Does the UK need to introduce more anti-terrorism powers to its police and security services?

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On the 22nd April a 120 page draft report of the UK Government’s new terror strategy was passed onto journalists at the Sunday Times that in essence contains proposed amendments to the UK’s anti-terrorism policy CONTEST and a proposed counter-terrorism Bill.

 

In relation to the Bill, the proposals revealed include:

 

1.       People convicted of terrorism offences receive longer sentences;

2.       Police and security services to be given the power to warn government departments, Scottish and Welsh politicians and local authorities of individuals they consider suspicious, even before they have been placed on the MI5 watch list.

 

Other proposals include:

 

1.       Increased security at sporting events and concerts;

2.       Focus on detecting ‘British jihadi’ trying to get work at airports;

3.       Improve the detections of terrorist activity involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive material.

 

In relation to the Prevent strand of CONTEST, which is the pre-criminal strategy to help those who are vulnerable to being drawn towards terrorism, the proposals call for more focus on communities where the threat form terrorism and radicalisation is the highest. The report says the existing Prevent strategy has been divisive, with the UK’s Muslim community saying they have been unfairly singled out.

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The potential problems the UK government face in successfully introducing these proposals includes giving the police and security services the power to warn other government departments of individuals they consider suspicious. In May 2017 it was reported that over 3,500 potential terrorists are being monitored. It will be interesting when the details are published how the UK Government is going to support the police and the security services in carrying out this task. It is proposed to increase the number of staff in the security services by 1,900 by 2020. When this was first proposed, this was to help the services deal with their current workload. Since 2010 the austerity cuts on the police has seen the number of officers in England and Wales reduced by 21,000. The policing role that has suffered the most from these cuts is neighbourhood policing (community policing), which is a key role in acting as a conduit between the public and the police, and that includes receiving information and intelligence from the community. While there has been no reduction in counter-terrorism policing, there has not been an increase in its resources either as their workload increases. Although 13 major terrorist attacks were prevented in the UK since March 2017, as seen in the 2017 attacks that were successful, it is difficult to monitor all the intelligence systems, so to meet these proposals there will have to be an increase in police staffing and funding.

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The second issue worth considering is the focusing on communities where the threat of terrorism and radicalisation is highest. Although the report acknowledges the existing Prevent strategy has been divisive, something I have pointed out in the past, this is because when it was introduced, it focused solely on the violent Islamist narrative. Since 2011, the strategy considers all forms of extremism, a message that has not successfully been communicated by the Home Office. Here is the issue regarding this proposal, who are these communities? If the language used over the last few months by the current Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, is taken into consideration it appears the communities she is referring to are the Muslim communities. Figures released by the Home Office in March 2018 reveal that out of the 6,093 referred to prevent over a third of those referrals were as a result of far right concerns. Let us not forget that the UK has witnessed a number of attacks carried out under the influence of the far right narrative that have resulted in murder, including the assassination of a British MP in June 2016 by Thomas Mair (something the Islamists have not carried out). Which communities will be monitored in relation to far right terrorism?

 

UK police and security services already have some of the widest powers under terrorism related legislation among the Western states, so it is questionable if further powers are needed. In relation to Prevent, it does need re-marketing. While not perfect, the strategy does have many successes and is a vital strand of CONTEST that requires as much support as possible both in resources and marketing. I know that the Home Office is looking to introduce a separate Prevent website that is more user friendly and interactive. With all the recent good work done in Prevent, it is important that these proposals do not return to focusing solely on the UK’s Muslim communities thereby making them suspect communities. All forms of extremism are potentially dangerous and the community that should work together is the whole of UK society, not just one or two minority communities.

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I discussed this in more details on my interview with Sputnik Radio, which you can listen to on the link