When the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, spoke to the press this week about the terrorist threat facing the UK, he was bleak in his assessment: “We’ve seen a dramatic upshift in threat this year. It’s at the highest tempo I’ve seen in my 34-year career.” An estimated 20 attacks have been stopped in the UK over the last four years – but this year five have got through. Most of the attackers were known to the police and security services.
“When an attack happens, it may be done by somebody that we know or have known at some point in the past,” Mr Parker said, “Were that not so, it would mean that we were looking in the completely the wrong place.”
When things go wrong, it may be of small comfort to the public that the security services have been looking in the right place, but misjudged the nature of the threat. The ringleader of the London Bridge attack – in which eight people died – was a man called Khuram Butt, who had already appeared in a Channel 4 documentary called The Jihadis Next Door to publicise his IS sympathies. Frank Gardner, the BBC security correspondent, no doubt spoke for many when he asked: “What’s the point of surveillance, if someone can do that?”
Mr Parker’s answer should give us pause for thought. “One of the main challenges we’ve got, is that we only ever have fragments of information. And we have to try to assemble a picture of what might happen based on those fragments.” He went on to compare information to: “Pinpricks of light in an otherwise dark canvas.” The urgent question for MI5 now, surely, has to be: “How do we illuminate the canvas?”
It is not an impossible task. It has been done before, and it can be done again. Every counter-terrorism force has its successes and failures, though some have more successes than others. The intelligence-gathering work on the IRA by RUC Special Branch eventually brought the IRA to the negotiating table.
Right now, there are an estimated 3,000 terror suspects in the UK. That may sound an overwhelming number – but, in broad terms, during the Troubles there were a dozen terror groups comprising 1,500 activists and something similar for their political wings, and supporters who supplied safe houses and suchlike accounted for another 3,000. Around 6,000 terrorist suspects were on a list at any one time.
In order to tackle a new wave of Islamist terrorism, the UK must change its current approach. Much of my career, as a long-time RUC Special Branch officer, was spent in anticipating and frustrating terrorist attacks. I believe that half of the recent attacks could have been prevented by more police officers on the beat, a small number of highly trained cops in intelligence, a 75 per cent cut in bureaucracy, and simpler systems. The approach is flawed, not the people. The state is getting in its own way.
Two interconnected factors are presently feeding terrorism in the UK: chaos in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, and a significant pool of radicalised youth in the UK itself. The latest terrorist incidents in England are in part a product of the West’s failings abroad: a large number of jihadis who seek to carry out attacks in Britain have been inspired, invigorated and in some cases trained in wars overseas.
The UK – with its experience in Northern Ireland – was ideally placed to lead the international community on policing in the killing fields of Helmand and Basra but blew it. The main reason was that Tony Blair promoted a security-free explanation in the Belfast Agreement, and therefore refused to promote the effective RUC model in similar situations across the world.
This was compounded by the EU’s security-free policy that rendered its efforts largely irrelevant and the US having no police model that related to it. At the risk of oversimplifying, it was a left/right split that created separate silos. In one, Europe trained police officers on community policing and in the other, America trained them to fight insurgents. Both approaches have a role to play, but were limited in worth when delivered in isolation and to the exclusion of the other.
Hard and soft edges are required in the same package. An insurgent stronghold cleared by troops is best consolidated afterwards by normal policing. “Normalisation” is the last thing insurgents want. Cops need to be warriors and community workers and everything in between, from teaching children road safety to fending off suicide bombers. Tough policing is smart policing. Before Afghanistan and Iraq, this was the British way. A strong navy and a small expeditionary army supported a single constabulary, locally recruited. It was simple stuff.
The constabulary used was Irish. It was the model created by Sir Robert Peel when he was the Chief Secretary in Ireland in 1812. Peel needed a police force to deal with a tide of outrages. It was a hybrid of Dirty Harry and Dixon of Dock Green. At its heart was intelligence – Special Branch. Such was the success of the intelligence part that, when terrorism first struck England in the 1800s, Irish cops were called upon. The experiences of RUC Special Branch, however, were not called upon in Iraq and Afghanistan: instead there were short-term strategies and an “end of mission” date that informed the Taliban and other jihadist groups when the West would be leaving. The Taliban are brutal, not stupid. They know a long war is unpopular on Capitol Hill, Westminster and Brussels.
I have worked as a security adviser in Iraq, where I recall tribal leaders in Anbar province on the Syrian frontier desperate for the Coalition they supported to remain. These were Sunni Arabs, educated people. They warned that the jihadists would return stronger than ever. They were right. In 2014 the Taliban was re-energised when most US military and NATO forces left.
Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is a success story. Instability spread to other Muslim nations like Syria and Libya. To think of these as distant conflicts is to misunderstand extreme Islamist terrorism in Britain. From the chaos emerged the Islamic State, Europe’s migrant crisis (a big factor in Brexit) and jihadist attacks from Manchester to Mumbai and Barcelona to Boston.
The Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, fought in Libya, and the authorities appear to have had a number of tip-offs about his radicalisation. Khuram Butt, the London Bridge attacker, paraded his views on television. Many such Islamists, without question, will have been partly motivated by wars in Muslim countries.
The question is; have the same failings hindered the police from preventing these at home? In other words, is British policing so intimidated by political correctness and moribund from bureaucracy that it cannot get ahead of the threat?
It has been said that British counter-terrorism needs to be “proactive”. But what is “proactive”? At its best it is pouncing on suspects when they are in possession of a bomb or other means of attack. The tactic was perfected in Ulster. The senior MI5 officer Brooks Richards described it as a “sophisticated method of operation based on good intelligence and surveillance leading to the red-handed capture of active terrorists”.
Good intelligence was gleaned from an informer, an eavesdropping device in a building or an intercepted phone call. The officers who did this could interpret what was happening and prioritise accordingly. Resources were scarce and the most precious were people. There was a 10-day selection to join Special Branch with a 5 per cent pass rate. It took two-years to train a Special Branch detective. It was even longer for a surveillance operator. All of this took time and money.
Proactive policing is an intelligence attack. It’s the tip of the security spear. Everything else is a defensive shield, where terrorist plots are disrupted early. This means that the suspects and damning evidence against them are seldom together. The evidence is therefore less incriminating and the suspects look less guilty. It is indicative of an investigating officer calling the shots. The mindset is to strike early, whereas a Special Branch mindset is more amenable to letting things develop.
The two approaches are different. The Special Branch DNA is counter-terrorism. The criminal investigator’s is ordinary crime, which the National Intelligence Model (NIM) was designed to support. NIM is employed throughout the UK and Europe and is everything that Special Branch is not.
At its height, a terrorist incident happened every 40 minutes in the Troubles. Put another way, from the Manchester attack to the Parsons Green attack there would have been 4,000 terrorist incidents in between. RUC officers often missed the funeral of a murdered colleague because they could not be released from duty. Normal policing of the kind in the rest of the UK did not cope. As the threat and risk increased, so did the reliance on intelligence: as a result, we got very good at it.
Special Branch detectives were on the ground more than in the office. The route from information-gathering to decision-making was more efficient. I believe, for example, that Special Branch processes would have prioritised Butt for attention purely on his Channel 4 contribution and would have been more likely to pick up on Salman Abedi (the Manchester bomber) and the Parsons Green bomber.
I say this because we had intimacy of intelligence at ground level. At the point of entry there was discretion about what made it into the system, which is the benefit of investing in people. The problem with recording all data is that it clogs the system, lends for complicated analysis and makes the priority cases harder to see. I also say this because the Special Branch model is policing without fear, whereas police officers today toil under the threat of litigation and are handicapped by the associate paperwork. Lastly, the RUC was the only police force and Special Branch was the main intelligence agency, followed by MI5 and Military Intelligence. This dramatically reduced the chances of intelligence not being shared. The current setup is more complex.
Yet for a British government that was moving towards a peace deal in Northern Ireland, Special Branch – loathed by the IRA because of its effectiveness – was a problem. Most of what worked in Ulster stayed in Ulster, such was the stigma the “peace process” attached to the force. Others caught on. In the Sunday Times, in 1999, the Irish journalist Eoghan Harris wrote of a courageous RUC and of a few bad apples but that this was unrepresentative of the force. Harris regarded the RUC as restrained, professional and fair.
The “talking to terrorists” line – championed by Blair – promoted the myth that peace had been achieved largely by negotiations. The role of the Special Branch, whose work had compelled the IRA to the negotiating table in the first place, was ignored and discredited. IRA propagandists and the left wing quickly seized upon and amplified this view. To contest this version of events, as did fine Irish writers such as Harris and Ruth Dudley Edwards, was to be vilified as anti-peace.
Cynics might argue that the traducing of the courageous men and women of the RUC was necessary for “the peace process”. Yet there has also been one enormous, continuing disadvantage for the UK itself. The failure to recognise publicly that RUC Special Branch was uniquely effective has meant that its hard-won model was not used in other contexts where they were badly needed. This cost us dearly in both Afghanistan and Iraq: it is now also weakening us at home.
Security was crucial to ending the conflict in Northern Ireland. Yet, bizarrely, Martin McGuinness soon had more say with Tony Blair on what this entailed than a Special Branch commander. The more Tony Blair trotted out his “talking to terrorists” version of the “peace process” the more he reduced Britain’s capacity to counter threats at home and abroad.
There is some cause for optimism in the current situation in the UK. Domestically, the vast majority of the Muslim community support the police. This is a big advantage the RUC never had in the Republican community in Northern Ireland. I sense that the goodwill of the Muslim community has yet to be fully exploited. At times people can be seen openly to partner the police, while at others they cannot.
Yet systems must be set up whereby decent people can give police a nod in the right direction and expect them to deliver. This is how you work with a law-abiding community that is blighted by a few extremists, and assist society as a whole. This is where British policing can do better. “Pinpricks of light” are not enough. We can and must illuminate the canvas.
William Matchett is former RUC Special Branch member and author of "Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA"