Tackling Terrorism in Britain: What are the Threats, Responses, and Challenges Twenty Years After 9/11?

by Steven Greer, Professor of Human Rights, University of Bristol Law School


Twenty years ago the world witnessed the horrific events of 9/11. A great deal has happened on the counterterrorist front since. For one thing, the term ‘war on terror’, which never had any official traction in the UK anyway, has all but disappeared from the serious debate. Nevertheless, the threat of terrorism, and the struggle against it, persist around the globe. The UK is no stranger to either, at home or abroad. In fact, taking various forms and manifesting in several phases, the British experience has spanned at least a century and a half rather than simply the past two decades. Today, three distinct types of domestic terrorism – dissident Irish republican, far right, and particularly jihadi – predominate. A suite of counterterrorist laws and policies has been deployed to address the challenges they present. 

Few systematic attempts have yet been made to take stock or to answer a key question – how should terrorism in Britain be tackled? Taking a bird’s eye view which seeks to transcend technical detail, my recently published book, Tackling Terrorism in Britain: Threats, Responses, and Challenges Twenty Years After 9/11 (Routledge), attempts to do just that. For the benefit of academic and professional readerships, and for the interested lay person, it seeks to describe, explain, and critically to appraise contemporary domestic British counterterrorism, and to challenge some pervasive myths. Chapter 1, Themes and Trends, provides a brief background and overview. Chapters 2 and 3, Global Jihad and Domestic Terrorism consider, respectively, the principal characteristics of current challenges in each of these contexts. Chapters 4-6, Protect and PreparePrevent, and Pursue, review the ‘four Ps’ of CONTEST, the official counterterrorist framework. Chapter 7, Threats, Responses and Challenges, summarises and develops the conclusions reached elsewhere in the text. But since it raises a host of complex questions requiring separate investigation, British counterterrorism abroad is not included. The Northern Irish experience, now a mere shadow of what it once was, is considered, but not in the depth found elsewhere in the extensive specialist literature. Hence the title of this book. 

Of the many observations made in Tackling Terrorism in Britain, three of the most central are as follows. First, there is no ‘solution’ to terrorism in contemporary Britain, in the sense of a policy package waiting to be discovered, which delivers risk-free security. Second, there is no viable alternative to the current official counterterrorist framework, CONTEST, with its four work streams, Prepare, Protect, Prevent, and Pursue. Third, the most vital element in effectively tackling domestic terrorism lies in the cultivation of an active state-society partnership.  

No solution

The reason there is no national solution to domestic terrorism concerns the character of the threat itself. The challenges posed by dissident armed Irish republicanism and the violent far right cannot be ignored. But there can be no doubt that the principal threat, by a very wide margin, is presented by jihadis. Since 9/11, 117 people have been killed in acts of terrorism in the UK. 109 of these were murdered in Britain, 96% at the hands of jihadis who were also responsible for almost 100% of the 1,000 or so total casualties.

It is clear from many sources, not least the testimonies of those involved, that jihadi terrorism is Islamist by nature, not just as some maintain, as a result of Islamophobic social and official attribution. This kind of terrorism, both in Britain and the world over, seeks to establish – including by acts of indiscriminate mass murder – a global Islamic caliphate, governed by a particularly brutal interpretation of Islamic law.

The version of Islam endorsed by the jihadis is, of course, rejected by the vast majority of Muslims in this country and the wider world. But its distinctive combination of grievances, ideology, and mobilization, has three particularly important implications for domestic counterterrorism.

First, jihadis operating in Britain are not motivated primarily or even at all, by a sense of national disadvantage or discrimination, however real this may be for many Muslims. Addressing these problems, though a worthy goal in itself, is therefore, unlikely to affect the threat posed by domestic jihadi terrorists. The principal grievance, as they themselves have repeatedly stated, concerns what they erroneously see as the UK’s anti-Muslim foreign policy.

However, this perception is, at best mistaken, because there is no one-size-fits-all approach by the UK to Muslim majority states, much less one characterised by Islamophobia. In fact, the UK has very diverse relations with Muslim countries around the world. For example, those with Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan are problematic, to say the least. But Turkey and Saudi Arabia are allied with the UK in different ways. Since the myth of the UK’s Islamophobic foreign policy is driven by powerful external forces it is not easy to counter. But it must, nevertheless, be constantly challenged.

The second implication is that there is no obvious national political solution to jihadi terrorism akin to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998. And even if there were, there is no credible domestic political movement with whom negotiations could be conducted in order to deliver it.

Third, integral to the state-society partnership considered further below, Muslim communities in Britain offer potentially the most powerful social resource with which to tackle jihadi terrorism. This is not because they are in any sense ‘to blame’ for it. It is, rather, because Muslims are far better placed than anyone else to challenge the distortion and debasement of their faith which lie at its heart.

No alternative to CONTEST

Two types of critique of the CONTEST framework can be distinguished: rejectionism and reformism.

Rejectionism is simply untenable because no one has yet made an adequately articulated case that CONTEST should be abandoned in its entirety. And there is, anyway, no sign of a comprehensive alternative. Instead, the Prevent programme is the only element which some suggest should be scrapped because, they claim, it is based upon Islamophobia, racism and the systematic violation of human rights. Other allegedly toxic effects include the chilling of academic and public debate.

But, for several reasons, these accusations rest on very shaky ground. First, it has yet to be explained how Prevent can be inherently Islamophobic and racist, when it is based on models developed by several, predominantly non-white, Muslim countries. It is also difficult to see how it can be systematically in violation of human rights in practice when a referral is no more objectionable than a complaint to the police about a noisy late-night party, and when a refusal to cooperate carries no penalty. Finally, it is unclear how the programme can have the toxic effects alleged when scientific polling shows that very few people have even heard of it. Furthermore, when it is explained to them, the overwhelming majority including of Muslims, immediately appreciate the justifications.

Two types of reformist critique of CONTEST can be distinguished. One, ‘liberalization’, advocates improving accountability, transparency etc, while the other, ‘securitization’, involves strengthening its punitive elements. The debate between these two alternatives is not only where the quest for appropriate public policy lies; it brings us to the final observation – the need to cultivate an active state-society partnership.

An active state-society partnership

The principal responsibility of the state in tackling domestic terrorism is to build public resilience on the clear understanding that there is no perfect security solution. And it must do so by managing a double risk. On the one hand, the most effective means for tackling terrorism itself need to be found. But in choosing between, and implementing them, it is also vital to ensure their legitimacy in terms of democracy, human rights, the rule of law and the maintenance of liberal cosmopolitanism.

For its part, society should adhere to the following obligations. First, there must be no equivocation about the utter unacceptability of each and every kind of terrorism. Second, the debate about how to respond to it should not be constructed in terms of the kind of crude antagonisms favoured by some. These include, for example, ‘the state versus the Muslims’, and ‘security versus liberty’, where the latter is assumed to be on the losing side. Third, the broad contours of CONTEST, and all four Ps, should be universally accepted, unless and until a comprehensive alternative can be specified. Finally, this should involve active, constructive, engagement with the details. But this must be grounded in reliable information and scientifically valid data, rather than upon denunciation derived from dogma and prejudice.

An example relating to Prevent provides an illustration. As already indicated, the case for scrapping Prevent rests, at best, upon misunderstanding its true character and how it operates in practice. But there is, nevertheless, a valid debate to be had about how it might be liberalised or securitised. It can be argued that liberalisation – by, for example, improving transparency – would not only be welcome in its own right; it would strengthen the programme. In particular, further light needs to be shed upon the fact that, in 2019-2020, 51% of referrals were for those with a ‘mixed, unclear or unstable’ ideology, the remainder split almost equally between Islamist and far right concerns.

But it may well be counterproductive to ‘securitise’ Prevent by making refusal to cooperate with it, an offence, as some have suggested. For one thing, this would play into the hands of the rejectionists. And for another, de-radicalisation is only likely to be effective when it is voluntary, or when it is a condition of post-custodial release on licence, adequately enforced.

You may also want take a look at the official book launch which was held on the 11 of November 2021.

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