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UK Counterterrorism Policy Needs to Look Beyond Borders

UK intelligence sharing, UK counter terrorism strategy, UK terrorist attacks, MI5, MI6, GCHQ, Islamic State terror, ISIS online recruitment, transnational terrorism, US Special Forces operatives abroad

MI6 Headquarters, London, UK © I Wei Huang

June 07, 2018 14:49 EDT

The UK’s new counterterrorism strategy neglects overseas priorities when it comes to combating terrorist activity at the source.

On June 4, the UK government published the latest version of its counterterrorism strategy (CONTEST.) The strategy has developed significantly since its early inception in 2003 and first public edition in 2006. The four pillars of the strategy — Prevent, Prepare, Protect and Pursue — have not been without controversy, particularly Prevent, which specifically aims to work within the education system to identify radicalization early on.

So, what does the most recent version tell us about the state of the government’s perceptions on the threat of terrorism today and, most importantly, about its priorities? Firstly, the very fact that the strategy needed reviewing and enhancing shows that Britain, despite proclamations from across the pond by US President Donald Trump, appears to be acting on the reality of global analysis that the so-called Islamic State (IS) is not only alive and well, but remains the number one terror threat to the UK and the West.

By no means defeated, the Islamic State is now active in 18 countries, compared to just seven in 2014, more than at any point during the existence of the caliphate. Operations by the group’s affiliates, terrorist cells and lone actors, as we have observed in recent weeks in Europe and Asia, remain a relentless reality. On the same day as the new strategy was announced, “one of Britain’s youngest female terror plotters” was sentenced as part of the country’s first all-female terror cell for planning an attack on the British Museum.

The revised framework identifies the sharing of intelligence, more of it and faster, from the security services and prison authorities, down to the charity commissions and local government. While all possible emphasis should be put on the sharing of intelligence, it seems difficult to understand why we have have not been sharing all possible information across government organizations already. Why are we sitting on intelligence?

It is estimated that Britain’s security services may hold records on as many as 20,000 individuals of interest, not all of whom constitute an immediate threat. There is a growing concern that as the number of people convicted of terrorism-related crimes grows, so too does the number of individuals due to be released back into society.

Further announcements see domestic emphasis on transactions of interest, such as the stockpiling of chemicals or potentially harmful goods, and the need to react to people acting suspiciously when hiring vehicles. The government review also allows for an increase in security services staff to deal with the growing concern of the public and the threat of terrorism, although it is unclear which of the three elements of the country’s intelligence services — MI5, MI6 and GCHQ — will benefit most.

But where does all this point toward? The answer, in some respects, is hidden on page 70 of the report, where “overseas priorities” are granted just eight pages. The academic world is certainly divided over the causes of radicalization and extremism, but that does not appear to translate into substantive policy. There are undoubtedly improvements and, at the very least, the recognition that counterterrorism work must be carried out overseas. However, the strategy is light on substance while openly recognizing the threat is now “dispersed” — a problem that could well have been averted if the military had been used more widely and deployed with a substantive operational remit other than to “train and advise.”

This is not to say troops such as the Special Forces aren’t working on the front line, and it is encouraging to see funding for them and other elements of UK front-line operations, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Counter Terrorism and Extremism Network, see additional funding and manpower. But these measures alone, in what has become a much wider problem — particularly concerning is the spread of extremism across North Africa on Europe’s doorstep — are not tantamount to a wider joined-up military strategy. The intent on cooperation, both bilateral and multilateral, is all well and good, but even America is reviewing its number of Special Forces operatives in Africa with an eye on down scaling due to “other priorities.”

CONTEST remains staggeringly light on international obligation and cooperation, certainly in any form of detail or clarity for the military. The strategy affectively puts most its eggs in one basket of domestic prevention. There is no question of the vital role domestic counterterrorism measures play where education and local work in communities are paramount to cohesion. However, one of the greatest components of Islamic State’s strategy is technology and the online platforms through which the group can exploit individuals and whole families. Active cells and individual followers alike have continued their activity — and are likely to continue — despite the growing emphasis on the domestic counterterrorism capability.

Further, IS and its self-proclaimed caliphate is still not simply an ideology — it is very much a living, tangible organization that actively seeks to materialize the doctrine it subscribes to at all costs. It is far too simplistic to take Donald Trump’s approach to ISIS, which dismisses the group’s  ability to carry out its political agenda with efficient military force. IS fighters may act like savages and kill indiscriminately, but there remains a a political goal where their beliefs can be lived out under working social and economic frameworks.

How is it then plausible, for the United Kingdom  — or any sovereign country that has remained under constant threat of terrorism, where, by the security services’ own admission the authorities are continuously working to stop new attacks — to neglect to create a much more powerful, pragmatic strategy for moving the front line of domestic terrorism to its various international sources?

Ultimately, IS proves to still be the greatest threat to British citizens, despite the rise of the far right in the UK, and it is unlikely to subside any time soon. In fact, this form of extremism is building, with al-Qaeda quietly regrouping across parts of Asia and the Middle East. We cannot analyze the threat posed by terrorist groups by the amount of territory they currently hold but rather by the spread and vitality of their malignant ideology. This means, in the case of the Islamic State, that we can expect no less than a prolonged war of attrition in the current climate and approach to counterterrorism.

The UK and other countries not only need to work internally and externally to improve intelligence sharing and develop a sophisticated domestic policy, but also get serious about the international obligation we have to our citizens at the real front line of today’s terrorism.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: I Wei Huang /

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