It’s time to rethink our counterterrorism strategy

Posted: December 3, 2021 in Times
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More catch up posting, this time a short piece for the Times in the wake of the strange terrorist incident in Liverpool which remains unresolved. Part of a bigger strand of thinking that still needs a larger outlet and so far is made up of a number of shorter pieces have worked on over time. A big radio project out next year which goes in this direction and a couple of others still up in the air. Watch this space.

Its time to rethink our counterterrorism strategy

nvestigators are still struggling to pin down the motive behind the Liverpool bombing. The bomber’s ethnicity and religious history have led people to assume he was motivated by Islamic extremism, but no clear evidence of this has been found. Rather, people are scratching around his background, history of mental health issues, failed asylum claims and religious conversion as possible explanations for his attempted act of terrorism.

While this confusing picture can appear anomalous, it is increasingly an important part of the threat we face. But it is not clear that we should consider it terrorism.

In counterterrorism parlance, the work being done to try to stop people being drawn towards extremist ideologies is called Prevent. This work includes different programmes, but crucially a project called Channel where potentially radicalising or at-risk individuals are identified and steered off their dangerous path by a panel tailored to deal with each case.

Among the referrals to this programme over the past few years is the growing number of people who the Home Office has struggled to define, grouping them together as having a “mixed, unstable or unclear” ideology. In practice this means a strange amalgam of ideas, drawing on a variety of different bits and pieces the individual has usually picked up online.

While most of the referrals classed under this grouping are discounted (in contrast to violent Islamists or those on the extreme right who are picked up by the programme at higher rates), they are nonetheless representative of a growing community that are showing up on counterterrorism radars. Some attacks have taken place which would fit into this category.

Salih Khater was a naturalised British citizen who in 2018 drove his car into cyclists outside parliament. He was jailed for attempted murder and the judge sentencing him to life stated he had acted “with terrorist motives” but could not identify a specific ideology.

In June last year a teenager who had been previously referred to Prevent for extreme right ideas brutally murdered two women in the park as part of a satanic pact to win the lottery.

These cases are part of a growing trend where we see individuals who appear to be radicalising or conducting acts which copy terrorism but yet their ideology is unclear. In a curious parallel, Isis has stopped claiming attacks with the same abandon that it used to.

The Liverpool bomber, the murder of Sir David Amess, and a mass stabbing in Norway that happened shortly before are all incidents that previously Isis could have been expected to claim. Isis had a habit of claiming all sorts of random acts of violence but now do not appear to claim even ones where there is a suggestion that the individual might be inspired by them.

All of this raises a complicated set of questions for security officials. The most obvious one is how do you stop these acts of violence if they are being conducted by isolated individuals, operating largely off dark corners of the internet, out of their own bedrooms and in their own heads.

Security agencies such as MI5 or the police are investigators that follow leads. It becomes almost impossible to know where their investigations will start if the individual is not following an obvious ideology and is simply lost among the innumerable voices online. If the act of violence they perpetrate is using a simple weapon such as a knife or a car, or a basic bomb using readily available chemicals, where are the leads going to come from?

But there is an important question to ask about whether our security investigators are the ones best placed to counter this particular problem. Should we be using expensive and sophisticated tools such as our intelligence agencies or counterterrorism police to track down what are often highly troubled individuals who are drawing inspiration from random ideas they find online to commit acts of extreme violence.

Part of the reason behind the decision to raise the national terror threat level after the Liverpool bomb and the murder of Sir David Amess was a sense by the intelligence analysts who set the levels that they were not confident about knowing who might be inspired by them. Both acts had taken them by surprise and raised the possibility of others.

The fact that Isis did not make much mention of either incident is further reflective of a strange decoupling that appears to be taking place. Even terrorist groups are not seeming to claim or champion these cases. Yet we are treating them as terrorists in many cases and using those same tools to deal with them.

The answer to this problem might in fact lie elsewhere — in other parts of healthcare, social services or society in general. These are clearly troubled people. It is not as clear whether they are terrorists. Maybe it is time to think more strategically about how to deal with them and develop a new programme to deal with this growing cohort of individuals using extreme violence to hurt those around them.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute

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