Changes in Contest

AP Photo/Peter Morrison
By Arthur Hayes

Pauline Neville-Jones, Security Minister in the British coalition government, gave a speech on 28 February 2011, in which she discussed the future of the Government’s counter-terrorist strategy, known as Contest. She affirmed that the main driver behind Contest remains the assurance of public safety while protecting human rights, and a commitment to “restore public confidence in counter-terrorism powers” by reducing the length of pre-charge detention and the abolition of  control orders, among other measures. In defining the threat facing the UK, she referred to the potency of international terrorism and the danger faced from those who are influenced by the Al Qaeda narrative to use violence. This is what the British National Security Council (B-NSC) now calls the Tier I threat. 

Interestingly, neither she nor the B-NSC place the threat to the UK from dissident Irish Republicans in the Tier I category, despite the fact that there were 94 incidents in Northern Ireland in 2010 involving some form of explosive device. The dissident threat level is currently assessed as “Severe” by the UK’s Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre and is deemed sufficiently serious for the Government to grant the Police Service of Northern Ireland an extra GBP£245 million in funding. 

It has to be asked that if the 94 explosive devices dealt with by the police in Northern Ireland in 2010 linked to the dissidents had been dealt with in the home counties, would the Al Qaeda threat have retained its prominence? Does the UK Government regard the province of Northern Ireland as a less integral part of the UK than, say, Oxford or Tonbridge Wells? If Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists had managed to construct and deploy over 90 explosive devices in one year, the social and political consequences could have been wide reaching and immensely difficult to control at government level.     

The growing use of communication platforms such as Skype, and the availability of free downloadable computer encryption programmes on the internet by terrorist suspects, was also highlighted by Neville-Jones, who stressed the need to safeguard access to communications data. One of the reasons law enforcement agencies often gave for supporting prolonged periods of pre-charge detention was  the massive quantities of data that are routinely seized during counter-terrorism operations. These data need to be accessed, analysed and cross referenced across numerous departments, organisations and, increasingly, transnational databases before their true evidential validity can be seen. 

Given that pre-charge detention limits have now been reduced, how will this impact ongoing counter-terrorism investigations? By maintaining the ability to access data pre-arrest during the investigation stage, law enforcement agencies will be better able to focus on the gravest and most imminent threats and act accordingly.

Given that necessary and proportional scrutiny of all police and security service executive action is a constituent part of living in a democracy, any deterioration in the state’s capacity to lawfully obtain electronic data could conceivably result in catastrophe.  

Government thinking behind attempts to stop people becoming terrorists, especially those vulnerable or open to being exploited and radicalised by the Al Qaeda global narrative, also featured in Neville-Jones’s speech. The most fascinating, and perhaps most significant, change that she announced is that counter-terrorism money will no longer be used to “promote integration”. 

She announced that, instead, the Department for Communities and Local Government will lay out a new strategy for integration in the future. This perhaps echoes the Prime Minister’s sentiments, which he laid out in his recent Munich speech when he identified segregation and separation as the key issues behind the threat of Islamic extremism. The government will possibly move away from what the Prime Minister called the “passive tolerance of recent years” and to staunchly advocate “muscular liberalism instead”. 

Neville-Jones emphasised that the Government does not wish to stigmatise entire communities and the intention is to “focus upon countering terrorist ideology by empowering communities with the theological and technological expertise necessary to challenge terrorist ideology”. It seems that one group, however, are to be excluded because the government will no longer work with those holding extreme views, even if they are not advocating violence. This may refer to the use of Salafi Muslims by UK law enforcement agencies to critique the theological validity of the Al Qaeda narrative and to help de-radicalise those deemed as Muslim extremists. 

This is supported and advocated by, amongst others, Dr Robert Lambert, who founded the Muslim Contact Unit during his time in the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch and Counter-Terrorism Command, prior to becoming an academic at Exeter University. Lambert staunchly supports the idea that Salafi spiritual leaders have a credible and effective place in discrediting Al Qaeda because the Salafis believe that Al Qaeda has hijacked and distorted true Islam. However, many Salafis hold controversial views on topics like homosexuality, which many people may not agree with. 

The desire to build what Neville-Jones called “a more integrated and cohesive society” requires, she said, “promoting common values and challenging the views which undermine them”; even when this means excluding those who have been successful in helping to prevent violence and, resultantly, in protecting the public. Rather than admitting that one of the most effective allies in countering the misuse of radical Islam to justify terrorist violence are those whom some regard as effectively outside the acceptable pale of contemporary British society, the government, it seems, prefers to banish them until they acknowledge the error of their ways. 


Arthur Hayes is a Senior Counter-Terrorism Officer with over 20 years’ experience. He has taken part in major counter-terrorism operations and intelligence gathering against a diverse range of targets, including Irish Republicans, Middle Eastern and domestic Islamic extremists.  


18 March 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Peter Morrison


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