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The Toughest Job in UK Counter-Terrorism

Margaret Gilmore
Commentary, 16 April 2009
UK Counter-terrorism, Terrorism, UK, Intelligence, Terrorism, Europe
Assistant Commissioner John Yates has been parachuted into the job of the UK’s most senior counter-terrorism officer. He was appointed amidst a crisis created by his predecessor. The affair underlines the tough brief that the new incumbent must master, whilst negotiating a treacherous political terrain.

A New Counter-Terrorism Chief

The UK has a new police chief in charge of anti-terrorist operations. For Assistant Commissioner John Yates it will be a steep learning curve. Propelled without notice into the job on 9 April, he must now take the reins, win the confidence of thousands of police officers who will be under his command, and get his head round the wider political dimensions of his new role.

As Assistant Commissioner in charge of Specialist Operations, he will not be running day-to-day investigations -- that will be undertaken by one of his deputies, the Head of Counter-Terrorist Command. But John Yates is in overall command – taking an operational overview and setting strategy-- nationally as well as in London. He also takes responsibility for diplomatic, VIP and Royal Protection here and for UK interests abroad. He has many qualities which will help him-- not least years of experience as a detective. And his management skills, his integrity and his finely tuned political instincts have been well tested in the past and are not in question. But he does not have a pedigree in anti-terrorist work, and getting to grips with the specifics of the role could prove his biggest challenge.

AC Yates is one of the most high profile senior policemen in the country-- a focussed, determined officer with a forensic attitude to police work, and the ability to deal with the internal and external politics which will inevitably come his way in his new job. That of course is why he has been parachuted into the role. He is the Met's trouble shooter. He was called in to deal with the 2004 Boxing Day Asian Tsunami and soon had more than 2,000 UK police officers working on identifying victims. He was tasked with coordinating the Met's response to the shooting by police of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian, in the wake of the 7 July bomb attacks. He travelled to a relatively remote Brazilian village to apologise to the dead man’s devastated grieving parents for the fact that police had mistaken their son for a terrorist. In January 2006, he was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for distinguished services to policing.

He was put in charge of the Cash for Honours inquiry -- investigating whether peerages had been offered in return for loans to political parties. AC Yates displayed steely resolve, taking on and challenging businessmen and women, civil servants, party workers and even his own political masters -- knowing that the tiniest slip or leak would be seized on and exposed. His team arrested close allies of the then Prime Minister and indeed interviewed Tony Blair as a witness. It was one of the most secret processes ever mounted by the Met. Only a handful of trusted detectives were allowed access to the secure inquiry room at Scotland Yard. Yet despite the sixteen month investigation Yates did not unearth enough evidence for the Crown Prosecution Service to recommend anyone be prosecuted. John Yates defended his inquiry in the face of criticism that it was a whitewash. He had he claimed received ‘less than full co-operation’ from some involved.

Job with a Political Edge

AC Yates will in future take his place alongside ministers in the Government crisis committee COBRA when it tackles counter-terrorism emergencies. He will regularly find himself briefing and advising politicians on terrorism and security, and when an operation is likely to bring political fallout-- as this latest crisis has. He will need to deal with diplomats and the Royal Household, ensuring they are safe from terrorists and from attention seekers. He will have to keep abreast of the latest intelligence and on the technologies available to terrorists and to the police and intelligence agencies to combat the threat. He will be forming close contacts with counterparts in intelligence: increasingly police and MI5 work together – as they did on Operation Pathway – the recent covert operation possibly compromised by his predecessor Bob Quick.

In his former role as Assistant Commissioner running the Specialist Crime Directorate and overseeing murders and serious crimes, John Yates already had a place on the Met's Senior Management Board -- he will continue to be on the team in his new role, and must now work on damage limitation following the resignation of Bob Quick.

He will also have to steer a firm course through the politics surrounding senior appointments at the Met – and the tensions between the Conservative Mayor of London and Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority Boris Johnson, and the Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. They rowed over the former Commissioner’s role. This time the Home Secretary was reported to be annoyed when Boris Johnson announced Bob Quick’s resignation in a radio interview, even though she had agreed with the Police that they should handle it.

Fallout from the Compromise

Bob Quick had been reading secret intelligence reports on Operation Pathway in his car, on his way to brief the Prime Minister on what Gordon Brown later described to the press as ‘a very big terrorist plot’. It is sometimes necessary to brief politicians if arrests are imminent – in this case Muslim communities in the North West could be disturbed by high profile terrorist arrests. The suspects were nearly all Pakistani citizens so there could be diplomatic ramifications. They were nearly all on student visas so the arrests were likely to provoke debate on whether the visa system is rigorous enough – all issues that would need to be dealt with not by police making the are arrests – but by politicians.

Once the secret documents had been photographed and were in the public domain, counter-terrorism officers and MI5 were forced to abandon their secret surveillance and bring the arrests forward. Had they allowed Operation Pathway to run, they risked publication of the secret information on the internet. One can only speculate how suspects might have responded once alerted to the fact they were under surveillance. It could have prompted them to flee or worse still, to fast track their alleged bomb plot.

Instead of a series of dawn raids to catch the men sleeping, they now had to be arrested as they went about their daily business. We will probably never know how much, if any evidence was lost by aborting the operation early. We know the surveillance part of the operation was drawing to a close – and police had got to the point they suspected the men were planning a bomb attack or bomb attacks in the North West of England. But the possible compromise of evidence gathering, combined with the potential risks if the secret information had been published before arrests were made, undermined Bob Quick’s position. He issued a statement:

'I have today offered my resignation in the knowledge that my action could have compromised a major counter terrorism operation. I deeply regret the disruption caused to colleagues undertaking the operation and remain grateful for the way in which they adapted quickly and professionally to a revised timescale.' His resignation was accepted.

Visa Loophole and the Links with Pakistan

We do not yet know if those arrested will be charged. But this case once again points to a suspected link with Pakistan. Two thirds of alleged plots in the past have some links between the two countries – there is evidence of young Britons of Pakistani origin being trained in or controlled by people with terrorist aspirations in Pakistan. This time the suspects are, in fact, mainly Pakistani citizens. Most of them came to the UK on student visas – raising huge questions over whether the visa system is rigorous enough. More than 9,000 student visas were issued in 2007/8 to Pakistanis. Most pay full fees and bring much needed income to colleges and universities here.

Those given a visa are fingerprinted. They must prove they can pay their way and are supposed to be tracked by their college of choice here, who should notice if they do not in fact study. But there are fears it could be an easy way into the UK for a tiny minority involved in terrorism. In the immediate aftermath of the arrests Gordon Brown suggested Pakistan could do more to combat terrorism. Pakistani officials retaliated saying the visa problem was at this end. Both countries said they co-operate well on terrorism. But it is clear Pakistan has its own huge internal terrorist problems and it seems terrorist bonds between Pakistan and the UK continue to flourish.

All of which demonstrates there is much to occupy John Yates. Tackling the Pakistani link is crucial. His team may well have security issues over student visas. And he has to deal with the major plot which landed on his desk on Day One in the job.

He lists one of his hobbies as long distance cycling, and there is little doubt he has the stamina for the long haul. The Met needs a counter-terrorism chief who can dodge controversy and bring results. He has long been tipped as a future Commissioner – but with the terrorist threat if anything increasing, with the 2012 Olympics likely to fall in his time, he may find the terrorism brief his toughest yet.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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