By European Eye on Radicalization
In June 2018, the United Kingdom announced its new strategy for countering terrorism. This high level report is rarely published – the last edition appeared in 2011. This makes the new report a revealing illustration of the changing face of the enemy facing the UK and its allies.
This article reviews the nature of the changes, the strategic response, threat assessments, notable numerical trends, the role of technology, the vexed issue of freedom of speech, and the outlook.
An Elusive Enemy
In the past, al-Qaeda tended to focus on a relatively small number of serious plots in the UK and other Western countries. They often featured international connections to South Asia or the Middle East, a long preparation phase, several participants, and multiple sites targeted for coordinated attacks.
These complex plots provided opportunities for spooks to intercept communications, infiltrate and unravel networks, and take whole cells down. Some plots could be disrupted with a brutal but very simple solution – a drone strike on planners thousands of miles away from their intended terrorist attack targets.
Today, by contrast, the enemy is diverse, unpredictable, hard to find, and quick to move from radicalization to action. He often does so as a lone wolf whose only international connection is a web browser. The threat has plainly changed, dramatically in fact. So a bigger, wider and more tightly knit government effort that is networked across society is needed.
A Bigger and Better Net
The Prime Minister notes this shift in the foreword to the report. The threat is now “large and multi-faceted”, Theresa May writes, and this requires “a much greater focus on systemic co-ordination across the public sector.”
Intelligence is at the heart of the mission. British intelligence services have long been famously secretive, even by the standards of their trade, but they are coming out of the shadows as never before. Under the new strategy, the domestic security service MI5 will share more information with other government departments and even local authorities, starting with the high risk areas of London, the West Midlands and Manchester.
A key focus will be individuals who may be a risk but are not deemed top priorities for the intelligence services and the police. This is a response to the record – some of the perpetrators of recent attacks were on the security radar but not under close surveillance as imminent threats. They slipped through. A bigger net with a tighter mesh will prevent this from happening again, the government hopes.
All that said, the government does not want to give the impression that liberty is at risk. In his own foreword to the report, Home Secretary Sajid Javid says “we do not live in a surveillance state and nor do we want to.” The threat will be countered with a response that is “proportionate, inclusive and subject to strong oversight.” Above all, “terrorists cannot and will not change our way of life.”
Muslim women join a vigil for victims of the Westminster attack of March 2017.
The report profiles several key specific threats. Its findings include the following:
* Daesh, the self-styled Islamic State (IS) group, is deemed the “most significant terrorist threat”, both inside the UK and globally.
* Returning IS fighters are an obvious concern. The report puts the number of UK recruits to IS at around 900. Around 20% have been killed overseas and 40% have returned.
* Here, unusually, the pressure has subsided somewhat, at least for the time being. The report says most of the returnees came back in earlier stages of the conflict and have been investigated. A “significant proportion” of these returnees are no longer deemed a “national security concern”. Over the last two years, few have returned and most in this group have been women and children.
* Nonetheless, some returnees are considered potentially dangerous and some of their fellows abroad may come home too. This is worrying – individuals who are still overseas are among “the most dangerous individuals” and they remain a “significant threat”, due to their training, indoctrination, and links with networks.
* IS propaganda operations have been degraded, but the group has adapted to the new situation. Calls to the caliphate have been replaced with “a narrative of victimhood and seeking to weaponize people in their communities.” The authorities must now contend with “a self-sustaining network of Daesh supporters who create and share unofficial motivational and instructional material online.”
* The UK wants to hit IS hard overseas. The report says the UK has deployed over 1,400 military personnel to the Middle East to fight IS and carried out almost 1,700 air strikes, second only to the USA. Over 3,500 enemy targets were destroyed in the strikes, including 25 cash storage sites. The UK also provides intelligence and reconnaissance support to the coalition fighting IS.
The UK uses a base in Cyprus for air strikes on Islamic State targets.
* Al-Qaeda too has been degraded, but it remains “a potent and resilient global threat with the long-term intent and capability to attack the UK and other countries.” Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a particular concern because it “has a sophisticated explosives capability and has come close to conducting mass casualty attacks against western civil aviation on three occasions.”
* In the Middle East, al-Qaeda has sought to “involve itself in local struggles, with the aim of diminishing western influence and developing the desire for Islamist rule in local populations.”
* The specter of far right terrorism is looming ever larger. Before 2014, the report notes, “extreme right-wing activity was confined to small, established groups with an older membership, which promoted anti-immigration and white supremacist views but presented a very low risk to national security.” From 2014 onward, the situation changed. Notably, the far right group National Action emerged. It was proscribed under terrorism laws in 2016. Since then, 27 of its members have been arrested and 15 have been charged with terrorism offences. In light of these developments, MI5 will take a bigger role in far right investigations.
* There is some skepticism in wider society when security officials speak about the rising far right threat. At worst, their warnings are seen as “politically correct” bids to divert attention from Islamist terrorism. In August 2018, Mark Rowley, the former head of counter-terrorism at London’s Metropolitan Police, urged the UK not to be complacent. “I don’t think we’ve woken up to it enough”, he said in a BBC interview. The threat is “significant and growing”, he added, but “what I’ve seen over the last couple of years is a lack of recognition of that.”
Fear, horror and anger in June 2017 as far right terrorist Darren Osborne is taken into custody after killing 51-year-old Makram Ali and injuring nine more people in an attack on Muslims in the Finsbury Park area of London. In February 2018 Osborne was sentenced to life in prison.
General threat trends are also assessed:
* The scale of the domestic threat and the speed of attack plotting require the authorities to intervene earlier than they did in the past. One can obviously fret that this approach may jeopardize intelligence collection and evidence gathering for prosecution, but the government has decided that safety comes first.
* The international dimension is very important to the UK. Since 2011, 63 British citizens have been killed overseas by terrorists. In 2015, the shootings in the Sousse resort in Tunisia alone claimed 38 British lives in the worst single attack on British citizens since the London bombings of 7 July 2005.
* The short term outlook is grim. The Islamist terrorist threat is expected “to remain at its current, heightened level for at least the next two years” and “may increase further”. Meanwhile the far right terrorist threat is “growing”.
* The report does not hazard a guess about the longer term outlook but does say drivers of future trends will be tracked. They include “ideology and radicalization”, “permissive environments”, “access to exploitable technology”, and “the counter‑terrorism capabilities and actions of other countries”.
* There is no clear terrorist profile to help the authorities. The report says government and academic research “has consistently indicated that there is no single socio-demographic profile of a terrorist in the UK, and no single pathway, or ‘conveyor belt’, leading to involvement in terrorism.” Instead, there is a “broad range of backgrounds” and people turn to terror “in different ways and for differing reasons.”
* The wider ideological background is troubling. The report says “many aspects of Al Qa’ida and Daesh’s ideologies are also shared by Islamist extremist organisations operating in the UK and elsewhere.” Distinctions need to be made, of course, but they are not easy when there is “no precise line” separating terrorist ideology from what the government calls extremist ideology.
* Data growth linked to the rising number of suspects is both a problem and an opportunity. Reviews of the 2017 attacks in London and Manchester have highlighted “the critical importance of effectively managing, sharing and analysing a large and growing amount of relevant data.” Looking ahead, this issue “will become ever more important in making decisions and when and how we take action.” On a positive note, advanced technology will help. Key points in this field are summarized later in this article.
The 22 people killed in Salman Abedi’s suicide bombing attack on a pop concert in Manchester in May 2017. The youngest victim, Saffie Roussos, was just eight years old.
British Terror by Numbers
The abundance of numbers in the report help to tell the story. They are alarming. Consider the plots and investigations record:
* Over the five years to June 2018, MI5 and the police foiled no fewer than 25 Islamist plots. The pace is speeding up – 12 of these plots were disrupted from March 2017 onwards.
* Far right plots add to the pressure. Four have been disrupted since 2017.
* When the report was published, MI5 and the police were running over 500 “live” investigations involving around 3,000 individuals. Recorded intelligence leads handled jointly by the police and MI5 had more than doubled over the previous year.
* In August 2018, the government announced that the number of investigations had jumped to 676.
* There is a vast pool of people who are not considered a top security priority but may be a risk. “Closed subjects of interest” investigated by MI5 and the police in the past now number over 20,000.
The arrest and prosecution figures are notable too:
* Investigations are leading to high numbers of terror arrests. They totaled 2,029 between 2010 and 2017. In 2017 alone, a record high 412 arrests were recorded.
* Figures released later by the Metropolitan Police showed arrests rising to 441 in the year to March 2018, up 17% on the previous period. The force noted “a genuine step-change in momentum” and “unprecedented levels” of police activity over the year, with one attack plot per month being stopped on average.
* Many arrests lead to court cases. In 2017, the Crown Prosecution Service conducted 86 trials for terror offences, up by 30% from 2016. The justice system generally found the evidence highly convincing – nine of every ten suspects charged were subsequently convicted.
Money, extremist screening and arms figures provide further measures of the concerns:
* Between 2016 and 2020, government spending on counter-terrorism will rise by 30% in real terms. The extra funds will bolster the intelligence agencies, aviation security, digital surveillance, counter-terrorism capabilities in the armed forces, and a global terrorism expert network.
* In absolute terms, hefty sums are in play. Special forces spending will rise by £2 bn and the security and intelligence agencies will see spending rise by £1.4 bn. In intelligence and security, these funds will support the recruitment of no fewer than 1,900 new officers.
* Screening work under the UK’s main “Prevent” counter-extremist policy is taking in high numbers of people. In 2016/17, 6,093 individuals were referred to Prevent. In 19% of these cases, the concerns were deemed serious enough to warrant a further referral to the government’s “Channel” program for people at risk of being drawn into terrorism.
* Unusually in Europe, British police officers are normally unarmed. The Paris attacks of 2015 prompted a rethink – the government decided to add 1,000 armed police officers in England and Wales. The government notes that this helped in the London Bridge attack of 2017, when three terrorists were swiftly shot dead by the police.
* The British Army is waiting if the worst should happen. Under “Operation Temperer”, the government can quickly deploy 10,000 soldiers to support the police and civil authorities in a catastrophic attack. Around 1,000 were deployed after the Manchester attack in May 2017.
Armed officers take down the London Bridge attackers in June 2017.
The internet is a major challenge in counter-terrorism. But the report notes that technology also presents opportunities:
* Artificial intelligence “will allow us to filter and identify crucial information faster than ever before.”
* Virtual reality systems help “to plan for a wide variety of scenarios.”
* New technologies will “enhance our detection and screening capabilities, for example at borders, airports and crowded places.”
* Quantum computing will boost operational capabilities, for example in high speed mining and sorting of large datasets.
* Technology companies will be asked to invest more in systems which automatically identify and take down online terrorist content.
* Much has already been done in this field – the government says “over 300,000 pieces of terrorist material” have been removed from the internet since 2010.
* Nonetheless, companies will be asked to increase data cooperation, for example when data suggests an individual may be acquiring bomb components.
Freedom of Speech and Education
Freedom of speech is a battleground in counter-extremist work. It is widely seen as an almost sacred principle in the UK. Islamists and far left activists have used its enduring appeal to make no end of trouble for the government’s Prevent program, especially on campus.
Interestingly, and reassuringly too for freedom lovers, the report sounds a defiant note. It says Prevent duties imposed on academic institutions do not “restrict debate or free speech in schools, colleges and universities.” On the contrary – affected authorities are reminded that they “must have particular regard to the duty to ensure freedom of speech.” It is a strength rather than a vulnerability: “open debate is one of our most powerful tools in promoting critical thinking and preventing terrorist and extremist narratives taking hold.”
This does aggravate hardline hawks, who point out that some of the worst extremists spread their messages entirely unopposed on campuses. They are indoctrinating young people, not engaging in “debate”. They should simply be barred from educational institutions, according to the most assertive voices. For better or for worse, the hawks are not winning this argument.
The notorious extremist preacher Haitham al-Haddad speaking at Queen Mary University in London.
Active as it is on so many fronts, the government does not want people to think that the threat is under full control. Chillingly, the report notes more than once that risks can be reduced but “we will not be able to stop all attacks.”
Popular resilience should help and it is rarely in short supply in the UK. For example, one image of the London Bridge attacks of June 2017 was loudly applauded across the land. It showed people fleeing from the attack, but one man was absolutely determined not to let a bunch of terrorists claim his pint of beer.
Indeed, ultimately, terrorists really are engaged in a stupid and futile campaign against a strong nation like the UK. Where Hitler and the IRA did not succeed, as so many have pointed out, what hope do they have?
But this hard fact of British security life will not deter violent fanatics who consider a miserable death some kind of victory. So one must hope that the government’s new strategy will indeed help to identify them and take them down well before they strike.