Is British Counter-Terrorism working?

The relatively low number (and lethality) of terrorist attacks in Great Britain so far suggests that the comprehensive law enforcement-led approach of Britain is largely working. However key questions remain to be answered on how Britain copes with the issue of radicalised prisoners (and the appropriate length of time for them to be in prison), preventing ongoing radicalisation within communities and boosting the capability of the police to deal with this challenge.

In a little over three months since the British government lowered the British terrorism alert status from severe to substantial, there have been three major terrorist attacks, all three of them employing a similar modus operandi. One in a prison, HMP Whitemoor, one at London Bridge and one in Streatham. These all entailed the use of a fake suicide vest, ostensibly to deter courageous members of the public from stepping in, and to ensure that armed police shoot the attacker dead – thereby ensuring martyrdom in the ideology and world-view of the attacker. The frightening possibility exists that the terrorists are using fake suicide bomber vests only because they lack the resources to assemble a real one. It is likely that the UK terrorism alert status should be increased again to reflect the heightened threat.

The latest attack in Streatham was different, in so far as it did not involve a target of particular symbolic value. Perhaps the attacker believed that security was lower in a London inner city region than the more heavily guarded City. This potentially suggests that the increasingly visible security in the City is beginning to work effectively as a deterrent. The reaction time of counter-terrorism police in the two London attacks, in London Bridge and Streatham was very good – it took only minutes for armed police to respond. A particular innovative counter-terror (CT) tactic was the use of armed plainclothes police to tail the Streatham suspect as he evidently prepared for the attack. A mass casualty outrage was almost certainly averted by this heightened and innovative surveillance. This is a good development because it shows an operational adaptability on the part of the British security establishment.

Britain has adopted a police-led response to the emerging terror threat rather than a military led one for sound political and operational reasons. Firstly the sight of soldiers on the streets in an ongoing CT operation may be psychologically disconcerting for civilians, foreign investors and tourists alike. As Britain remains a constitutional monarchy and democracy, this is hardly an appealing prospect. Secondly police are much better trained to go into communities and deal with civilians, unlike the military whose job is very different and much more oriented to the use of force. A different organisation for a very different threat. It is good that Britain has largely avoided falling into the trap of a militarised response, to something that is arguably a non-military problem. As long as the local police know about the extent of radicalisation in their local neighbourhoods, down to borough and ward level, the authorities can stay on top of the threat. CT at its core is fundamentally a policing issue.

Nonetheless it may be beneficial for Britain to establish a specialist military trained unit, consisting largely if not exclusively of soldiers, while still nominally being a police organisation. Such a unit based in or around London, and other key UK economic nodes, could act as both a deterrent against terrorist outrages and have the ability to step in, in the event of an exceptionally lethal terror event in the vein of the Mumbai 2008 or Paris 2015 attacks. Other countries operate such units- Germany’s GSG-9 and India’s National Security Guard (NSG) come to mind. Such a unit could step in promptly in the event of CT police being overwhelmed by roving attacks by heavily armed terrorists, while maintaining a domestic Home Office led jurisdiction.

One of the key challenges facing the UK today in CT terms is whether prison is working as a means of countering the ongoing radicalisation threat. There is a case to be made that it actually increases the likelihood of radical ideology being disseminated inside prisons, leading to more potential terrorists being created than are being neutralised. This also suggests that deradicalisation programs are not having an optimal effect. If that is the case across a large number of cases, then perhaps the optimal solution may be very long jail sentences. Stopping the early release of violent ideologues would be a step in the right direction.  Real changes may have to be made in reversing the longstanding austerity policy of cuts to the probation service – almost certainly the main underlying issue. However longer prison sentences may be opposed by many across the political spectrum on civil liberties grounds. The question will then need to be asked: what if any, solution exists to defeating the poisonous impact of the ideology behind the radicalisation in the long run?

Arguably the most effective strategic counterterror approach, especially for a diverse country like the UK, is an integrated one combining inputs from the police, intelligence services, government –especially at a local level. Local communities matter in combating radicalisation; it is their input that can help law enforcement to keep on top of the threat. All of these inputs, whether in intelligence gathering, surveillance, operations and prisoner management/probation should be cohesively integrated with oversight by one office, ultimately reporting to the government. The effort to contain terrorism in the West will take a long time. The more integrated the approach, the better.

About the Author
Jeevan graduated from the London School of Economics with a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies, specialising in counter-terrorism and political violence. Regular tweets can be found @jeevanvc.