UK Hardening Counter Terrorism Apparatus, a Year After London Bridge Attack
LONDON—Intelligence on potential extremists will be passed to teachers, social workers, and council staff as part of a hardening of counterterrorism legislation in the UK.
The announcement comes one year after an attack by “homegrown” Islamic extremists who mowed down pedestrians on London Bridge and stabbed Saturday-night diners, killing eight in total on June 3, 2017.
One of the attackers had been previously filmed in a public documentary praying to an ISIS flag, but had been dropped from an MI5 watchlist. It was the third attack in nine weeks, with perpetrators of all three attacks being “homegrown extremists” previously known to security services, prompting a strategic review.
That new strategy was unveiled by Interior Minister Sajid Javid on June 5. It includes beefed-up sentences, including a maximum of 15 years for watching jihadist propaganda, new powers of detention, and 2,000 more counterterrorism agents.
Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Center for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, said the most eye-catching measure is a plan to declassify information on potential extremists to share with local teachers, council workers, and police.
“The principle of sharing is not new. What’s new is extending it onto a wider group,” Glees said.
He added, “I think that this is unprecedented if it goes ahead, because it is the passing of secret information, derived largely from human sources, to people who haven’t necessarily been cleared to use it.”
“I think the civil rights groups will be anxious about this once they’ve digested it.”
MI5 has a list of over 20,000 potential terrorist extremists.
Under the pilot scheme, MI5 would pass “key” biographical data on selected individuals to neighborhood police, councils, and the charity commission in a few test areas.
Another key measure is a push to work more closely with businesses such as car rental companies, phone companies, and online retail outlets to prevent a “safe space” for extremists.
Will Geddes is a counterterrorism expert and managing direct of security consultants International Corporate Protection. “Online shops like Amazon do have a very important contribution to make,” he said.
Geddes points to an investigation that found that all of the component parts of the (failed) Parson’s Green bomb in London could be purchased on Amazon.
“You know where it says, ‘Other customers have also bought?’ That just fills in all the blanks that you hadn’t thought of,” he said.
Geddes said the government cannot currently compel them, but is trying to persuade companies to do more to go beyond self-policing and actively flag potential terrorist activity.
Geddes said Javid is right to highlight that the planning cycle of terrorists is completely different from in the past. “These days, they can do it simply by grabbing a knife and a car, mow down some pedestrians, jump out, and start stabbing people before being taken out. That is so much harder for the authorities to intercept,” he said.
Geddes said that in parallel to the government’s broadbrush strategic adjustments, security services have been adjusting their tactics and approach since the attacks in 2017.
The biggest threat remains from Islamist terrorism, according to Javid.
“Over the past five years, our law enforcement and intelligence agencies have foiled as many as 25 Islamist-linked plots,” he said. “Our security and intelligence agencies are, right now, handling over 500 live operations, they have 3,000 ‘subjects of interest.’
“And there are a further 20,000 people who have previously been investigated, so they may still pose a threat.”
The interior minister threw his weight behind the controversial “Prevent Program” that, from 2015, compelled teachers, doctors, and other frontline service personnel to refer those identified as at risk of extremism.
Geddes agrees that Prevent needs propping up. “A good proportion, if not the vast majority, of plots are foiled from intelligence provided by the general public,” he said.