The UK Counter-Terrorism Strategy: A Return on Investment

The 2012 annual report for the UK's Counter-Terrorism (CONTEST) Strategy highlights the return on investment made in providing security for the Olympic Games. But success accrued at home must now be re-configured to meet the threat abroad.

In 2012, the government presided over one of its most important security and safety operations in recent history: the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The planning and operation is described in detail in the government's annual counter-terrorism report. While most commentators have focused on the revised Prevent workstream of the CONTEST strategy, the other workstreams - Pursue, Protect and Prepare - warrant closer scrutiny.

A Dynamic and Diverse Threat

There were no successful terrorist attacks in Great Britain during the period of the annual report, an achievement given the current threat to the UK which was recently described by Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Stuart Osborne as comparable to 'one potential attack planned... similar to July 7 [2005]... every year'.

The annual report acknowledges that though the risk from terrorist attacks has reduced globally, the UK still faces a dynamic and diverse threat in the future. Pakistan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border remain of the highest importance to UK national security - a concern reflected in recent UK investigations which revealed how young Britons were still seeking training from extremist groups there. Following the terrorist attack in Norway in 2011, a debate in European capitals ensued on the threat from extreme right-wing terrorism. European governments, including the British government, reassessed the threat from extreme right-wing terrorism. Politicians, academics and the wider public felt the threat from such groups had grown and in some cases presented a similar challenge to the UK as Islamist terrorist groups.

The UK government's review of Prevent found the evidence did not support this assertion. Right-wing groups clearly pose a menace to communities - academic research provides evidence to support this claim. However the threat from extreme right-wing terrorism is not comparable to the threat from Islamist terrorism. According to the National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU) there were five arrests under terrorism legislation in relation to far right wing activity in 2012.

The threat from Islamist terrorist groups operating in north-west Africa has developed and groups have more freedom to manoeuvre than they did previously. The recent attack in Algeria demonstrates current intent and capability. However, the region of greatest concern to the British counter-terrorism community is Syria, identified by the British Foreign Secretary at RUSI as 'the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today.'

Since 2008 over 150 foreign nationals have been kidnapped by Islamist terrorist groups (thirteen of whom were British nationals). It is now estimated that Al-Qa'ida-affiliates and other Islamist extremist groups have collected at least US $60 million (£39 million) in foreign national ransom payments since 2008. Kidnapping used to be reserved largely in the Sahel region. However, there has recently been an increase in targeting of foreigners for kidnap in northern Nigeria, with most ascribing blame to Boko Haram splinter group Ansaru, which has been identified in the report as having 'a more international agenda.'

This analysis focuses on three key issues, the Olympic legacy with regard to the UK's national security in the future, the nuts and bolts of CONTEST and the government's counter-terrorism work overseas.

The Olympic Legacy

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has described the Olympics as the 'the largest peacetime security operation in this country's history

Of the £600 million the government had identified for additional policing and Games security, the expectation was that the event could be delivered for £475 million. In December 2012, the estimate for policing and wider Games security costs was £455 million. Separately, £553 million was provided to the London Organising Committee (LOCOG) for venue security, including infrastructure and personnel. In February 2013 the spending estimate was reduced to £451 million, reflecting the settlement reached between LOCOG and the private security company, G4S.

The London Olympics catalysed government spending and had a major impact on wider security and safety planning. For example, lessons from preparations for the Games have informed the programme of planning for high impact biological attacks. Emergency service communication capacity was increased on priority London Underground stations in the run up to the Games and from February 2012, armed British Transport Police patrols were introduced across the London transport network. But what does this investment mean for UK national security in the long term?

The counter-terrorism community has clearly benefited from the extra investment over the past seven years (since the Games were awarded to London in 2005). Increased capabilities for the police and Security and Intelligence agencies have been matched by wider developments in the counter-terrorism infrastructure across the UK through regional Counter-Terrorism Units (CTUs). But the threat from terrorism has changed as other risks to national security have evolved. So the question remains as to how 'UK national security' benefits from the Olympic security legacy, especially as priorities have expanded to include cyber security and fighting organised crime. Resources may need to be shifted to support other areas, while aspects of policing will increasingly need to be shared across policing priorities.

The Nuts and Bolts of CONTEST

Most commentators have focused on the revised Prevent workstream and the relative success of intervention programmes like Channel. However, the CONTEST strategy is made up of three other workstreams - Pursue, Protect and Prepare. These workstreams are the nut and bolts of UK counter-terrorism and are critical to the success of CONTEST. Without the necessary powers and capabilities the police, security and intelligence agencies will not be able to prevent terrorist attacks in the UK. So it is worth considering what progress, if any, has been made in these areas.

There have been some serious setbacks for the government within the Pursue workstream which have raised serious challenges to civil liberties and privacy and have pitted the two parties in the coalition government against each other. The draft Communications Data Bill was revised in the face of severe criticism from Parliamentary Committees; while the Justice and Security Bill has been condemned by parliamentarians across the House of Commons and civil liberty groups as disproportionate and unnecessary. One positive aspect of this Bill is that it will provide for greater oversight of the Intelligence Agencies by extending the Intelligence and Security Committee's remit. However, critics have rounded on the provision to introduce Closed Material Procedures to allow sensitive intelligence to be heard in court - claiming that the bill 'threatens greater corrosion of the rights of the individual in the UK, in the name of national security'.

Following a wide ranging review, the coalition government abolished Control Orders and replaced them with Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). The annual report suggests that draft emergency legislation for 'enhanced' TPIMs has been prepared and subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny in case such exceptional circumstances should arise, suggesting that elements of the old Control Order regime may be reintroduced if necessary.

The Protect workstream has seen some important technical successes including the establishment of a new EU Inbound Cargo Regime which came into effect in early last year. However the government continues to engage with EU Member States on obtaining Advance Passenger Information (API) on flights to the UK from within the EU, while the Passenger Name Record (PNR) Directive is currently being considered by the European Parliament. It is at the border, however, that the government faces its most complex challenge. There have already been a number of changes to the border regime in the UK including the creation of a separate Border Force. As it was struggling under the volume of casework - which led to backlog running into the hundreds of thousands - the UK Border Agency was subsequently abolished in March and its functions subsumed into the Home Office, while two new organisations would focus on the visa system and on immigration law enforcement.

The Prepare workstream remains a serious concern for officials in government. The Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme is still a high priority given the lack of real progress by the three emergency services. For example a key finding of the London Assembly report into the 7/7 bombings published in June 2006 was that the emergency services could not communicate underground. This was not a novel finding - indeed it had been made 18 years earlier in the official inquiry into the King's Cross fire, published in 1988.

 The emergency services play a critical role during a terrorist attack. And yet how well they operate together remains a cause for concern.  The Interoperability programme will ensure that the three services have a detailed understanding of each others' roles and responsibilities at an incident scene, clear guidance on how to work together where appropriate, and that they share information quickly and effectively. All of this will be require a greater emphasis on joint training and exercising at all levels of command.[1]

Home and Away

The annual report highlights the continuing gulf between the strategy to counter-terrorism in the UK versus the limited resources and comparable effort in place overseas. Recent successes in countering terrorism in the UK, coupled with a diversifying threat overseas and weak governments in priority countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East suggest the British government will have to refocus some of its efforts abroad. Given the constraints on public spending in the UK, funding and supporting such programmes will likely be in concert with the European Union and EU member states. For example, the European Commission is already looking at ways it can fund counter violent extremism projects in the Horn of Africa and Pakistan.

In December last year the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that UK force levels in Afghanistan would be reduced to around 5,200 by the end of 2013.The drawdown is consistent with both UK military advice and the NATO strategy agreed at the Lisbon Summit in 2010, under which ISAF forces will continue to operate across the country. The annual report suggests that Pakistan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border remain of the highest importance. So what effect will the drawdown have on UK National Security?

British security officials describe Al-Qa'ida-core as being 'hollowed out' and the group's training infrastructure is minimal, certainly compared with the dozens of fully fledged camps that were in use on the eve of the 9/11 attacks. Yet, individuals continue to travel to Pakistan where a range of groups (Al-Qa'ida, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and others) take a keen interest in UK nationals.  The reduced presence of ISAF personnel in the 'N2KL' provinces (Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar and Laghman) for instance, could have real implications for the threat against Western countries in the future. The conflicts of the past have not ended, and as the annual report highlights, future areas of instability are still defining themselves within the broader threat picture.

The CONTEST strategy does highlight the importance of counter-terrorism overseas but it is clear that more needs to be done as the threat continues to diversify. Poor governance, limited capacity by national governments and a lack of counter-terrorism capabilities in high risk countries requires greater and more urgent attention. Marshalling the resources of the European Union, EU member states and the wider international community must be a priority.

Counter-terrorism in An Age of Austerity

The CONTEST Strategy annual report highlights the successes of British counter-terrorism efforts as well as the ongoing challenges facing the government. These challenges are likely to be felt more acutely by policymakers and practitioners in the coming years - not least with a reduction in public spending, but also as resources are inevitably shifted to other priority areas in Home Affairs including organised crime and cyber security.



1. CONTEST Annual Report, HM Government, March 2013


Charlie Edwards

Senior Research Fellow

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