Posts Tagged ‘UK terrorism’

Another short piece from this weekend in the wake of the atrocity in London Bridge this time for the Financial Times. Will catch up on other posting as soon as possible, though things at the moment are quite busy.

The Chilling Effect of a Brutally Simple Style

London attack comes as Isis is losing territory, making life harder for security forces

Back in May 2013 two radicalised young Britons ran a car into an off-duty soldier outside his London barracks, leapt out and butchered Lee Rigby as he lay in the street. Brutal in its simplicity and effectiveness, this has become a style terrorist groups champion as they seek to bring horror to our streets. It was used in Saturday’s London attack, in which at least seven were murdered — and has made security agencies’ lives markedly harder.

As low-tech attacks have proliferated, the terror threat facing the UK has escalated. Since Khalid Masood staged his car and knife offensive on Westminster in late March, there have been two successful attacks and five failed ones.

The Manchester suicide bomb last month and the London attack appear to have been produced by conspiracy rather than lone individuals. This is a worrying development given that until recently the analysis of the threat picture suggested the latter were the greatest concern. The use of a sophisticated device in Manchester suggests Salman Abedi had contact with others before killing himself and 22 others at an Ariana Grande concert. The London atrocity involved at least three people — the suspected attackers killed by police.

Looking abroad, terrorist groups have been pushing people to launch attacks whenever and however they can — particularly in this holy month of Ramadan. Isis pumps out a stream of messages, exhorting the use of knives, cars or other tools to kill “crusaders”. In a recent post, the group told people to wear fake suicide vests to confuse authorities — just as the London attackers are reported to have done.

Two weeks ago Hamza bin Laden — the son of Osama bin Laden, who is trying to reinvent himself as the leader of al-Qaeda — issued his own advice for “martyrdom seekers” in the west. They need not use “a military tool. If you are able to pick a firearm, well and good; if not, the options are many”.

All this comes as Isis is losing territory and it is becoming harder for prospective jihadis to travel to such battlefields. This denies terrorist groups space to plan but also creates two new categories of concern: returnees who have fought on these battlefields and blocked travellers who retain the radical impulse. These categories are added to the long list of individuals already of concern to security agencies. In the UK there are 500 under investigation, according to Ben Wallace, security minister, and 3,000 of active interest. There are a further 20,000 in a wider ring including people on the fringes of investigations going back years. In other words, security agencies are managing a roster of dangerous extremists from which it is almost impossible ever to remove names. Individuals such as Masood, investigated a decade ago on the edge of plots, may return to strike years later so agencies must stay alert to them.

A successful attack is by definition a failure by security agencies. In the case of London and Manchester, it is not yet clear whether we are looking at a lack of analysis, intelligence or capacity — or whether the threat has suddenly grown more acute and overwhelming. Whatever the answer, the question will become central to political debate, particularly given the proximity of the attacks to the general election.

Prime Minister Theresa May has pointed to the need to deal with ideology and “safe space” — online and offline. There will also be ever-louder questions about whether the security agencies have the resources to manage an engorged threat — as well as how they manage sometimes fraught relations with allies in Washington and Europe.

But it is clear that the current strategy — seeking to deal with the threats through a four-pillar approach of “prevent, pursue, protect and prepare” — is merely managing a problem that appears to be getting worse.

The writer is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute and author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life’

Trying to catch up on various recent posts, though am a bit behind, so apologies. A few longer pieces have landed now as well. In the short term, here is something for my institutional home RUSI about what policy ideas could be advanced to manage the long-term threat that the UK faces.

What Policy Changes Are Needed after the Manchester Attack?

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary31 May 2017
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismSecuring BritainTerrorism

A week after the atrocity in Manchester, it is now possible to draw some preliminary conclusions: there clearly was a breakdown in the intelligence flow that led to suicide bomber Salman Abedi slipping through the net; there are enduring questions about the UK’s Prevent anti-terrorism strategy; and, finally, there are the weaknesses of ‘soft targets’ that such an attack invariably expose.

It is, of course, impossible, without full access to information, to properly understand exactly the nature of the intelligence breakdown that led to last week’s suicide attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.

Still the fact that the bomber, Salman Abedi, was flagged up to authorities a number of times, by locals in Manchester, was travelling back and forth to a country that is a warzone and came from a family with strong militant pedigrees all indicate – without the benefit of hindsight – that he was someone who should have attracted attention.

If, as suggested, he was someone who had featured in previous investigations but was sidelined in favour of what were deemed to be more menacing targets, then the attack in which 22 people were killed and dozens wounded highlights what for the intelligence services remains a perennial question: how do you determine who seems more menacing when resources are limited?

This is not only a difficult calibration to make, it is also not a way to remove someone from concerns altogether. For, as we have seen repeatedly, individuals will sometimes rise back out of this pool of downgraded threats to pose an immediate danger.

And the challenge is immense. According to Security Minister Ben Wallace, there are about 20,000 in this larger pool of people who are not seen as an immediate danger but who, like Abedi, can suddenly become one.

What can be done to manage this problem? Additional resources would help, as well as new technologies such as super computers using artificial intelligence to manage the challenge through data-crunching looking for particular patterns of behaviour. Another method is to continually challenge previous assessments about the security risks that certain individuals may pose, a determination which is bound to shift over time.

However, the principle of proportionality also has to be borne in mind: having lots of security forces chasing those individuals not only requires more resources than are currently available, but may also end up exacerbating the very problem that they are trying to manage.

Other, more extreme ideas have been advanced: internment or enhanced restrictive movement orders. The first proposal is so clearly counterproductive that it bears no consideration; internment in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s became part of the problem, rather than the solution to terrorism troubles.

The second proposal – house arrests – has greater value, except in that it does not necessarily reduce the burden on security officials. An individual who has been placed under house arrest is not actually being dealt with; rather, he or she is being put in a very publicly visible ‘holding pattern’.

Similarly, excluding people from the UK – either through passport denial or exclusion orders – is not actually dealing with the challenge; it simply postpones a determination, and pushes the individual on to another country to be dealt with.

A proportion of the work managing this pool of 20,000 ‘lower-grade’ suspects will come under the contentious Prevent strategy of counterterrorism activity. And this raises another strand of debate to emerge from the Manchester atrocity: how to reform Prevent.

One aspect that should be undertaken is to separate out the different strands of the strategy. The work of managing dangerous offenders or suspects clearly needs to stay attached to the security realm, possibly through the creation of a new specifically developed and tailored service, modelled on the probation service.

Combining probation, welfare, police and intelligence, the new agency could be staffed by individuals who are each managing a specific case-load of former offenders or suspects.

Each case will require a different sort of engagement, but this may provide a way of both keeping an eye on such cases while also focusing on trying to get them on a different path.

A version of the Channel programme, which provides early support to individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorism, could be used; this will be a way of providing an individually tailored ‘light touch’ over-watch.

But other parts of the Prevent that are focused on more forward-looking efforts to steer people away from radical paths before they get on to them, should instead be moved firmly out of the criminal space.

Prevent is intended to be about keeping people away from ever getting to terrorism, and this means, among other measures, actually keeping them out of the criminal justice arena. Consequently, it would seem imperative that these programmes are not handled by a security department such as the Home Office.

Finally, there are some very understandable questions about the fact that the bomber was able to walk his device into a crowded space and kill so many. Most arenas nowadays are heavily guarded and people are subject to bag checks on entry.

Clearly, some additional thought must be given to reviewing entry and exit points to such sites, with the usual difficulties of agreeing where to draw the ultimate line of the security cordon.

Much work has gone into managing security in crowded spaces: the lessons learned need to be applied more rigorously and around the entire country. Sports events or concerts that by their very nature aim to be open and accessible will continue to pose a potential problem.

It is unlikely that this will be the last terrorist attack the UK faces. Coming during an election cycle, however, this incident offers an occasion for both introspection and new ideas as future governments continue to confront the challenge.

Banner image: Armed police stand guard at Manchester Arena after Salman Abedi’s suicide bomb attack during a Ariana Grande gig. Courtesy of PA Images.

A piece for the Observer newspaper this weekend, this time looking at the way the attack in Manchester fits into the broader threat picture in the UK. It was a busy period with the media around the attack with longer interviews captured online with the BBC’s Daily Politics (video), National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Radio 24 (radio), as well as with Financial TimesTimes, Wall Street Journal, New York TimesLa Repubblica, Atlantic, AFP, Washington Post, and News Deeply.

Fighters who can’t travel to Syria pose growing threat

As Isis loses territory in Syria, the risks posed by would-be UK fighters must not be ignored
A police patrol in Hull for BBC Radio 1’s big weekend.
 A police patrol in Hull for BBC Radio 1’s big weekend. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

British security officials have long warned it was only a matter of time before there was another terrorist atrocity.

In late August 2014, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) raised the terror threat level to “severe” – meaning that, according to its independent assessment, the expectation was that a terrorist attack was highly likely. Responding to an increasingly menacing threat picture in Europe linked to the conflict in Syria and Iraq, that level stayed at severe until the attacks in Manchester, which caused JTAC to redo its calculations and raise it to critical – meaning an attack is imminent.

Once the level was raised to severe, there was a fairly constant pattern of terrorist plotting. In November 2015, as the world reeled from the attacks in Paris, David Cameron said seven plots had been disrupted in the UK over the previous year. At the beginning of March this year, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said in the past four years authorities had disrupted 13 plots. In the wake of the Manchester attacks, a further five have been added to this roster.

While the details of many of these plots have not been made public, most appear to have been lone individuals or small cells planning knife attacks. It is not clear how many have involved the sort of ambitious planning that went into Paris and Brussels or even Manchester. But groups – al-Qaida, Isis or some other affiliate – continue to want to wreak misery.

The reason for the recent increase in activity is hard to pin down. In part, it may be a case of Isis being on the back foot and seeking to push out attacks in every direction: something that correlates with it losing territory and its foreign fighter contingent scattering to the wind, creating a wave of potential problems around the world. And this comes as al-Qaida has started to rear its head once again, menacing the world through new messages by Hamza bin Laden.

But there are other dynamics at play as well. One of the more under-investigated phenomena is what is happening to those aspirant foreign fighters who are unable to travel. Inspired enough to want to join a group like Isis, they find it increasingly difficult to do so – due to proactive security measures in the UK or more simply a much harder environment in Syria to get into. But being unable to travel does not remove the radical impulse. Actually it may enhance it further, with the frustration making the individual feel the link to the group more strongly.

Consequently, when the group shouts for people to launch attacks at home, rather than come to the battlefield, they may see this as a call to arms. The phenomenon of the blocked traveller maturing into a terrorist threat at home is not new, but as things become tougher it is only likely to increase the pool of potential radicals at home.

Finally, there is the exceptionally low threshold for what constitutes a terrorist attack. No longer do you have to launch a complicated plot: if you can, then all the better. But a public stabbing or running people down with a car will also suffice. Targets are open and indiscriminate, with anyone living in a non-Isis state considered fair game. This makes it very easy for anyone to pick up a weapon and become a warrior – meaning that not all of those who do are necessarily as doctrinally pure as a group might want. All of this shows how easy it is to become a terrorist these days.

It was unlikely that the terror threat level would be kept at critical for long, and it has now been reduced to severe. Exhaustion might have set in at the security agencies had it continued much longer. But the tempo of the threat picture in the UK has noticeably sharpened of late: from last year, which was punctuated by the disruption of major plots but dominated by a steady stream of smaller-scale arrests for travelling to, fundraising for, or support of terrorist groups, to this year, which has seen two attacks and at least five or six plots derailed.

It is clear that the terrorist menace is not shrinking away and is likely to linger around for some time longer, in particular if the war in Syria and Iraq continues to drag on, providing a consistently fertile ground for training camps and extremist ideologies.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

It has been a very busy week in the wake of the atrocity in Manchester. A few pieces coming over the next few days, but first up something for the New York Times looking at the intelligence spat between the US and UK around the sharing of information during counter-terrorism operations. More to come on the broader theme of the attack itself.

Why Britain Gets Angry When America Is Casual With Secrets

LONDON — The leaking of sensitive information about the investigation into Monday’s terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena, including forensic images of bomb apparatus, to United States media caused dismay and anger among British officials. The prime minister, Theresa May, went so far as to raise the issue directly with President Trump when they met at Thursday’s NATO conference in Brussels.

To modify George Bernard Shaw’s maxim, Britain and America appear to be two countries divided less by a common language than by common secrets. While British investigators jealously guard detailed information about their operations, seeking to run their leads to ground before they are exposed to view, their American counterparts seem more willing to put what they know directly into the public domain.

The Anglo-American security relationship has deep roots. Intelligence sharing and cooperation sits at its heart. Forged in history, it has deepened over time through a shared assessment of the threats they face around the world. A key part of this is countering terrorism, a mutual threat that our two countries work closely together to fight. And yet, in fighting it, they have different approaches.

A policeman in Manchester, England, on May 25. CreditJon Super/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

The current tensions over Manchester are the latest public expression of an issue that has arisen before. In May 2012, British intelligence officials were exasperated when their role in an operation to disrupt a plot by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — to repeat the 2009 underwear bomber plot with a more sophisticated device — was revealed. Before that, after the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, information about the nature of the bombs was leaked to the press by American sources early in the investigation. The chief of London’s Metropolitan Police at the time, Ian Blair, made a connection between that incident and the Manchester leak.

“I’m afraid it just reminds me exactly of what happened after 7/7,” he told the BBC, “when the U.S. published a complete picture of the way the bombs in 7/7 had been made up.” In 2005, he was concerned both about the impact of the images on victims of the bombing, and about how the disclosures could complicate the job of his officers investigating what had been the most serious Qaeda-inspired attack on Britain to date.

The frustrations have gone beyond the leaking of information being gathered after an attack. Back in 2006, British and American authorities disrupted the most extensive Qaeda plot they’d seen. Codenamed Operation Overt, the plan was to send a wave of up to eight suicide bombers on flights from Britain to North America using sophisticated liquid explosives they could smuggle on board. This is the root of the liquid ban on planes we still face today.

In close cooperation with their American counterparts, British authorities had been watching the cell, coordinated by a British Pakistani named Rashid Rauf who had risen up Al Qaeda’s ranks, for some time. They had discovered a bomb factory in East London where the group was making its devices. The moment was approaching to disrupt the plot, but the British authorities wanted to monitor it further to ensure they would sweep up the full network and have evidence that could be used in court.

But when the American authorities thought that someone connected to the network had managed to get onto a plane, they used their network in Pakistan to get Mr. Rauf picked up. This forced Britain’s hand. Such was the rush to action that unarmed surveillance officers had to step out of the shadows to grab the suspects before news spread about Mr. Rauf’s arrest.

One reason behind the divergence between British and American counterterrorism operations is that the British authorities prefer to watch and wait, gathering as much information as possible before moving into action. American agencies prefer a more aggressive approach to disrupting terrorist networks and plots. In part, this is a product of the legal system: Intelligence agencies in Britain closely guard the information they collect and do not usually allow it to be used in a court of law. This was visible during the subsequent trials of the Overt case, where prosecutors had to go three rounds with two hung juries before they were able to convict; one of the key figures was cleared and released notwithstanding his deeply suspicious links.

There are deeper cultural issues, too. This week, the government’s assessment of the threat of a further terrorist attack has led to the deployment of armed soldiers on the streets of Britain’s cities. This is something that would likely pass unnoticed in the United States, but it has caused great consternation here. British security officials are also uneasy about the number of American counterterrorism investigations that use undercover agents who often appear to act as agent provocateurs; in the British view, such operations would be regarded as entrapment by courts.

These tensions in the relationship seem to have intensified under the Trump administration. Some British counter-terrorism experts express concern that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric of aggressive confrontation may serve to bolster the very narrative of civilizational conflict the extremists use. The ties that bind Anglo-American intelligence cooperation are firm; the difficulty is how to maintain trust after this transatlantic spat. We face a common threat, and it would be dangerous to take for granted our common front in fighting it.

A short response piece to the horrible incident that happened in Manchester for the Telegraph. The threat level has now been raised to Critical which means this incident is going to take a while to resolve. In the wake of the incident, spoke to CNBCGuardian, and National Press Agency about bombs, and separately to Guardian, Washington Post, and The Australian about the bigger threat picture. Also did interview that was recorded on ABC’s Lateline.

Cars and knives are easier to use, but bombs will always be central to terrorist thinking

Survivors of the attack sit on the pavement
The successful use of a bomb is unusual among recent terror attacks CREDIT: JOEL GOODMAN/LNP

 

Terrorism has a predictable brutality to it. And yet, the idea of a bombing is something that still surprises us when it happens. The attack in Manchester in some ways appears a flashback to a different time when the terrorists we worried about detonated bombs, rather than using vehicles as rams or stabbing people. The reality is that terrorism’s only constant is its desire to shock and kill. For any group or ideology, the fundamental point is to make yourself heard as dramatically as possible. Groups and individuals will use whatever tools they have to gain that attention.

Making bombs that you know will reliably work is not as easy as it might sound. History is littered with attempted bomb-makers whose devices detonated too early or failed to go off. Unless you have had some training or practice, it is difficult to know for certain that you are making something that will go off exactly when you want it to.

There have been examples of lone bomb makers in the past, but they are rare. Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in Oslo in 2010, and David Copeland and Pavlo Lapshyn, who respectively launched one-man extreme right wing bombing campaigns in London and Birmingham, are examples. But in all cases, lone bomb makers choose to leave their devices behind rather than die in the detonation. This separates them from the Manchester bomber, though the degree to which we can conclude this means he acted alone is unclear.

Isil’s claim of responsibility would seem to strengthen the idea that the bomber was linked to someone. But care has to be paid to understand exactly what their claim means. On the one hand, it could be the group is merely claiming something to which it has a very loose link. The use of a bomb can also add confusion to the picture, especially when we consider that the majority of the incidents we have seen in Europe linked to the group of late have been stabbings or using vehicles to run down crowds. Yet this narrative assumes that the group is not keen to launch explosives attacks. This is incorrect – from the group’s perspective, anything that fulfills their goals of gaining attention and sowing terror is desirable.

The shift towards knives and cars was something that the group had encouraged in part as it realised that making bombs is difficult and prone to failure. Telling your aspirant warriors to keep it simple seems a more effective way to ensure success. One need only look at issues of the group’s magazine Rumiyah to see how rudimentary some of the forms of attack being promoted by Isil are.

The smashed up car used during the 2017 Westminster terror attack
Vehicles have been used as weapons, as in the Westminster attack earlier this year, for their ease and simplicity CREDIT: GEOFF PUGH FOR THE TELEGRAPH

But the key point to remember is that these groups, and Isil in particular, are not very discerning in their methodologies for terrorist attacks. Their aim is to cause chaos, draw attention to themselves and kill as many as they can. This brings attention to their cause and shows their commitment to their ideology. It is intended to sow divisions in our societies and strengthen the narrative of anger that is central to breathing life into their beliefs.

So whether they use a bomb and murder children, massacre people at airports, gun them down in concert halls, or stab elderly priests in their churches, they are getting their job done. And if we shout in horror at the methodology they employ, they simply brush this away by pointing to atrocities that they see happening around the world, and which they see as setting a precedent for violence.

The key issue from the rest of society’s perspective is to realise this is their deadly intent, and to ensure to not rise to the bait and do the group’s job for them. Terrorism’s only constant remains its perpetrators desire to shock and murder: the manner in which they do so is only secondary.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at  RUSI and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

And another piece, this time for my institutional home RUSI after the Westminster atrocity. Also to catch up on a few conversations with the media, spoke to Financial Times, New York Times, The Times, Wall Street JournalLa Repubblica, Politico, Daily Record, NBC, Irish Times, L’Espresso, and Daily Mail amongst others about the incident. Separately, spoke to Voice of America, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post about ISIS released a video featuring Uighurs. Finally, to the Mail on Sunday about a British jihadi who was able to get in and out of the country, and to the Guardian about the laptop ban on planes and Brexit and the security negotiations.

London: The Latest Victim of Terrorism in Europe

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary24 March 2017
EuropeUKUK Counter-terrorismDomestic SecurityTerrorism

The security services face an enormous challenge in preventing these types of terrorist attacks.

The wave of terrorism that has been striking Europe has reached Britain’s shores as a single attacker tried on Wednesday to storm the British Parliament in the centre of London.

Dartford-born Khalid Masood, né Adrian Russell Ajao – killed four people when he rammed his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and fatally stabbed police officer PC Keith Palmer. At least 50 other people were injured, some critically.

The choice of target and the method used to conduct the attack suggest, at the very least, political intent. Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that Masood was ‘a soldier of the Islamic state’.

The incident might also be linked to the wave of Daesh and Daesh-inspired plots seen in mainland Europe. However, the degree to which this reveals a substantial connection or not has yet to be uncovered.

Security forces have been preparing for such an attack for some time. Some of the 13 plots authorities stated having disrupted in the past three years showed evidence of plotting in the same direction.

It is also one that is increasingly hard to eradicate even with well-developed national surveillance and intelligence capabilities.

Protecting Open Democracy

The decision to strike at the heart of British democracy is a seemingly obvious choice: groups have long sought to strike public institutions and the Houses of Parliament are an international symbol.

The ease of striking at parliamentarians was illustrated last year with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox at her Batley and Spen, Yorkshire, constituency surgery by right wing extremist Thomas Mair.

It was not the first time a parliamentarian had been attacked in this way – in May 2010 there was the stabbing of Labour’s East Ham MP Stephen Timms by Roshonara Choudhry in an Islamist-inspired attack. Timms was severely wounded, and Choudhry was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Democracy, by its nature, is open and its representatives accessible to the public. Yet, such openness can complicate protecting those representatives or institutions.

Nevertheless, there are some security measures that may be tightened as a result of the current events in London. The fact that the vehicle was able to mount the pavement in the areas around Parliament will raise questions about whether the protective bollards and barriers that surround the area should be further extended.

Indeed, the fact that the individual was able to get inside the parliamentary estate will undoubtedly raise questions about whether the sanitised zone needs to be extended further and more barriers erected in the vicinity.

It is also clear that authorities have discovered that Masood had featured historically in investigations. This will raise questions about why he was not prioritised for investigation and what decisions were made in other directions.

Making the Tough Choices

This is an equally difficult task. For the security services, the problem is in identifying the individual as a priority at this specific moment. It is possible that he should have been due to indicators that were missed. However, security forces are facing a complicated situation involving thousands of persons of interest while lacking the staff numbers to deal with them all.

Choices will have to made about who needs to be prioritised for deeper investigation. This necessitates more attention to some and less to others involving a process of carefully calibrated choice.

The nature of the attack also makes it hard to prevent. Attacks involving cars and knives make use of everyday tools, a tactic which in itself limits the opportunities for the security services to detect plots in advance.

This is not only a reflection of the relative difficulty of launching more sophisticated attacks, but also the fact that terrorist groups have lowered the methodology of a successful attack to this level.

Not only are the tools hard to identify prior to attack (unlike guns or explosives), but preparation time is very limited and can be hard to discern from someone’s ordinary pattern of behaviour.

Beware of an Exaggerated Response

Ultimately, it is the reaction to the carnage which ‘makes’ the attack. An exaggerated response will increase the impact of the incident and give it undue importance. On the other hand, suppressing discussion may feed a frenzy of speculation which is also harmful.

More on the attack will be heard in the days to come, shedding light on the lessons that need to be learned. The answer – as is often the case – is to step back and review processes, ensure societal resilience and brace for the potential for further incidents.

Banner image: Armed police on Victoria Embankment in London after Wednesday’s terror attack on Westminister Bridge and Parliament. Courtesy of Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images.

Catching up on some old posting, first a piece in the Telegraph after the murderous atrocity in Westminster last week.

The Westminster attack will place added scrutiny on Britain’s controversial Prevent programme

The attack on Westminster comes as Whitehall reviews Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as Contest. Developed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the strategy was aimed at creating a holistic, cross-government approach to countering terrorism. The logic was that as these individuals came from within, a whole of society approach would be required to counter them.

The strategy has undergone numerous tweaks and iterations, with most attention focused on “Prevent”, the strand of the strategy which aimed at trying to steer people off the radical path before they became violent: “addressing the problem in the pre-criminal space”, to use the jargon. The difficulty is that this is something that by its nature should not be handled by the security services, and yet the fundamental point of Contest is to address a security matter. This in part helps illustrate why this aspect of the counter-terrorismstrategy has remained so fundamentally controversial.

Contest was designed as a four pillar strategy – Prevent (stopping people from being drawn to extremist ideas), Prepare (building societal resilience to be able to bounce back from an attack), Pursue (the classic counter-terrorism work of disrupting and investigating individuals), and Protect (building the infrastructure to defend from attack).

The current Contest review was focused on looking across all four, but as a result of this most recent incident, attention will likely focus through the lens of what happened in Westminster.

Since the attacker had historically appeared on the authorities’ radar but dropped down their priority list, the question will be asked about whether more could have been done to re-engage him with society. Or could he have been engaged with earlier to dissuade him from going down this path? The difficulty would be identifying who it was who could actually undertake this, and when would have been the right time to engage. And this in many ways illustrates some of the major issues around Prevent.

Whether we are talking about people working in communities, or those in sectors like education, welfare or healthcare, we are often looking at people who do not traditionally see themselves as security agents. They have chosen to serve society, but don’t see themselves as responsible for pre-empting security threats.

Yet it is often exactly these sorts of people who are being asked to take to the frontline in Prevent; to try to keep the problem outside the criminal space. But their priorities will be different to those of security agents who are focused very narrowly on defending from terrorism and prosecuting offenders. The paradox for Prevent is finding ways of engaging with nationally important security issues before they have become criminal problems, and therefore before the police take a dominant role.

Ultimately, if Prevent is to work it is going to have to move further out of the criminal space, with civilian public servants taking the lead.

If we are going to dissuade people from extremist groups and ideologies, we are then we will have to do it before people have gone far enough as to be a police matter, by which time it is too late. But if we are doing this, then a longer leash will be needed for those who are working on these issues. And we must understand that the nature of what we are asking them to deal with is not what would ordinarily fall into their remit, and that therefore they will look at in a different light to a hard-nosed security agent.

In addition to all of this, we are also dealing with a problem in which success – an absence of threat – cannot easily be linked to a specific programme. Can you link a lack of attacks to specific Prevent programmes running in some part of the country?

Prevent will always be the most controversial aspect of our counter-terrorism strategy. The questions that will be asked around the current incident in Westminster will likely focus on why more was not done to prevent this person from becoming involved in the first place. The answer will inevitably be incomplete, and the grieving families will not gain much from them. But it remains the key to staying ahead of the terrorist threat that we currently face.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute