Wanted: Looking for Clarity and Coherence in the UK Counter-Terrorism Landscape

It has been over a year since the Government published plans for future policing reform. A distinct absence of strategic thinking means those plans still lack clarity and coherence especially in the area of counter-terrorism.

By Valentina Soria, Counter-Terrorism and Security Research Analyst, RUSI  

On 23 September the Home Affairs Select Committee published New Landscape on Policing, a report into the Government's proposals for policing reform.[1] The release comes at a time when the Home Office is under mounting pressure to provide more clarity to the proposals it set out in July 2010. The committee report, in particular, is critical of the slow pace of transitioning from policing bodies being phased-out to those that are soon-to-be established. By examining the committee's findings it is clear that there is a need for improved strategic thinking especially in setting up organisations that may take on considerable and overarching responsibilities like counter-terrorism (CT).

The National Crime Agency (NCA) is, understandably, the locus of attention in improving strategy. The debate over how broad the NCA's future remit should be, and more specifically whether or not it should incorporate a counter-terrorism branch has been, and remains, controversial. The 'National Crime Agency' paper, published last June by the Home Office setting out the 'scope, functionality and structure' of the NCA, does not cover the topic.[2] The need for a significant reshaping of the UK CT architecture does not emerge from any of the official documents concerning national security released by the Coalition Government in the past year.[3]

It is surprising, therefore, that the Home Affairs Select Committee itself comes to the conclusion that the prospective NCA should include a separate CT command. This would imply the UK may lack a coherent, national structure to deal with such a threat. However, the Committee's recommendation is unlikely to represent the best long-term solution, and it could risk undermining the effectiveness of the NCA, as well as that of the UK CT apparatus.

The scope for a national CT structure

In recent years, the structure of CT policing in the UK has undergone considerable changes, which have brought about significant improvements in terms of operational effectiveness and efficiency. As pointed out by the head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, as recently as last March: 

'The current (CT) structure is effective, it is well organised, it's been heavily invested in and supported by the previous and this government, it has the support and confidence of Chief Officers. The National Coordinator for CT in the Met can in certain circumstances assume command from local Chiefs across police force territories and that shows just how flexible Chief Officers can be'.[4] 

This is not to suggest that there is no room for further progress in, and optimisation of, CT policing resources. With several local Special Branches and the London-based Counter Terrorism Command (SO15), along with four CT Units and four additional CT Intelligence Units, the ability to rely on proper coordination and a clear command and control structure is paramount. The Metropolitan Police (Met), and more precisely SO15 within it, has so far been responsible for assuming that coordinating and leading function in the context of major CT operations. This means that proven structures and processes are already in place; although they can be arguably streamlined, this should be pursued on the basis of strategic and operational considerations.

Yet there seems to be very little in terms of strategic thinking behind the Committee's recommendation of stripping the Met of its national primacy for terrorism investigations. Indeed, such a conclusion springs from a critical judgement of the Met's performance in the phone-hacking scandal, rather than from an objective assessment of its CT track record so far.

It is worth pointing out that Hugh Orde himself has recently acknowledged the need for some sort of overarching organisation: by creating and coordinating standards and procedures, this body would guarantee interoperability across all police forces, by providing seamless tactics, equipment, training and approaches.[5]

From a financial perspective, this would also prevent the possibility of some locally managed CT resources from being reallocated to respond to more immediate crime priorities in specific areas. There is no doubt that the prospective budget cuts will have a considerable impact on mainstream policing, with the result that some forces might view this diversion of resources as necessary. The intangible dividend of a sustained investment in CT assets is also the hardest for the public to appreciate. This factor could play a major role in the strategic planning process of some of the forty-three forces across the country. With the prospect of elected crime and police commissioners in the future, the prioritisation of available resources will become an increasingly sensitive matter.

Not under the NCA's watch

Giving evidence to the Committee's inquiry, former Met Police Commissioner, Paul Stephenson, provided valid reasons as to why the decision to move CT into the new NCA should be resisted, or at least pondered carefully. In particular, he emphasised how such a convergence could end up undermining the fight against organised crime, which is the key focus of the NCA's activity. The warning that 'terrorism will always trump up the threat from serious organised crime'[6] reflects reservations expressed on other occasions by several senior personnel within the Met. For instance, Tarique Ghaffur, the former Met Assistant Commissioner, highlighted the difficulties encountered in his battle to try and gain proper recognition (and a respectable allocation of resources) for organised crime in the face of terrorism and community policing.[7] To underestimate this point reveals a naïve approach, and such a risk should not be taken only to compensate for a lack of sound alternatives in the short term.

Equally relevant is the issue of trusted and effective relationships that have developed between the police and the security services over the years.[8] The fact that the NCA will deal with different forms of serious organised crime means that, in spite of overlapping investigative elements and tools, different sets of relationships with different actors would be required which might not work as effectively in CT. Moreover, it cannot be taken for granted that a mere reallocation of personnel from one organisation (the Met) to another (the NCA) would automatically enable such relationships to take hold in a new institutional structure with different liaison practices and procedures.

Most importantly, one has to consider the very institutional framework within which the working relationship between the security services and the police has been institutionalised. To date, MI5 retains the statutory lead for CT work in the UK, being responsible for intelligence gathering and analysis. However, because it lacks the required executive powers, it relies on the police to carry out arrests and pursue prosecutions. This is a crucial point of legislative relevance which must not be ignored. The NCA's proposed structure as a mainly intelligence gathering organisation presents the possibility of fundamental clashes with MI5, even though the two agencies should coordinate seamlessly.

The Committee has also questioned whether the inclusion of CT into the NCA could risk damaging the 'golden thread', which links frontline police officers with the national coordinator for CT, through regional counter-terrorism hubs.[9] However, this warning makes sense when one looks at the way in which the link has worked to date. As underlined by former Met Assistant Commissioner, John Yates, there has been a tendency in the past to let these regional hubs directly run significant CT operations, while receiving the necessary support from SO15 in London.[10] This shows how flexible the current structure is, having developed as a network rather than as a rigid hierarchical infrastructure. The fear is that such flexibility, which underpins the fundamental concept of 'policing by consent' in the UK, might get lost within a more hierarchical NCA.

The need for a long-term plan

There is merit in the argument that a measured re-organisational shift, instead of a complete overhaul,[11] might represent what the whole UK CT structure requires in order to optimise its current strengths. This approach makes sense not just from an operational, but also from a strategic perspective. The new CONTEST strategy, released by the Coalition Government last July, has presumably been shaped with due consideration for the existing CT infrastructure.

This does not imply that the CONTEST strategy cannot be improved over time; but the potential implications that more radical changes might have on the ability of CT police forces to deliver CONTEST cannot, and should not, be underestimated.  For the strategy to work, ends and means should be consistent throughout. Yet, to completely alter the core delivery structure could require a similar recalibration of the overall policy. This, in turn, will continue to hamper the establishment and promotion of a long-term grand strategy for preventing and countering terrorism in the UK.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.  


[1] 'The New Landscape of Policing', Home Affairs Select Committee, 15 September 2011

[2] 'The National Crime Agency: A plan for the Creation of a National Crime-Fighting Capability', Home Office, June 2010

[3] See for example, 'Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: the Strategic Defence and Security Review' (October 2010), 'A strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: the National Security Strategy' (October 2010), 'CONTEST: the United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Terrorism' (July 2011).

[4] 'Developing and Coordinating a National Police Strategy for the 21st Century', Sir Hugh Orde, Lecture at the Royal United Services Institute, 16 March 2011

[5] Ibid.

[6] 'New Landscape of Policing', p.42

[7] 'A view on the Announced National Crime Agency', Tarique Ghaffur, Business and Politics

[8] Duncan Gardham, 'Osama Bin Laden Dead: Met Police Commissioner Calls on Government to Protect Counter-Terrorism Policing', the Telegraph, 4 May 2011

[9] 'New Landscape of Policing', p. 42

[10] John Yates, 'Achieving National Security Policing. The Terrorist Threat', Speech given at the Counter Terror Expo, 19 April 2011

[11] Ibid.


Valentina Soria

Associate Fellow

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