The Changing Nature of Counter-Terrorism Policing

Monitor Weston

The challenge for today’s police service is to provide an international, national and local response to terrorism based on the concept of local accountability. This is not a new challenge for the police. The police have been, and continue to be, a very unadventurous and reactive organisation, locally based and inward-looking. This is not meant as a criticism, but a reflection on the traditional concept of local policing, rather than a continental national policing model. In the main, local criminals commit local crimes. As society developed, so did the criminal, who exploited societal improvements in communication, transportation and wealth. In response to the late nineteenth century challenge of Irish republican terrorism, a specialist counter-terrorism unit – the Special Irish Branch – was created. An examination of the history of British policing reveals that the traditional policing response to new challenges has been, and continues to be, the creation of specialist units rather than the creation of a national police service.

One of the most significant developments in recent policing history was the amalgamation, in October 2006, of the Anti-Terrorist Branch with the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, to create the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command (CT Command). Under the leadership of the Senior National Coordinator Counter Terrorism (a deputy assistant commissioner),[1] this command comprises approximately 1,500 staff and combines the capital city’s counter-terrorism intelligence effort with national and international counter-terrorism investigative elements, together with various police counter-terrorism prevention and support teams.[2] For the first time the police service has a unified capability with an unequivocal mission: to tackle the threat from terrorism, international or domestic.

At the national level, new regionally based Counter Terrorism Units (CTUs) have been established to co-ordinate counter-terrorism activity across police force areas. The existing units, in the Midlands, the North East and the North West, are soon to be bolstered by a unit in the South East to complement the existing regional Counter Terrorism Intelligence Units (CTIUs). CTUs and CTIUs provide co-ordination and specialist support to police across the country, in particular to forces in their own region. They are responsible for gathering intelligence and evidence to help prevent and disrupt terrorist activities. CTIUs differ from CTUs in that they do not have an investigative capacity.[3] The police forces in which these units are sited are known as ‘lead forces’. The police authorities for the lead forces now convene as the Joint Counter Terrorism Oversight Group on a quarterly basis in order to maintain a common approach to oversight and monitoring, and also provide assurance to the Home Office that funding is being used as intended.

The strategic direction of the police national counter-terrorism efforts is determined by the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Terrorism and Allied Matters Committee (ACPO TAM). This influential committee is chaired by the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner, Specialist Operations. ACPO TAM’s primary functions are to develop, implement and maintain a national police counter-terrorist strategy; and to advise the Home Office on the distribution of counter-terrorism funding, and monitor expenditure on its behalf.[4]

New Threats, Tightened Nets

A direct consequence of terrorist attacks, particularly Irish republican extremist attacks in London in the mid-1990s, was the introduction of a strategy for the police service. This included the following strands: intelligence-focused operations that relied heavily on the partnership between the Security Service (MI5) and the police; and high visibility and targeted police operations, intended to disrupt, detect or deter terrorist activity at the reconnaissance, execution or escape phases of terrorist operations. It also focused on highly effective post-event investigations that made the best use of well-trained specialist investigators, with access to modern equipment and supported by expert forensic scientists. It finally emphasised the importance of community reassurance, partnership and consequence management.

Following the attacks on 11 September 2001, this strategy was urgently reviewed by ACPO TAM, and a new one introduced. The strategic intention was to Detect, Deter or Disrupt terrorist activity, based on the following elements:

• Preparatory activity: reviewed partnerships and vulnerabilities

• Preventative measures: consider ed target-hardening options

• Pro-active operations: actively pursued initiatives designed to disrupt, detect and deter terrorist activity

• Post-incident investigations and consequence management: ensured staff were well-trained, well-managed and had access to the best equipment that enabled them to be effective and work with partners in an integrated manner

• Community involvement: underpinning the previous strands, this emphasised the need to avoid the demonisation of particular sections of the community. It reinforced the concept of the message ‘communities defeat terrorism’, and it sought to ensure that the community impact issues of police operations and investigations were fully considered and addressed.

In 2003, the police counter-terrorism strategy was aligned to the then ‘secret’ UK government international counter-terrorism strategy known as CONTEST. Although CONTEST was made publicly available in 2006, the police service had been aligned to the strategy for the previous three years. In 2009 the government published an updated version of CONTEST, retaining the four broad mission areas, or ‘4 Ps’ as they have become known: Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare.

The Value of Inter-Agency Co-operation

The UK, unlike many other countries, can proudly boast of an excellent relationship between the domestic intelligence agency, the Security Service (MI5), and the police service. The relationship between MI5 and the CT Command, in particular, is admirable. It is based on mutual trust and an understanding of the roles of intelligence collection and law enforcement. There remains, however, the potential for a conflict in mission aims and objectives. Indeed, in relatively recent history, the relationship was not as it is today and there were examples of failures in communication and co-ordination. However, the willingness of senior officers in MI5 to share sensitive intelligence with police colleagues at the earliest possible stage, combined with senior police officers’ appreciation of the need to protect the source, intelligence-gathering techniques and MI5’s knowledge, ensures that every opportunity is exploited to protect the public by preventing terrorists from carrying out attacks.

A close working partnership between law enforcement and intelligence agencies is crucial to the efficient and effective management of intelligence into usable and useful evidence. A safe and secure working relationship, founded on mutual understanding of the different organisational needs and concerns, is crucial to this partnership. The absence of this understanding provides opportunities for misunderstanding, rivalry and, at worst, enmity. The establishment of a multi-agency unit, staffed by experienced intelligence officers and police officers with an overarching knowledge of the roles and responsibilities of their parent organisations, engenders an atmosphere of confidence, trust and visibility that would otherwise be absent. The UK centre of excellence in this area is the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC). The role of JTAC is to provide expert analysis of intelligence, from whatever source, and to produce threat assessments based on such analysis. From JTAC’s inception, the police service has always been well represented.

The CT Command, in partnership with other agencies and bodies, undertakes financial investigations to interdict the flow of funds to terrorist organisations. This ranges from the examination of ‘disclosures’ made by financial institutions of potentially suspicious financial transactions, to the investigation of low-level criminal frauds, the proceeds of which may be used to fund terrorism. Post-event financial investigations are crucial to the collection of evidence that may be used to identify and convict active terrorists. Research is undertaken into how terrorists operate, to identify their vulnerabilities and exploitable weaknesses. The intention, within the CT Command, is to identify opportunities to develop national policing operations designed to make the UK a hostile environment for terrorists. Examples of such activity include: the identification of hostile terrorist surveillance; the identification of the crime/terror nexus; and the identification of terrorists’ exploitation of dual-use materials and technology, among others.

The Never-Ending Story

The police response to the threat from terrorism has evolved into a dynamic and resilient strategy that is, above all, realistic in what it seeks to achieve. It is acknowledged that not all terrorist attacks can be prevented. The wise and considered use of counter-terrorist legislation provides the police with the opportunity to interdict terrorist activity at the earliest possible stage. The challenge is to prevent terrorist activity whilst collecting sufficient usable evidence to ensure a successful prosecution.

This is a ‘never-ending’ story. As terrorists continue to develop and find more novel means of undertaking their deadly activities, the police service will continue to refine its response. ‘If we are to succeed, our efforts must be as tireless, innovative and dynamic as those of our opponents.’[5]

Keith Weston
Senior Research Fellow
Cranfield University



[2] At the time of writing the MPS are creating a new ‘Protect’ Command with the designation SO16, which will comprise, inter alia, Specialist Search Teams, Counter Terrorist Security Advisors (CTSAs), and Security Coordinators (SECCOs).



[5] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 295.

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