Britain’s Terrorist Threats and Complacency

Posted: April 20, 2010 in HSToday
Tags: , , , , ,

My latest more journalistic contribution for HSToday, providing them with an update on the situation in the UK. The timings are a little mangled, but provides some summary of recent HMG documents on terrorism. Thanks to Tim Stevens at Ubiwar for providing some very helpful insights in interview.

by Raffaello Pantucci
Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The risk … is that a heavy-handed reaction will focus on the symptom, rather than the cause Britain is under a “severe” threat of a terrorist attack, according to its security services.

Assessments provided by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center (JTAC) stated that “an attack is highly likely.”

But maintaining public engagement and support continues to be a problem for the British government, especially as it attempts to tackle the new menace of online radicalization.

While the threat was raised to its current level in January for unspecified reasons, Lord Carlisle, the government’s independent auditor of terrorism legislation, told the BBC “the message from the current change of assessment is not that we should be more afraid, but that we should be a little bit more vigilant than we have been.”

But critics speculated that the decision to raise the threat level had a lot more to do with the upcoming election cycle to stoke public fears for political advantage.

Whatever the reason, terrorism remains the “preeminent security threat to the UK,” according to the first annual report of the Home Office’s Office for Security and Counterterrorism’s broadened counterterrorism strategy, known as CONTEST.

According to the report, CBRN threats are increasing due to a “significant increase in the illicit trafficking of radiological materials, the availability of CBRN related technologies on the internet and the increasing use of CBRN material for legitimate purposes.”

And the upcoming 2012 Olympic and Para-Olympic games present “one of the most significant challenges we will face over the next two years,” the report stressed, noting that the principal terrorist threat to the UK continues to be Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Al Qaeda and instability in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel also present a threat, the report stated.

But while government sees a growing Al Qaeda threat, the public remains increasingly skeptical – apathy seems to be is the most noticeable feature of the public debate. There also is a high level of distrust.

In a report in the Guardian about a Parliamentary oversight committee reporton the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) program that Whitehall sees as fundamental to Britain’s long-term counterterrorism strategy, Committee Chair, MP Phyllis Starkey, said “the close association between [PVE] and the government’s wider counterterrorism strategy has bred profound distrust on a community level.”

This is a deeply problematic disconnect when considering that the government’s strategy is meant to strengthen these communities so that they are better able to tackle negative ideologies themselves.

As the report highlights, Muslims increasingly see the government engaging them only through the prism of countering terrorism, and see the specter of intelligence gathering behind any program that’s aimed at strengthening or engaging communities. Meanwhile, there’s a growing backlash among some communities angry at the money and attention that is being lavished on Muslims.

Cognizant of these trends, there has been an effort to publish more information on Britain’s terrorist threats in an attempt to garner greater public support and understanding.

Leading the way is the Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which in addition to issuing a weekly report to its counterterrorism consumers that highlights the official line on relevant stories each week, also issues reports for internal use only.

This strategy is fraught with problems for a variety of reasons. One recently issued report, “Estimating Network Size and Tracking Dissemination Information Amongst Islamic Blogs” (which was written in April 2008), by David Stevens of the University of Nottingham, “[studied] the link patterns and discussions of Islamic bloggers with particular reference to the UK.” The report listed the top twenty most popular “Islamic” blogs, how they are interlinked, and highlighted the fact that there are more “anti-Islamic” blogs than “pro-Isamic blogs.”

The report didn’t receive a very warm reception. Guardian newspaper columnist Brian Whitaker asked: “Why did they bother” to publish a report that threw up “some blindingly obvious insights.” That sentiment was echoed by Jillian York at Al Jazeera, who attacked the report’s “flawed” methodology while quoting a number of the bloggers “outed” as pro-Islamic.

Similar perspectives were repeated in an interview with Tim Stevens, a researcher of online radicalization at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College.

“Personally, I think the report’s assumptions, methodology, execution and analysis are weaker than they might be, mainly as they don’t seem to achieve the stated aims of the research,” Stevens said. “It adds very little to our understanding of the topic and does not provide an insightful picture of the specific media it set out to study.”

According to Stevens, “the publication of the report may be counterproductive, in that it makes them and their Home Office sponsors look out of touch and potentially antagonistic to Muslims.”

In much the same way that Muslim communities perceives that the government sees them solely through the prism of terrorism, their online counterparts appear to be angry that moderate voices are being scrutinzed by researchers who are paid out of a counter-terrorism budget.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Edip Yuksel of the American Islamic reform movement said of the first blog on the list, Ali Eteraz, “listing Ali’s name in research to track terrorists is a travesty of truth.”

Nevertheless, understanding the Internet and its role in radicalization is a key focus of the British government. A recent high-profile BBC series, “Generation Jihad,” focused on the growing importance of the Internet in terrorist plots in the United Kingdom and its apparent influence in radicalizing ever younger individuals.

The risk, however, is that a heavy-handed reaction will focus on the symptom, rather than the cause.

As Stevens put it: “The internet is important, but there are other important factors in radicalization, too. Even if it were possible or desirable to shut down the internet, it wouldn’t stop the existence or influence of violent or radical ideas.”

These ideas, though, will continue to be the principal long-term battleground for the British, and global, counterterrorism struggle.

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