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Pauline Neville-Jones: Evolving Threats and Responses

It is well-know that the UK's Counter Terrorism Strategy is a good framework, accepted across the political spectrum and now understood by all parts of government and other relevant authorities.

But terrorists actively seek to innovate to counter the capabilities of our security forces by adopting methods that are used successfully elsewhere and also by increasing the complexity of their own structures.

So almost a year after the second version of CONTEST was published, it is right to look at how our response has kept pace with the terrorist threat.  Two recent events have highlighted some of the problems in the implementation and delivery of CONTEST in this evolving environment.

<h2>How the terrorist threat continues to evolve</h2>

The first and most high profile example was, of course, the attempted Christmas Day attack over Detroit.  This attempted attack identified an ongoing willingness on the part of terrorists to overcome physical and technical security measures.  Indeed, it reminded us that there are some technically sophisticated elements within the terrorists' support infrastructure and, inevitably, that no physical or technical measures we put in place will be foolproof.

But the attempted attack also reinforced a number of other relevant factors. 

First, the fact that with Al Qaeda core under significant pressure along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border - pressure which has degraded its command and control capabilities and capacity - other failed and failing states have become a more attractive base for significant elements of Al Qaeda.  While many groups in East and North Africa still retain a distinct regional agenda, we do face the real prospect of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular linking with extremists and terrorists in the Horn of Africa, most notably Somalia, and also with extremists and terrorists right across the Maghreb.

Secondly, the attempted attack over Detroit had significant linkages to the UK.  Whether Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been radicalised to a significant extent before he came to study here, it is undeniable that in London he found an easily accessible ideological infrastructure - consisting of extremist groups and preachers - that further encouraged him towards the use of violence and gave him access to Al Qaeda's operational planning capabilities.  Much has been made of the fact that prisons are incubators of terrorism, but educational establishments also remain a weak point.

Thirdly, the attempted attack reinforced the value of listening to the community.  If only greater prominence was attached to the warnings of Abdulmutallab's father.  Those who suggest - and there are still quite a few people who do - that no significant terrorist plots can be (or have been) found based on information from the public were proven wrong over Christmas.

The second example of how the terrorist threat continues to evolve was evidenced by a report in The Times over the Christmas and New Year period.  This report, based on a police briefing, said that there was a risk of a command-style shooting and hostage-taking raid in London.  The model for this potential attack was the events in Mumbai in November 2008 - an example of terrorists adopting methods that are used successfully elsewhere.

<h2>What did CONTEST II say?</h2>

How do these developments compare to what was said in CONTEST II?

Some were, at least in part, anticipated.  For example, the updated Strategy rightly said that 'under pressure from the international community, the Al Qaeda organisation is likely to fragment and may not survive in its current form.  Networks and groups associated with Al Qaeda will have more autonomy.  They will continue to operate in fragile and failing states'.  Countries like Yemen and Somalia were specifically mentioned.  But I think it is fair to say that most attention was still given to Afghanistan and Pakistan - on the assumption that what happened in the tribal areas would be critical to the future of Al Qaeda - perhaps at the expense of anticipating how actions against AQ core's command and control in that area might lead them to shift or develop similar capabilities elsewhere.

In another area I think that CONTEST II was somewhat optimistic.  The case of Abdulmutallab shows that we still have a way to go before the ideology which sustains terrorism is subject to greater challenge in and by communities and institutions like schools and universities.  Prevent is still under-developed.  It is also increasingly controversial and subject to criticism - not a position we want to be in, given that overcoming the terrorist threat is something that can only be done with the active support of the public.

And in two other areas, CONTEST II was largely silent. 

I can, for example, find no mention of the need to develop and use community intelligence.  Yet the case of Abdulmutallab identifies the real value in investing in this area. 

Secondly, on Mumbai-style attacks, what CONTEST had to say was pretty inadequate.  Four months on from the event, it said that 'Departments and Agencies are currently considering the implications of the recent Mumbai attacks for our Prepare strategy', and that 'the initial response to any terrorist incident will be managed by the police service but there are tried and tested arrangements for providing military support to the police in a range of areas where it may be required'.  I think this underplayed the complexities of responding to, and overcoming, this type of terrorist operation.  And a source told The Times that an exercise in 2009 'brought out to those taking part that the capability doesn't exist to deal with that situation should it arise'.

So how, in light of this, should we move our counter terrorism response forward?  First, I think that we need better strategic co-ordination between Pursue and Prevent.  Secondly, we need to look again at some of the key enablers of our approach to counter terrorism, including extraordinary security measures and the policing element.

<h2>Moving forward with Pursue and Prevent</h2>

To take Pursue and Prevent first, both at abroad and at home.

I think the emergence of Yemen in the public eye as a hotbed for terrorist planning was a wake up call.  While the Government might have recognised the increasing number of failed and failing states would be a strategic factor which facilitates terrorism, it has - for obvious reasons - been concentrating on Afghanistan and Pakistan.  But it cannot do so at the expense of other areas of risk and instability. 

The first challenge is, of course, for government to get better at assessing emerging risk and instability.  This is a skill which has largely been lost and it is predicated on both regional expertise, which needs to be re-established, and an ability to bring together the views of different Departments - which each assess different (but not discrete) aspects of security - together in a coherent way.

The challenge that then arises, is to decide what to do about a risk and instability.  I think there is some danger of people thinking that counter insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a model for the future.  But I think much greater clarity about how COIN operations meet counter terrorism objectives in different situations is needed.  The approach is necessary in Afghanistan because, given the nature of the insurgent networks and groups we are dealing with, further instability there would have significant implications for the stability of Pakistan (and therefore the wider region), and this would in turn influence the international terrorist threat level.  But in other failed and failing states the benefits of COIN to meeting CT objectives will not always be as clear.  And the benefits might not balance well against other effects, such as feeding resentment and radicalisation.  That is why we need to consider other options, such as strike and containment options, and - increasingly - a shift towards long-term conflict prevention activities such as capacity building, security sector reform and good governance.

This audience is aware of the controversy of operations in Afghanistan, with suggestions that they reinforce grievances, radicalisation and extremist ideology.  I would suggest that the picture is more complicated than this: unresolved conflicts are undoubtedly exploited in terrorist and extremist messages, but their ideology is adept at creating and exploiting linkages between many different local and international events, so it is not a simple 'cause and effect' relationship.  My point is that we are talking about a relative 'balance of consequences', and that there are also other options than COIN - such as small-scale disruption operations or long-term preventative activity such as capacity building and security sector reform.  My view is that we need to do more of this preventative activity.

Just as abroad we need to shift towards preventative activity in aid of objectives under Pursue, so we also need to do so at home.

The trouble with the current approach is that there is confusion at the heart of Prevent.  Our security forces have a legitimate and necessary mandate to help tackle violent extremism. To do this they have to have access to intelligence about individuals. But their interlocutors see themselves as having a different function in Prevent: strengthening community cohesion and integration. 

The current Strategy often conflates these activities, creating suspicion and mistrust as a result.  And because it conflates tackling violent extremism with these other tasks (even if they are mutually supporting) and has a bias towards Pursue objectives, the Strategy is also arguably tactical in two respects.  First, it does not grasp that local discontent can lead to an increase in demands for separate treatment at societal level, and so on.  Secondly, it tends to view these challenges as a crime and therefore underestimates the long-term investment required in things like addressing community grievances, developing common values and so on. 

For these reasons the Conservative Party has called for greater clarity between integration and cohesion work on the one hand (by having a National Integration Strategy), and Prevent on the other.  We are clear that Prevent should be refocussed to support those most vulnerable to radicalisation, and those who are already radicalised, through targeted intervention strategies.  This means investigating counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation methods.  Government also needs to promote a positive alternative to the terrorist message - something which RICU does not yet do - and set an example for communities by taking a tougher line against extremist individuals and groups.

<h2>Enablers of counter terrorism: security measures</h2>

Of course, it is not just Prevent which has been mired in controversy and mistrust.  The regular use of security measures like extended pre-charge detention, Control Orders and Section 44 stop and search has had a similar effect, which can in turn work against the objective of preventing radicalisation.  Again this reinforces the need for better strategic co-ordination between Pursue and Prevent, and I spend a lot of my time in Parliament trying to get the balance right while keeping in mind that our principal aim is to maintain a free society. 

The issues are whether extraordinary security measures are judged to be effective and necessary in practice, even if highly undesirable in principle, and if their removal would exacerbate the terrorist threat.  The problem is that the Government has constantly failed to update Parliament or the public on the current security situation, even though the terrorist threat was raised again to 'Severe' in January. In June last year, I called on the Government to issue a report on the current threat and security situation in time for discussions on renewal orders for counterterrorism measures. It is not good enough to expect renewal on the basis of keeping people in the dark and preventing us giving informed consent.

This audience will be aware of the Conservative Party's commitment to a review and consolidation of all counter terrorism measures.  If it were decided that some security measures like Control Orders remained necessary, I am also clear that the systems would be unlikely to survive in their current form: they cannot be operated fairly without fundamental reforms which have so far been resisted by the current Government.  I am thinking, in particular, of the need for better judicial oversight of their use; the need for reform of the special advocates system; the need for security measures to be applied in a targeted way; and the need for greater disclosure of information to individuals subject to these measures, as required by the landmark judgement in the case of AF which the Government has not implemented in the way the Courts intended. That these measures should operate in ways compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights is important.

<h2>Enablers of counter terrorism: the police</h2>

This task becomes all the more important was we shift to focus more on Prevent as the key strand of CONTEST: as that activity which will, in the long-term, allow us to overcome the terrorist threat. 

I know that this has been a challenge for the police.  To date they have had to bear, unfairly, most of the burden for Prevent work.  They have however developed excellent partnerships with other public bodies which are paying dividends.  It is up to government to help further this, by getting other departments and authorities to recognise how counter terrorism tasking is integral to everyone's work - from education to welfare.  The role for security authorities to share information about vulnerability with community leaders, community services and local authorities to allow these organisations to intervene in ways which do not criminalise individuals, but move them way from ideas or activities that could lead to criminality.  In particular, local authorities have said that the information provided in Central Prevent Analysis reports needs to be more localised and targeted, and that Counter Terrorism Local Profiles need to be up-to-date, more relevant to local circumstances, have specific, actionable recommendations and be shared with a greater number of local partners.

Effective community intelligence must underpin this as it is communities, families and friends who are best placed to notice the early and subtle indicators of disaffection.  The police should be well-placed to develop trusting relationships within communities so that individuals themselves are forthcoming with their worries, and a priority for the national counter terrorism network must be to integrate counter terrorism tasking into an effective system of neighbourhood policing.  It is this bottom-up information which will develop truly rich Counter Terrorism Local Profiles.

Just as community relationships are vital for the success of Prevent, so they are vital for the success of Prepare and Pursue.  Lessons, for example, have been learned from the Manchester raids about how to manage community relations during ongoing investigations and interventions.  Equally, the public is a consideration in how the police should respond to the growing risk of Mumbai-style attacks.

I have spoken on this topic at length before.  The military is unlikely to be able to provide a response to a Mumbai-event in the timeframe and on the scale scaled required, at least for the initial stages which are the most important in such an assault.  But should certain forces be configured to come in behind the police after the initial response - perhaps by earmarking small numbers within units around the UK for this standby role?  I have also suggested that the military are well-placed to help the police develop appropriate training, doctrine and command and control for a fast-paced assault.  But we must recognise that this will involve a change in the style of policing - something the public must be made aware of by government.

<h2>Conclusion</h2>

And I think this is a good point to end on.  Ultimately, what we are talking about when we discuss counter terrorism is the public.  It is the public who are affected by terrorist attacks.  It is in communities where the battle for ideas takes place.  And it is the everyday lives of individuals that are disrupted by security measures.  I have spoken about how we need better strategic co-ordination of Prevent and Pursue.  Of the need for a review and public debate of this country's security measures.  And of the need for a shift in focus to community intelligence.  Because, ladies and gentlemen, government cannot by itself keep pace with the rate at which the terrorist threat adapts and evolves: if government is to be successful in countering terrorism, it must involve individuals in building their own security.

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