Counter-Terrorism Strategy from the UK

Jul 15, 2013

The United Kingdom’s response to terrorism has been shaped by the various terrorist threats it has faced during the 20th century; from Russian anarchists, Irish republicans, Middle Eastern groups, to the supporters of causes such as animal rights. While the threat from Irish terrorism has diminished, an ongoing and serious terrorist threat to Northern Ireland remains. Currently, the UK assesses its most significant risk to national security as that from terrorism associated with and influenced by al-Qaeda.

For much of the previous decade, the threat level from international terrorism in the UK has been classified as SEVERE, meaning that a terrorist attack in the UK has been judged ‘highly likely.’ In more recent years it has been SUBSTANTIAL. Successive UK governments have been accused of overstating the threat from terrorism, although the Independent Reviewer of Counter Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson, is satisfied that there is a serious threat and that special powers are needed.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the UK’s Counter Terrorism Strategy, known as ‘CONTEST’, has been criticized both for its alleged disregard for human rights and its inability to ensure the security of citizens. Research fellows at the Henry Jackson Society in London recently described the Strategy as having become “mired in a thorny liberty vs. security debate, not only over profiling but over indefinite detention, deportation, police ‘stop and search’ powers, and anti-terrorism legislation.”

Since its inception in 2003, CONTEST has undergone several revisions to reflect the changing nature of the threat, particularly since 2005 when the 7/7 bombings and the failed attacks on 21/7 in London made it plain that UK targets were threatened as much by home-grown terrorists as by those from abroad. Preventing current attacks, while avoiding measures which potentially alienate members of the Muslim community who might be susceptible to radicalization, is a key and freely acknowledged challenge for the UK Government.

This evolving threat has stretched the resources of the UK because its diverse and changing nature has increased the difficulty of identifying potential threat actors who operate across national boundaries and are generally not members of any structured, organizational hierarchy. While the incidence of coordinated, high impact terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda and its affiliates and associated groups may have lessened, ‘opportunistic’ attacks by individuals inspired by al-Qaeda, but acting alone, have increased.

The extremist aspirations of “homegrown” jihadists often incubate invisibly within otherwise law-abiding Muslim communities; individuals can become radicalized very quickly and are often ‘clean skins’ or new converts to Islam with no previous criminal or security record.

Since terrorism is a global phenomenon, countries facing similar threats can learn from and support each other. No doubt considerable information-sharing occurs between national security and law enforcement services, but nation states have different values and interests and these can affect their perception of the threat, the strategies they adopt to counter it, and the extent to which they will co-operate with others. A strategy relevant to UK circumstances, for example, would not necessarily suit the Canadian experience. No national strategy can stand in isolation, however, in our globalized world where states have become intimately interconnected and interdependent, the strength of all is deter- mined by the weakest link. The UK acknowledges that much of its success in countering terrorism has been achieved through international collaboration.

According to the latest annual report on CONTEST, published in July 2013: “The aim of CONTEST is to reduce the risk to the UK and its interests overseas from terror- ism, so that people can go about their lives freely and with confidence.”

CONTEST is a key component of the UK’s National Security Strategy, which introduced a new way of thinking with respect to the provision of intelligence for the purposes of public protection. It accepts that anticipatory policies can help in the formulation of predictive judgements and that identification and implementation of policies can reduce the risk to society by prevention, where possible, and preparation where not.

The role of intelligence is to provide a predictive capability where possible in order to detect, prevent or pre-empt attacks and reduce vulnerabilities. Intelligence-based assessments not only inform operational decisions on alert and warning states, countermeasures and resource deployments, but allow a deeper understanding of the threats in terms of the individuals and groups, their motivations, aims and techniques.

The strategy comprises four strands: Pursue (to stop terrorist attacks); Prevent (to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism); Protect (strengthen protection against a terrorist attack); and Prepare (to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack). Of these, Prevent is the most controversial and has been the most heavily criticized. In part, this is due to the inherent tension between the Pursue and Prevent strands of the strategy (i.e. between short and longer term objectives) and, in part, because of what is now seen as a conceptual flaw in the strategy itself. Following the murder of a British soldier on the streets of Woolwich in East London this year by al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists, CONTEST is undergoing further review to consider how best to respond to the ideological challenge posed by Islamist extremism.

The most immediate priority is to stop terrorist attacks through combined efforts of the police, security and intelligence agencies. To that end, much effort has been spent on developing counter-terrorism powers that enable the various agencies to detect, monitor, pre-empt, arrest and prosecute people for terrorist offences. Of the three civilian security and intelligence services in the UK – the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – it is MI5 which bears most responsibility for protecting the United Kingdom from threats to national security, including terrorism. Intelligence agencies have no executive powers but work at arm’s length through law enforcement services to detain, arrest and prosecute suspected terrorists.

A raft of anti-terrorism legislation has been developed since 2001, some of which have been subject to challenge in both domestic courts of appeal and at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Domestically, political disagreement between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party has centered around human rights issues, although many measures have been accorded all-party support. The period of ‘detention before charge’ was one such issue; another has been a ‘stop and search’ power which caused much resentment and was finally removed by the repeal of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Generally speaking, the Conservatives are perceived as being tougher on crime and terrorism, and more vehemently opposed to ECHR decisions that thwart the UK’s ability to defend itself in the way it sees fit. As an example, it took eight years before the UK was finally able to despatch Abu Qatada, a notorious extremist preacher who openly urged others to violence. Notwithstanding this frustration with the ECHR, the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, is on record as saying... “if we’re serious about stopping extremism, we’ve got to make sure that our anti-terrorism legislation doesn’t clamp down on those freedoms we’re trying to defend.”

Given that most terrorist plots in the UK have overseas connections, efforts have also been made to improve collaboration and coordination with other countries and multilateral organizations, to tackle the threats at the source, gather intelligence on terrorist plots and operators, and achieve successful prosecutions.

As well as catching and prosecuting terrorists, the importance for the longer term of stopping people from becoming terrorists has been the most controversial element of CONTEST. Cooperation across a wide range of sectors and agencies in the public and private sectors, as well as central government funding, has spearheaded counter-radicalization efforts aimed at providing timely advice and support to communities where individuals are at higher risk. A network of coordinators, in priority Local Authority areas, support Prevent programmes and coordinate with community organizations, agencies and departments. They are developing a range of community based Prevent projects in conjunction with the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) in the Home Office which are increasingly being merged with other aspects of Local Authority work such as child protection.

Prevent work in prisons, by the police and the National Offender Management Service, is attempting to counter radicalizing activity and help prisoners disengage from terrorism and extremism. Pilot projects challenging al-Qaeda related ideologies are showing some promise.

Partnering with other organizations and agencies has entailed difficult choices and provoked criticism with respect to the selection of appropriate partners: Muslim organizations which seemingly eschewed violent means but shared the ideology and aims of militant jihadists, were originally included in the consultation process and received government funding. It later became apparent that this culture of inclusion helped to promote extremist views and, in effect, groomed and channeled recruits for militant jihadism.

Policy measures have been revised to address this particular issue and respond to the ideological challenge posed by Islamist extremism in order to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.

Refuting the claims made by extremist and terrorist organizations and their propagandists in the UK and overseas is an essential element of Prevent work, as well as promotion of the values of a liberal country (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex and sexuality).

Far right groups which have developed an Islamophobic and white supremacist ideology are also recognized by Prevent as anti-democratic, intolerant and conducive to violence.

The 2013 Strategy document identifies the following objectives for the Protect strand: Strengthening UK border security; reducing the vulnerability of the transport net- work; increasing the resilience of the UK’s infrastructure; and improving protective security for crowded places.

Protective security procedures were the traditional frontline defence against terrorist attacks. Such passive defence measures (infrastructure reinforcement, compliance with personnel security practices, and procedures for handling and classifying information), acted as deterrents aimed to reduce the likelihood of attack. The addition of a range of new protective measures better help detect and prevent threats including: new airport security scanners to detect non-metallic explosives which have been deployed at all major UK airports, and “no-fly” arrangements to prevent people who pose a ter- rorist threat from flying to or from the UK.

Longer term analysis of terrorist capabilities and intentions guides investment in the CONTEST Science and Technology (S&T) programme, in which the efforts of Government research bodies, industry, academia and international partners, are all coordinated and funded from OSCT. The programme aims to improve the UK’s counter-terrorism capabilities by developing and applying new technologies for Protect and Pursue purposes, in order to ensure that adequate measures are in place to counter the use of new technologies by terrorists.

The responsibility to gather and share intelligence on threats to likely targets (and achieve security and accountability standards) is an essential element of the proactive approach to protection encompassed by CONTEST. A key central agency in this respect is the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI).

In 2012, improved performance reporting for Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) was introduced to determine security gaps. Government Departments and Devolved Administrations work closely with CNI operators to deal with any significant vulnerabilities. The resources of central agencies are limited, and traditionally have been focused on the CNI, but ways are being found to provide support to private sector companies in assessing and managing threats and risks. For example, companies seeking help to secure or cleanse their cyber networks and achieve required security standards are now referred by the government’s technical authority (an offshoot of GCHQ) to one of five approved security companies who have a certified capability.

The cyber dimension has particular relevance for the Protect and Prevent strands of the counter-terrorism strategy because it is perceived as a threat multiplier which increases the capabilities of terrorists both to recruit operatives and launch attacks while at the same time making detection and pursuit more difficult for security authorities. The vulnerability of cyber networks is also relevant in terms of building resilience against the impact of threats emanating from terrorists or natural events.

CONTEST 2 (2011) warns that al-Qaeda has called explicitly for “cyber jihad” along with other terror operations. While this threat is so far latent, the UK has accepted the need for a pro-active stance that attempts to seize the initiative and not only block attacks but defeat, or at least impose high costs, on the attacker through the use of intelligence. The cyber dimension also provides opportunities for security authorities to exploit opponents’ weaknesses to challenge and undermine the jihadists’ narrative in order to address the longer term aim of reducing and defeating terrorism.

Two separate units in the UK are working on an offensive capability to strike back at those who are attempting electronic attacks on critical infrastructure. One demonstration of this commitment was the use of a virus by GCHQ to replace bombmaking instructions with a cupcake recipe in an online jihadist publication.

At a conceptual level, there is acceptance that, however robust and pro-active protective security measures are, resilience planning to reduce the impact of an attack and allow a society to ‘bounce back’ as quickly as possible is an essential defence element, given the likelihood that, sooner or later, an opportunist attack will succeed.

The purpose of Prepare work is to reduce the impact of a terrorist attack that cannot be prevented. CONTEST sets out four objectives: to continue to build capabilities to respond to and recover from a wide range of terrorist and other civil emergencies; to improve preparedness for the highest impact risks in the National Risk Assessment; to improve the ability of the emergency services to work together during a terrorist attack; and to improve communications and information sharing for terrorist attacks.

The blurring of the line between the public and private sectors; between national secrets and pro- prietary sensitive information; between ‘national’ critical infrastructure and privately owned and operated assets (which are nevertheless of economic and societal importance); and the cyber links upon which all are dependent and interconnected, has reinforced the view that Protect measures can only take us so far. Being adequately prepared for an emergency event, whether human induced or otherwise, is essential if the impact is to be minimized.

The shift in emphasis towards the resilience of the information society as a whole, as opposed to the protection of specific key assets, has been characterized by innumerable outreach initiatives to close vulnerability gaps and engage all sectors of society in preserving the safety and economic well-being of the British public.

Central government can lead, coordinate and facilitate; it can provide incentives and require particular security standards for its own contracts but, ultimately, it is for individuals, enterprises and regional authorities to be prepared and take responsibility for their own security. This is the principle of “subsidiarity” which builds on the expertise and specialized knowledge that exists at the local level and encourages collaborative and cooperative partnerships based on trust.

In promoting this security message, the UK has created a National Risk Register with a National Security Advisor. This has been instrumental in launching education and awareness initiatives that reach out to schools, universities, and other civic establishments. It provides advice and assistance to the private sector, and has also taken steps to build a pool of talented people with cyber security skills to meet the current shortfall in both public and private sectors.

Traditionally, security issues attracted all-party support, but today internal opposition to the Government’s security policies is coming not only from the official Opposition but from members of the Coalition Cabinet. Principles and politics combine to produce mixed messages, and the pragmatic business of government militates against legislative solutions. Libertarians philosophically favour the early dismantlement of special security powers while those responsible for public safety prefer to err on the side of precaution. The Home Secretary recently said that she wanted to ‘re-balance’ CONTEST, (taken to mean a commitment to reducing some security measures). The comment was made against a backdrop of growing concerns about “home grown” terrorism and a per- ception in some quarters that the threat from international terrorism had diminished.

With respect to the Prevent strand of CONTEST, the key question of: with whom should the British government engage (or indeed tolerate inside and outside the country) as part of its efforts to counter radicalization and terrorism, is a central point of contention and a work in progress.

A Conservative Party Green Paper on Security explicitly referred to the philosophical gulf between the previous and current governments on the conception of Prevent. Prior to the release of the 2009 CONTEST update, a witness who gave evidence to an APPG (All Party Parliamen- tary Group), claimed that “the central theoretical flaw in Prevent is that it accepts the premise that non-violent extremists can be made to act as bulwarks against violent extremists.” It was noted that, while non-violent extremists had become ‘well dug in’ as partners of national and local government efforts to address the grievances of angry young Muslims, they were themselves at the forefront of stoking those grievances against British foreign policy; Western social values; and alleged state-sanctioned “Islamophobia.”

The Coalition Government’s revised Prevent Strategy published in 2011 reaffirms changes made in 2009 to deny public funds to “any group that has recently espoused or incited violence or hatred or undermined British values.”

Beyond the partnership debate are issues concerning privacy, trust and free speech. A Muslim community in the West Midlands region was recently successful in forcing the government to remove a phalanx of CCTV security cameras because of their concerns that they were being used for spying purposes. The credibility of community police and local authority workers has also come into question – are they providing counter radicalization support or are they gathering intelligence for law enforcement purposes?

Government attempts to force the Vice Chancellors of some British Universities to do more about extremism on campus has met with mixed reaction and concerns about curbing freedom of expression.

The integration of defensive and offensive measures to counteract specific threats has introduced new overt tactics and approaches in an effort to respond to concerns of individuals and community leaders who ‘push back’ against extremist groups.

CONTEST calls for openness with respect to its objectives and assessments, on the grounds that success critically depends upon persuading the various stakeholders to ‘buy into’ the strategy. Although the revised 2009 version of CONTEST set out to ‘sell’ the strategy to regional authorities and groups across the country, the All Party Parliamentary Group assessment in 2011 nevertheless noted that significant challenges remained. Many stakeholders were not fully engaged and some were finding it difficult to deliver their respective commitments.

There has been a significant increase in the UK’s counter-terrorism capacity since 2005, and has been largely protected from recent budget cuts: Government funding for counter-terrorism policing was around £573 million in 2012/13, a slight reduction from the £582 million of 2011/12.

The Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism is an executive directorate of the Home Office with direct responsibility for some aspects of counter-terrorist strategy and a co-ordinating role in relation to others. OSCT was formed in 2007 to replace the Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence Directorate, and has a staff of around 500.

The three civilian security and intelligence agencies have no executive powers, but work with policing services throughout the UK to assist in the identification of terrorist threats, the monitoring and arrest of suspects, and the successful prosecution of cases which are brought to court.

MI5 allocated 72% of its resources to “International Counter-Terrorism” (ICT) during 2011/12; a further 15% was, and remains, allocated to Northern Ireland. MI6 allocated 36% of its resources to ICT in 2011/12, while GCHQ devoted about one third of its overall effort to counter-terrorism. Staffing in all three agencies has increased considerably.

As far as policing is concerned, at the end of March 2013 there was a budgeted strength of some 8,500 personnel within the CT network, 6,500 of them police officers and 2,000 civilian members of staff. In addition, some 850 locally funded Special Branch personnel assist in protecting national security and are in some areas managed and tasked by the regional Counter Terrorism Units (CTUs).

In 2006, the Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) was created which is based in the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) at Scotland Yard in London. It is led by an Assistant Commissioner who is also the national police lead for counter-terrorism.

The CT network comprises four regional police CTUs which are based in and run by regional police forces in the North East, North West, West Midlands and South East of England. These units include detectives, community contact teams, financial investigators, intelligence analysts, hitech investigators, ports officers and officers working closely with MI5. There are also regional Counter-terrorism Intelligence Units (CTIUs) which focus on intelligence rather than the investigation of offences and are managed by the relevant local police force. The CT Network oper- ates in full and active partnership with counterterrorism policing structures in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

A National Crime Agency (NCA) has been established, and should be fully operational by the end of 2013. The NCA will replace the Serious and Organized Crime Agency (SOCA) and will lead police work on serious, organized and complex crime including cyber crime, and border security. Its components will include a Border Policing Command responsible for the physical security of the border. It has not yet been decided whether or to what extent the NCA should in the future have a counter-terrorism role but, in the meantime, the NCA will co-operate with the CT Network on issues of common interest including financial crime, border security, work in prisons, forensics, specialist technical capabilities and corporate support functions.

In a 2012 speech, then MI5 Chief Jonathan Evans warned that internet “vulnerabilities” were being exploited by criminals as well as states. He also cautioned against thinking the terror threat had dissipated. “In back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here,” he said.

Canada too is confronting terrorist threats. The difficulty lies in distinguishing between those who merely talk from those who might soon become actively militant. When does the fantasy of becoming a martyr slip into the reality of criminal preparation? The methods and procedures we adopt to thwart and constrain terrorists in the interests of public safety will be shaped by the severity of the perceived threat. Yet, is it possible to preserve democratic values while continuing to accord rights to those whose activities violate the rights of others? The corollary is that terrorists must be bound by the same laws as the rest of us, and held rigorously to account.

This perceived inability to hold terrorists to account has caused frustration in the UK. Concerns rage about the emphasis given to individual rights when public safety is at risk. In national security cases, idealism and the desire to do what is right comes up against pragmatism and the need to find practical solutions for preserving both democratic values and security.

An effective counter-terrorism strategy must find ways to be creative and innovative in using the law to do so. There is no place for absolutism. The cautious liberalization of UK anti-terrorism law from 2010 to 2012 and the identification of other areas where further liberalization could be achieved without materially increasing the threat from terrorism has demonstrated that the UK is cognizant of this dilemma.

Angela Gendron is a respected senior fellow at the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies, The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, Ottawa, and a senior fellow at the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at Buckingham University (UK).
© FrontLine Security 2013