home country and or interests of the home country in foreign countries. Though the Belgian threat Centre is based on the English model, there are some differences to be noted between the two of them (Vercauteren, 2018). Whereas JTAC is comprised by analysts and experts of all the other British intelligence gathering institutions, this is not the case for CUTA. Anyone with five years of experience as an analyst and who passed the necessary exams can apply for or get a job at CUTA (Vercauteren, 2018). This difference in personnel can, however, explain why JTAC is located in the MI5 building and why this is not the case for CUTA. There is no need for CUTA to be located within the same building as the intelligence agencies, as their personnel does not necessarily form part of other Belgian intelligence agencies.

As was already mentioned, the reason for the great variety of expertise of JTAC’s personnel, is to create a fluid flux of information between the different relevant intelligence agencies. CUTA as an organisation, as explained by Vercauteren (2018), does not collect intelligence itself and is therefore not to be categorised as an intelligence agency. It relies on the intelligence gathering of other Belgian institutions, inter alia, the State Security Service and the Belgian General Information and Security Service. CUTA does not have to be comprised of analysts from other intelligence gathering agencies, because in Belgium all the other Belgian intelligence institutions are obliged by law to share all their ‘intel’ with CUTA, and they will be held accountable if they do not do so. Foreign intelligence gathering agencies see this law as ‘valid’ and therefore will mark their documents with “For Belgian Eyes Only” (Vercauteren, 2018). By doing this, the foreign intelligence agencies acknowledge that the ‘originator controle ’ rule is not to be considered in this particular case and that the shared intel can be passed on to CUTA. Until 2006 the United Kingdom Terror Threat Levels were a colour-based scheme called “BIKINI state”; ranging from red (UK is at war), to amber (transition to war), black special (potential terrorist threat), to black (possible civil unrest), to white (situation stable). These are now simplified to a five-level scheme ranging. The British system uses the wording critical – severe – substantial – moderate – low to communicate the level of threat. CUTA on the other hand uses numbers to refer to the threat level. Threat levels in Belgium go from level 1 to level 4, 1 describing a situation without any threats and where attacks are improbable, 4 being the opposite and the state being on ‘high alert’. There is also a difference to be noted on the way the legitimacy of the practices of these organisation is evaluated. In the case of England, it is the responsibility of the Home Secretary, the Parliament, in the Intelligence and Security Committee, two commissioners (former senior judges), and the Investigatory Powers Tribunal to oversee JTAC’s activities. In Belgium, CUTA’s work is overseen by the Standing Committee I. A committee that has three members appointed by the government for a duration of six years (which is renewable) (Vercauteren, 2018). On the one hand, JTAC produces warnings of threat and other terrorist-related matters to governmental institutions. On the other hand, JTAC gives out reports on trends, terrorist networks and capabilities. CUTA creates similar alerts and also advices on terrorist-related topics. However, CUTA seems to be more involved on a local level for the prevention of radicalisation (rf. Plan R), while JTAC operates on a more national level (rf. CONTEST).


We live in a world in which we are -sadly- on a regular bases reminded of terrorism and terrorist attacks. It seems as if there is a constant risk for threats and, because of that, a constant need for the analysis of those threats. The battle against extremism and terrorism has gotten on the front page of almost every countries’ newspapers and has become an important part of policy making. This explains why every country invests in analysing terrorism threats and subsequently in organisations such as JTAC and CUTA. The main similarity between JTAC and CUTA is their reason for existence: the assessment of threats related to terrorism and or extremism within and outside of the borders of the home country. Both of them are also independent organisations and form part of a broader intelligence body. Yet the internal structure is different. Where Britain uses analysts from 16 different specialised departments, employees of CUTA need to pass a SELOR exam(s) and need at least 5 years of experience as an analyst. This multi-perspective approach in JTAC’s personnel enhances the flux of terrorist-related intel. CUTA however receives all of the terrorist related intel by its partner institutions and supporting services. They are obliged by Belgian law to pass on any information related to terrorism and extremism. Both agencies have to respond to institutions appointed with assessing the legitimacy of their activities. For future research, it could prove valuable to study the differences in how terrorist threat analysis centres, based on different models, deal with the same problematic: in this case terrorism and extremism. Lessons learned from the practices of a wide range of models can give us more insight in how we can oil the intelligence machinery to (1) smoothen the intelligence gathering process further and (2) can offer us insight as to the difficulties of sharing intelligence. Furthermore, it would be interesting to compare a terrorist analysis centre that is not based on a ‘Western’ model. That type of study would provide an opportunity in which the assessment and analysis of terrorist threats can be studied from another perspective and can therefore include cultural influences and their implications on the assessment of terrorist threats.

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