Director | Joint International Counter-Terrorism Unit
Let’s start by talking about the job you’ve just left.
I am currently the Director for International Counter Terrorism, a new, joint, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Home Office unit. Prior to that, I was one of two directors for Middle East and North Africa at FCO.
What did it entail?
Since I went out to Iraq in 2003 to try and help the reconstruction effort, my background has ended up being the Middle East and North Africa. Doing the director job was a logical next step in my career. I was responsible for our foreign policy - the UK's relations with those countries, those regions – specifically, the Gulf, Yemen (where I had most recently been Ambassador) and North Africa, less Egypt. The other director covered the other areas.
We have a lot of war and conflict on the patch at the moment. Whether that's what's happening with Daesh and Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq, the civil war in Libya, or looking at the root causes of the Arab Spring, which has had variations of success and failure in different countries. We've got a lot more project money than we used to have, so for the first time the Foreign Office, through the Conflict and Strategic Stability Fund, has some real money to go out and engage with root causes of issues; with the youth and future of these countries, in a more sustained way.
Did you have any area of specialisation?
The beauty of being a director is that you're all about strategy and the big picture. Then, you have to deep dive into a specific policy area as they're coming up at the National Security Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, or an issue is of concern, or deserves a more detailed look, or because Parliament is asking about it. So I get to indulge my twin passions of looking at the big picture whilst still getting into some of the detail. Not too much of course – we have amazing staff whose job it is to know the detail.
You used to be HM Ambassador to Yemen. How was it?
Being an ambassador in Yemen was fantastic and heartbreaking at the same time. When I arrived in 2013, we were halfway through the transition process. There was a national dialogue going on and a real air of optimism. It was great to go into the place where the national dialogue was being held and to feel the energy of young people and women, who had never had a voice before in politics. Suddenly, you had women chairing working groups about a whole range of issues that needed to be factored into the constitution.
What, then, became heartbreaking was that as the national dialogue process finished, it became more and more obvious that a lot of fundamental issues hadn't been settled in a way that the main players were willing to accept. Some had been holding their powder dry and may have had no intention on delivering on a constitution that gave the Yemeni people a real voice for the first time. And some promises that were made were not really kept by some of the senior Yemeni politicians there. Gradually, it began to edge towards a civil war. There was a point where I sat down in my little pod – the red sea container in which all staff lived - and thought, "What am I doing here? What difference are we making?" The team and I had spent months here, as had our predecessors, supporting this political process, shuttling between political leaders, trying to understand what the people of Yemen wanted and how to ensure that was reflected by the politicians. And whilst that may sound altruistic, we did have a clear British national interest motive: we wanted to stabilise Yemen because it's where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is operating from, which remains a terrorist threat to the UK. The reason why you can’t take more than 100ml of anything onto a plane and have to take your shoes off is because the threat to aviation demonstrated by Al Qaeda there.
Why did you go to Yemen, specifically?
Primarily, because I was asked. I have a track record of living and working in more challenging places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Yemen was the one bit of the Gulf that did need help, and where I could see myself making a tangible and, positive difference to a political process and, hopefully, to people’s lives.
For example, I would meet with the president and all the political parties on a regular basis. In the national dialogue body, the delegates wanted 30% of women to feature as a compulsory quota in the main democratic institutions. Everyone has their own views on quotas, but we've found that in a lot of countries where there are virtually no female representatives, if you don't have some form of quota, female voices will rarely be heard, other than behind the scenes. And there are some amazing Yemeni women out there whose voices need to be heard. So, in that context, supporting a quota was a way to try and get some of the real issues on the agenda in Yemen.
I went to a small village to look at a UK-funded development project. I sat down with the village men and talked life, politics, religion, the lot. I then asked to see the women. The men were quite surprised. “What about?” they asked. I said that I wanted to have the same conversation with the women, particularly about politics. The men laughed: “our women get water all day and go to bed at 6pm when it is dark” they said. “They know nothing about politics.” Needless to say, these uneducated, rural women who knew little of the wider world had very strong and clear views: they wanted education for all, especially their girls; education meant you may get a job so you could lift yourselves and your family out of poverty. They wanted access to contraception so they didn’t have families that could number up to 20 children, which they knew they couldn’t afford to feed and knew would ruin their bodies. They wanted peace, security and stability and had very specific ideas about how to achieve it. But collectively, they didn’t have a voice and were not able to get these ideas across.
I went around the Yemeni political parties to lobby for the 30% quota for women. At first, it felt as though the (male) politicians were just indulging me whilst I talked about a ‘hobby horse’. But, with time, they listened to the arguments and most of them had female influences in their lives who were also advocating for the 30%. The leader of the hardline Islamist party joked with me that if Yemen had 30% of women in their Parliament, it would be more than we had in the UK. “Absolutely” I shot back “Yemen should show the UK how important it is to reflect the views of all of your citizens.” He grinned and offered me more green tea. But all of them, including this chap, in the end, agreed to support the 30% quota for women in the draft constitution.
Do you think these steps that were taken for women while you were there can outlive the civil war?
I hope so, but it will be a real challenge. I think it will only happen if the political players agree to pick up the draft constitution where it was left, but there are no signs of that happening at the moment.
The Foreign Office post many women in Middle Eastern countries. What was your experience of it?
My first experience was in Iraq in 2003. I ended up in a remote area of Iraq with 1,200 British military officers. There were a handful of women, but I was the only civilian woman. I thought it was going to be more of a challenge than it was. But you do get this weird third gender thing, as a Western woman. You do get the benefits of being able to speak to the men and speak to the women, and get different insights into the conditions. So, overall, yes, it's a lot of hassle you have to overcome and a lot of preconceived ideas. But if we can overcome those, it does end up being an advantage.
In Iraq, I was mainly dealing with the local tribes, trying to help them with their local governance structures, reconstruction and security reform. It may not sound a lot, but I was proud to be at the heart of getting Iraq’s first semi-democratically elected Chief of Police in place. He lasted longer than any of his predecessors and was one of the first to step down from the position after several years, rather than leaving in a body bag.
Then you went to Afghanistan. What did you do there?
I was attached to the American military in Kabul, as a civilian political advisor. They have a lot more senior women in the military than we've got in the UK. So, there were more female faces around, which was quite nice. For that job, it was mainly about supporting the presidential elections in 2004 in Afghanistan. We coordinated the American military logistics effort behind the elections process. I had numerous conversations about how to deliver ballot boxes. The UN would ask if we could get ballot boxes around the country and picked up again and I’d ask "Can we get helicopters to these places?" And the military would go, "No. The air's too thin. You can't use a helicopter. You have to use donkeys." So we used donkeys too.
I worked on reinforcing some of the provincial reconstruction teams. To get better civilian-military integration has been the theme of my career. Civilian and military people talk in a very different way. Civilians are much more free-flowing, non-hierarchical. The military is very hierarchical. You know your place. And then, there's different cultures within different militaries, as well. Because we don't speak the same language, sometimes a lot of the effort has been about integrating how you bring together the military force on the ground with the reconstruction effort and with the civilian effort.
After Afghanistan, you went back to Iraq.
I was there for nearly two years working with the US and the Iraqis to transition provinces from Coalition military control back into Iraqi civilian control: the process went well in the southern and Kurdish areas but the model couldn’t be applied to the more challenging Sunni Arab areas.
I then came back to London to work on Afghanistan issues, then went to work for then U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) head, General Petraeus, to prepare for the new U.S. President – who turned out to be Barak Obama. Continuing the US theme, I then worked for Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. My focus there was particularly around how you build up democratic, accountable structures that survive individuals. There was a lot of debate about whether Afghan President Karzai would win the 2009 elections, or whether it would go to second round. It was about helping build up mechanisms so that the loser didn't feel that they had lost everything, but that they were then the legitimate opposition holding the government to account. These are things that, in the UK, we take for granted. But in Afghanistan, we had to help them find out what that looked like. It’s still work in progress today. In so many countries, there is an attitude – by everyone – that the winner must take all. It make stability hard to deliver.
What are you most proud of in all the work you have carried out for FCO?
I'm always quite hard on myself because the countries I've worked in are quite tough. Something like Yemen, I gave it my all but the country's now in civil war.
You look back, and you think “This is a disaster. What could I have done better?” Usually, the reality is that you couldn't do anything better. But you always want to have something that endures - something that is better as a result of what you did. I think, in Afghanistan, it was helping the 2004 election to physically happen. That's the first one that Karzai won. And then, I think in 2009, it was about starting to get the semblance of democratic structures and accountability in place. Overseeing the hostage rescue process in Iraq in 2005-6 was satisfying for the lives saved. Helping the UK understand Iran and contribute in a small way to the nuclear peace deal that was ultimately concluded was also special.
How did you move from one job to the next?
My track record is not staying in jobs for too long. That's never deliberate. In the earlier jobs, because it was a very tough environment, there were HR rules on how long you could stay there. I've actually ducked a few HR rules and stayed longer than I should've done. But I couldn't get away with it forever. Then, by and large, it's just looking for opportunities. With Yemen, I was literally tapped on the shoulder by the hiring manager who was walking down the corridor and just tapped me on the shoulder and went:
"Jane, what are you doing now? Do you fancy being ambassador to Yemen?" I'm like, "I don't know, Sarah. I hadn't really thought about it to be honest." There was something like eight applicants - including, I was told, three existing ambassadors. So, suddenly, it was all a bit serious when I went to the interview, and I had to do lots of homework to ensure that I was the best candidate for the job.
What's the process to become an ambassador?
It's an interview by the hiring manager, with a couple of additional layers in for more senior ambassadors. You have to make sure our Senior Appointments Board - the top of the Foreign Office - is happy with the appointment. They have to sign it off. In fact, they sign off the short list, and then they sign off the appointment. Then, the Foreign Secretary has to sign it off. Then the Prime Minister. And then, formally, the Queen has to sign it off as you are technically her Ambassador. Then the host country has to agree to your appointment. So it can be a long time between the hiring manager telling you that they want you and the job becoming yours – it took several months for Yemen and I was on tenterhooks as you can’t really tell anyone.
Why did you join the Foreign Office?
I actually joined it by accident. You think most people in the Foreign Office must have been born as a baby diplomat with a silver spoon in their mouth, but an awful lot of Foreign Office people have come in, either later in life or from another government department.
I fell into the Cabinet Office by mistake, having studied international relations at university. I wanted to be a journalist – a foreign correspondent. Then, I decided that I didn't want to be a journalist: I wanted to be the person behind the scenes, doing the things that journalists deemed as newsworthy. My mum persuaded me to fill in the forms for civil service. I wasn’t sure which department to apply for and found myself in the Cabinet Office. I did a couple of jobs, looked around and thought, "Actually, the Foreign Office is a good use of my skill set and interests." I asked if I could apply for a job that was going on chemical and biological weapons. The hiring manager said, "Why don't you come do the nuclear policy one instead? Didn’t you do your Master’s thesis on nuclear weapon diplomacy?” I had, and I got the job.
Why the specialisation in the Middle East?
The military action in Iraq in 2003. I think the Middle East course was the topic I was probably weakest on in my Master's. It was an alien part of the world to me: the first time I left Europe was a tourist trip to Luxor in Egypt in 1998 and it was completely different to everything I knew and yet also felt very comfortable. My mind-set on Iraq was that, given we had sent our military forces there as part of the Coalition, we all needed to roll our sleeves up and see what we could do to help. So, I volunteered to go out with the Foreign Office and, what was then, the Coalition Provisional Authority - the civilian government that was being set up by the Americans. But there were problems with the paperwork and I couldn’t go. The Ministry of Defence then rang me up and said “Would you like to go to Maysan and be a POLAD?”
And I'm like, "Yes! I’ll go. I just have two questions. Where's Maysan and what's a POLAD?" Maysan turned out to be the remote, marshy part of eastern Iraq, that the British tabloids later called the Wild West of Iraq. And a POLAD stood for POLlitical ADvisor. So, I was the civilian voice of conscience with the military, advising them on the local, national and international political picture shaped their actions on the ground and vice versa. My job description was “be the person with whom the Commanding Officer wants to shoot the breeze with over a whisky in the evenings.” Easier said than done – although as the camp was dry, the whisky turned out to be a cup of tea.
What's your favourite thing about working at FCO?
The people and the fascinating work. I was talking to someone, who left the office recently, about this. He said, "Jane, the private sector's really cutthroat in comparison. People in the Foreign Office, they're just really nice. They want the best for each other. They want the best for the UK. It’s not like that *out there*."
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do?
There's a certain level of intellectual robustness that is definitely required. But, the people who get to the top may or may not be the smartest. It's the other skillsets that they can bring with them. Languages are a help, although, personally, I'm terrible at languages.
I speak a tiny bit of Arabic and a tiny bit of Persian.
Leadership qualities - having a flexible leadership styles – are vital. Networking, by which I mean understanding and making contact with people, staying in contact with them and understanding other cultures is important. You need somebody who can go and live in a country and, very quickly, pick up how the people think and work. It's different for each country. It's about understanding what makes a nation tick; getting to know the people, the decision-makers, and their approach. Getting to know the feel of the country.
In some ways, the more junior you are in the Foreign Office, the more fun it is. We always talk about second secretaries (a junior diplomatic position) and the need for them to get dusty boots. If they're not out on the ground, making contacts, hanging around meeting people, understanding a country, then they're not doing their job properly. As British ambassador I had ready access into the president on a regular basis, all the senior leaders. But actually, some of the most satisfying stuff was sitting down with some of the women's groups, going into the villagers, meeting young entrepreneurs or our Chevening scholars. Just talking to normal people to understand how their country works and what they want.
What would you advise to a young girl, or young women, who would like to have a career like yours?
That anything is possible. The Foreign Office can appear quite daunting. There's still a lot of stereotype about the Foreign Office being full of white men, inaccessible, with a certain public school background... I don't think it is true now. One of the things that Simon Fraser, the previous Permanent Secretary - and many of us now - are encouraging is diversity of background and thought. I was from a state school in Yorkshire. I'd never really heard of the Foreign Office. In fact, I think that's why I ended up in the Cabinet Office. I still didn't really know what the Foreign Office was or what it did.
You’ve now moved to a position in counter-terrorism.
There's a whole range of government departments - particularly, the Foreign Office and the Home Office who are involved in counter-terrorism overseas. So the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review suggested we set up a joint unit. – the Joint International Counter-Terrorism Unit (JICTU). With our colleagues and partners, we’ll be the strategic centre for the UK’s international CT work. CT domestically is based around four principles: Prevent, Protect, Prepare, Pursue. We’re taking our expertise, learning from others and trying to promote global best practice. Terrorism tends to come in waves – right now we’re in the period where Daesh, as they are defeated on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, have started external attacks and trying to ‘inspire’ others to carry out terrorist attacks on the basis of a very twisted form of Islam. Al Qaeda are still an issue as well: they have more strategic patience and haven’t gone anywhere.
You're running that whole unit?
Yes. We're not huge, but we tap into much wider networks, agencies and expertise. We're meant to be about 45 people, so a lot fewer than the 250 I was managing in Yemen, but enough to do the job.
What do you think the biggest challenge is going to be?
The chances of being killed by a terrorist, whether in the UK or overseas, is statistically very small. You’re much more likely to be killed in a traffic accident. But terrorists try and breed fear: the clue is in the name. So society – and governments – need to respond in a way that is proportionate in security terms but does not undermine the UK’s core values – otherwise the terrorists win. That is a very difficult balance to get and there are many different perceptions of the ‘right’ balance.
So the challenge for counter-terrorism is to explain why it is necessary and explain why it is an integral part of a security infrastructure. Not in a scary way. A portion of people from the UK who have gone to Syria have already returned to the UK. Now, most of them will probably just go back to life in some sort of normal way. But a percentage of them may want to go on and commit terrorist offences in the UK - as we've seen in France and Belgium. How do you identify these people? How do you ensure that you are prepared for any attack? How do you catch them if they have done something wrong? And how do you prepare and plan for that phenomenon globally, especially when not all countries regard human rights as as important as we do.
Last question. What can we wish you for the next five years of your career?
A peaceful, terrorist incident-free career. Actually, what you want to wish me is a boring next five years. Because if I have an interesting job, that means things aren't going as well as I’d like them to be.
CV in brief
18 years experience
Find Jane online: LinkedIn | Twitter | 'A female diplomat? She sits in the back and looks pretty' The Telegraph piece | The Fold profile | FCO blog
Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, April 2016