The UK Desperately Needs a New Counterterrorism Model
On the morning of August 14, 2018, British citizens awoke to another terrorist attack on their soil—the fifth in just eighteen months. The scene was familiar: a truck swerving into the opposite lane and slamming into passing cyclists and pedestrians, just feet away from Parliament’s doors. While investigators have not yet formally declared the incident a terrorist attack, police detained the suspect, Salih Khater, under the authority of the Terrorism Act 2000 and are treating the investigation and securitization process as a terrorist attempt.
This is the “new normal” in Britain. Terrorist attacks have waned in casualty count and weapon technology sophistication while enlarging in frequency, diversity of ideological motives, and lack of governmental oversight. Despite recent data demonstrating this considerable shift in terrorist attacks, British counterterrorist policy has yet to adapt. In June 2018, authorities reported 676 open counter-terror investigations, with roughly 3,000 “active subjects of interest” and over 20,000 “individuals under review” for terrorist plots. Criminal justice data reveals that from September 2016 to September 2017, terrorism-related arrests increased by 50%. Terrorist attempts have become more frequent and individualized, operating without traditional collective networks and months of coordination that counterterrorism officers have typically witnessed. More importantly, terrorist motivations are diversifying; the release of 2018 data reveals that intelligence officers foiled ten jihadist plots and four far-right plots in less than a year. This “new normal” in the counter-terrorist landscape tests the efficacy of the British security model and renders it unsustainable; while British security has increased its presence, it’s preventative capabilities lag significantly.
Immediately following the second attempt in Westminster, policymakers and security authorities suggested “pedestrianizing” Parliament square, barring civilian automobiles and commercial trucks. Pedestrianization is an initiative supported by London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick—but left many Londoners scratching heads about terrorist targets in locations that simply cannot be barred from vehicle traffic. Though trucks have appeared to become the weapon of choice for many terrorists, the UK has also witnessed plots that commandeer subway bombs, chemical weapons and nerve agents, and a series of individual stabbings.
The UK’s current counterterrorism model has generally remained unchanged since 2005 and has yet to incorporate new threat trends into the greater framework of preventative efforts. The current system stresses “high-risk” casework and uses a triage classification system to review the 20,000 active subjects of interest (SOI) flagged for investigation. This system has four priority levels, with officers monitoring from high-risk cases such as SOI’s with credible and actionable intelligence, to dormant, previously flagged SOI’s withdrawn from terror-related activities. However, experts in this system have not been shy to criticize it; counterterrorism specialist Raffaello Pantucci and Mohammed Elshimi noted that the UK has primarily focused on coordinated jihadist-inspired terrorist plots, rather than individualized far-right, nationalist plots, which have increased under pressures of Brexit and populism. Pantucci stated that the current threat picture has shifted to concentrate around the advancement of “ideologies of different stripes,” and called upon the UK government to acknowledge these realities when developing their prevention strategy.
UK counterterrorism has been slow to respond in kind. Though the June 2018 release of an updated counterterrorism strategy, coined “CONTEST,” attempted to address concerns of a lagging security system, it welcomed critique by reforming the Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP). Since 2011, the DPP has centered itself around addressing the “three I’s” – ideas, individuals, and institutions. New changes in the DDP concentrate on integration: transitioning previous subjects of interest back into society while seeking to actively change the beliefs of Terrorism Act offenders. RUSI’s Mohammed Elshimi noted this strategy is shallow, slow, and inconsequential; UK counterterrorism efforts are focusing on “medicalizing” terrorist motives while treating them as “a disease to be cured.” While the UK has focused on a new design of the DDP, there has been no announcement regarding an increase in investment or reform of the UK’s prevention strategy.
In the wake of the fated March 2017 Westminster terrorist attack, the Parliament building has been barricaded by steel and concrete ramparts and barriers, crowded by Westminster Metropolitan police officers and covert MI5 investigators, and is watched by a hesitant British and international audience. While UK policemen and intelligence have increased their visibility, terrorist plots fly designedly under the radar. With a counterterrorism strategy outdated by seven years and a reversal in threat trends, the UK should strongly consider revising preventative programs to incorporate right-wing plots and individualized, low technology weaponry—rather than a sole prioritization of jihadist groups and ideological integration.