Main Image Credit EUROPOL, via EUROPOL Gallery
The senseless shooting of Elle Edwards on Christmas Eve shocked the UK. Similar tragedies in the UK often have their origins in the supply of illicit firearms from Europe. To stem and turn the tide against gun violence, we must look towards Europe.
In 5 years as the National Crime Agency’s (NCA) European Firearms Threat Co-ordinator at Europol HQ I saw both the extent of the firearms supply threat to the UK and the vital importance of a joined-up UK approach. The supply of illicit firearms into the UK is inextricably linked to the illegal supply of drugs; firearms protect and help to grow the lucrative drugs supply businesses run by organised crime groups (OCGs). The rationale is, therefore, very clear for a better resourced and more strategic response to countering illicit firearms supply, one which would deal a double blow to serious and organised crime. However, that strategy must also deal with structural weaknesses in UK policing and balance local perspectives with an upstream vision.
My time working with European partners revealed that whilst Europe is the main source of UK firearms threats, it is also where significant operational opportunities lie. Prioritising resources for UK-based tactical initiatives and operations only might feel like the right thing to do, but it is not strategically effective. Dealing with firearms and drugs at the business end, on the streets of UK cities only is like tacking illegal immigration in the English Channel – it is often too little, too late. From ‘street to source’ must be the UK response model.
Collaboration is Key
Serious and organised crime is a complex and sophisticated adversary, one which operates within and across borders with no respect for jurisdiction and politics. At the very core of any effective UK response must be a model based on a strategy of collaboration which overcomes UK policing’s parochial and sometimes internecine structures; systematic flaws which the more dynamic model of serious and organised crime exploits daily. Merseyside Police, for example, have a formidable team in the thick of this fight who also understand the big picture and show the type of leadership which drives co-operation. This cooperation-driven leadership has included formal partnerships which recognise the need for collaboration. Merseyside and the NCA formed one such partnership in 2021, pooling resources and expertise under an ‘Organised Crime Partnership’ (OCP). This kind of collaboration is a step in the right direction and resonates with recent comments made by the Commissioner of the MPS on how UK policing might be better structured.
However, mainland Europe is where UK-based OCGs exploit the criminal relationships which supply the commodities that make them money: drugs, weapons and people. One of the fundamental weaknesses in the UK response is the lack of a coherent approach across the many UK and European stakeholders who should be pooling not just resources, but also knowledge. We must go back to first principles in tackling serious and organised crime. First and foremost, that means understanding the threat.
Know your Enemy
The reality of the illicit firearms and drugs supply in the UK is only partially illustrated by data from seizures both at the border and within the UK. This is because the data is incomplete and in no way analysed in a systematic and consistent manner by UK law enforcement. The NCA and the National Ballistic Intelligence Service (NABIS) have respective, mandated responsibilities to report the firearms threat in the UK. Therein lies a problem which must be addressed: namely the spectre of inter-agency competition.
I saw, first hand, the corrosive impact of inter-agency rivalries when trying to agree on a collaborative and comprehensive approach to threat reporting which would generate a coherent operational approach. We can’t begin to formulate an effective response until we understand fully the extent and nature of the threat. This might sound obvious, but there is broad consensus within the UK law enforcement community that our policing structures are not only outdated but woefully inefficient in constructing a common understanding of the threats we face in a modern, globalised society and the operational response that must follow. Where there is good practice in working collaboratively, particularly in understanding threats, it must be rolled out more comprehensively.
Good Practice: Operational Task Force LYNA
In September 2018, some excellent detection work by Border Force, at Dover, resulted in a multi-commodity seizure of Class A drugs and semi-automatic pistols. The seizure was referred to the NCA and what followed was a complex but highly successful follow up investigation in Europe, encompassing several jurisdictions, working collaboratively within a Task Force construct. This Operational Task Force (OTF), codenamed LYNA, identified, targeted and eventually dismantled the European based OCG which supplied the weapons in the original Dover seizure. From seizure in Dover, to arrests in Slovakia, the operation took 15 months; these were hard yards, requiring strategic patience by senior decision makers, but above all, persistence, skill and resilience by analysts and investigators alike. The dismantled OCG was supplying dozens of Glock 17 semi-automatic pistols every month, directly into the European criminal marketplaces where we knew UK OCGs were operating. Investing time and resources in our European partnerships and operations impacts on the market of supply and makes life at once more complicated and riskier for UK based OCGs in the long term. OTF LYNA demonstrated the essence of an effective strategy against serious and organised crime – threat focused, intelligence led, but above all, cross-border and collaborative.
A National Effort
So what? Government must look at earmarking additional resources for UK forces to deal with the long-term, strategic and operational efforts in addition to pressing, local, tactical threats. For frontline police officers, there is an imperative to protect public safety, today – this is understood. But for a robust and lasting impact on firearms supply in the UK, an end-to-end approach needs to be properly embedded in the policing model and the resourcing plan that underpins it.
Capturing all relevant firearms data, from ballistics intelligence at local level to comprehensive seizure data from UK ports, is key to painting a common threat picture which can persuade senior decision makers to assign resources to the source of any threat. Referring to the recent comments by Sir Mark Rowley and the need for police restructuring, I believe that the discussion needs to extend into the serious organised crime space where there are too many resources assigned to overlapping and occasionally competing work.
If the UK is serious about a fundamental approach to the firearms threat, merging NABIS with the NCA would be a progressive first step. This would retain the expertise of both and simultaneously sweep away the inefficiencies I witnessed during my time at Europol HQ. Furthermore, a programmatic national and cross-border effort, working with European partners to tackle gun and drugs crime can drive down the levels of harm to the UK public and help make outrages such as the killing of Elle Edwards vanishingly rare. At the same time as I was leading OTF LYNA I also formed a UK/European firearms co-operation platform: the European Firearms Supply Operations Group (EFSOG). EFSOG continues to meet with key stakeholders such as the NCA, MPS and Merseyside Police, as well as with Europol and European forces involved, but it needs dedicated funding and executive level leadership to fulfil its operational potential.
A smarter and more strategic response to gun crime needs to combine the world leading expertise within UK policing with that of our European partners, and in doing so, focus our efforts on the source of supply, in Europe.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.
Defence Planning Practitioner, SHOC Network Member