International Security Expo: Lessons on the Prevent duty

How organised is the process of monitoring terror suspects in Britain, compared with other countries?

Unfortunately, this is also not an easy question to answer. Details on the monitoring of suspects is hard to find and is predominantly in the realm of the intelligence services. For this reason, there is limited open source data available. Certainly, some statements have been made regarding general numbers of those being monitored, particularly in regard to returning foreign fighters. There is no easy way to verify this information, and clearly the intelligence services are motivated to alleviate the public’s concerns. That being said, I also believe that they have no good reason to deceive the public. My mind on this is eased to a great extent by the reports of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation (IRTL). This position allows the IRTL to see classified reports and data, and so, in terms of non-intelligence personnel, the individual holding this position has an incredible level of access. Tied in with this, the IRTL produces both annual and ad-hoc reports, and while oftentimes sensitive details are not published in the public sphere, there is every indication that as much as is possible is in fact published. In addition, while specifics might not be published, the IRTL can relay generally what they have found in the data and can support public statements made by intelligence officials. So, I think this role allows for more scrutiny than that which exists in other countries. The role of the IRTL is relatively unique, with only Australia having anything similar and even then, that role is slightly different.

My overall impression is that the UK is doing a good job of monitoring suspects, on the whole. However, this view only really holds up until an incident takes place. The complexity involved in monitoring suspects, who have not committed any crime (yet) is incredible. It is a resource-heavy and diffuse issue that is not easily done. And as soon as someone slips through the net, a negative backlash ensues. I am not saying this to defend the intelligence and security services, nor to criticise them. But I do consider the challenge of the job to be immense and, in the context of this challenge, there are strong indications that the public is being protected as can be reasonably expected.

An interesting point to raise here is in regard to the review report on the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, which was undertaken by the Security and Intelligence Committee and published in November 2014. In this review, the security services were generally commended for their work in preventing terrorist attacks. However, the Committee noted several key failings regarding the actions of the security services in relation to the perpetrators, Adebowale and Adebolajo. An example is the fact that there was a procedural delay in the request for additional monitoring through ‘intrusive techniques’ of Adebowale, and had these been implemented in the correct timeframe, he may have been under surveillance before carrying out the attack.

In addition, issues arose with regard to terrorism suspects who, at a given point and time, are deemed to no longer be a threat, and taken off surveillance, but years later come back on the intelligence services’ radar. These individuals are called ‘recurring subjects of interest’ and the process of actioning surveillance on these individuals was seen to be flawed, primarily because of scarcity of resources and the need to prioritise urgent and imminent terror threats. The data provided by the security services indicated that thousands of individuals had, at one point or another, been under surveillance for terrorist activity, but had been deemed subsequently to no longer be a threat. Following the Committee’s Report, the security services stated that they would update their processes in this regard and improve their regular monitoring review capabilities. If we take this on face value, it can be hoped that there are effective monitoring procedures in place.   

Do you think Brexit will have a direct impact on the scale of threat, or the capability of CONTEST to deter the threat?

It’s always very difficult to predict future outcomes. Unfortunately, when it comes to Brexit, we are all in the dark. No state has ever left the European Union and so a lot of the political chaos we are currently seeing is a symptom of this. I think CONTEST will continue to work, on the whole, as it has been doing. It’s not as though, suddenly, the system will collapse. It is important to note that a lot of the elements of CONTEST have informed the EU’s counter-terrorism strategy, so there is a commonality of understand and purpose. I don’t doubt that the EU and the UK will continue to communicate and collaborate on the threat from terrorist throughout the continent.

That being said, I think the biggest impact from Brexit on both the terrorist threat and the ability of CONTEST to function will be the transition period, and this could take years to work out. How the processes of the UK are going to extricate themselves from the EU is not something that has been answered yet. Everyone agrees that security issues will remain a priority and everyone will work together to ensure public safety. But how this is implemented or worked out remains to be seen. Counter terrorism tactics such as protecting public spaces, arresting suspected terrorists and training for emergency services, in other words domestically-focused policies, will all continue as normal. However, issues such as border security and the movement of people may actually be negatively impacted during the transition.

I think that it is important to note that the most recent iteration of CONTEST was published in June of this year and, I don’t doubt, the timing of this publication was designed by the government to show a sense of purpose, to indicate that the government has the situation in hand, and there will be an updated and robust counter terrorism strategy in place both during and after the transition. However, this particular iteration was already long overdue, given the previous iteration, published in 2011, related to a policy timeline of 2011-2015. As we know, during that timeframe, Daesh, in all its various forms, became a significant player internationally and for three years there was no new strategy to deal with this altered threat.

So, a couple of things can be said about that. First, why do we even need a strategy if the counter terrorism apparatus, on the operational level, continued on regardless. But more importantly, did the delay in publishing a new strategy leave gaps in the system which had been designed to deal with a different type of threat and in a different context? The answers to these questions are difficult, and beyond the time we have here to discuss them. But I think the transition period for Brexit is going to be challenging, and there is a high possibility that those committed to carry out terror attacks will continue to do so, or may even increase their activity to take advantage of perceived chaos.

The biggest concern will be the public’s frustration with the transition, which will give those on either end of the extreme political spectrum the opportunity to turn economic uncertainty and hardship into an active and dissatisfied electorate, and very small elements of these groups could spill into violent backlash which could in turn result in other communities responding in kind. Terrorists such as Anders Breivik of Norway, a lone terrorist actor, carried out his attacks in response to a perceived unwelcome integration of Muslims in Norway and focused his attacks on the political party he held responsible.

So, the threat does not need to come across borders necessarily, but the uncertainty and challenges raised by Brexit can potentially result in an increase in homegrown and lone actor terrorism. The deal that is reached for Brexit will cause dissatisfaction among many – those who feel it goes too far and those who feel it doesn’t go far enough, and so civil unrest will be inevitable. It just remains to be seen whether this will spill over into violence, and what kind of violence that might take. And of course, the Northern Ireland border could have a significant impact on the situation there, both from a political perspective and a security perspective. That shouldn’t be underestimated.

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