Why can’t Theresa May get it right on counter-terrorism?

Why can’t Theresa May get it right on counter-terrorism?

Following a string of deadly terrorist attacks, Prime Minister Theresa May is pressed to formulate a coherent counter-terrorist policy aimed at preventing future violent acts while preserving civil liberties.

An independent watchdog slammed Prime Minister Theresa May’s latest move on counterterrorism in early July, comparing her plans to fine tech companies for failing to delete extremist content to those of a Chinese dictator. Max Hill, QC, warned such a move could force companies like Google and Facebook “offside” rather than encouraging more collaboration – making it even more difficult to track down dangerous material online.

Tensions regarding counter-terrorism policies

This is only the most recent counterterrorism proposal that has come under fire. Critics have slammed May’s latest four-part counter-extremism plan, announced after the London Bridge attacks, for doubling down on the same failed policies of surveillance, distrust, and infringements on basic rights. The package included measures to increase regulation of cyberspace and enact stricter punishments for terrorism-linked offenses, among others. But instead of further entrenching ineffective policies, the government needs to take a hard look at what’s worked – and what hasn’t – in order to stop the next attack.

Such a re-evaluation should start with the legal component of the government’s counterterrorism strategy, known as “Contest”. Out of the four strands of Contest – Pursue, Prevent, Prepare, and Protect – none is more controversial nor in more need of a revamp than Prevent. In theory, it aims to encourage police officers and other groups to build relationships with vulnerable communities and requires religious leaders, teachers, doctors, and others to refer suspicions of suspected radicalisation to a local Prevent office. In practice, however, instead of helping impede radicalisation, it has only deprived citizens of basic rights and created a climate of fear.

A need for reforms

According to a major new study of Muslim participation in public life, published by a commission chaired by former Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve, the government needs to seriously review the counterproductive programme if it is to have any hopes of fixing its “broken relationship” with the Muslim community. Otherwise, Grieve asserted, there is a severe risk of a “downward spiral of mutual suspicion and incomprehension.” The study comes on top of last month’s report by the UN Human Rights Council on the UK, which singled out the Prevent programme, among others, for undermining basic rights such as freedom of assembly.

On top of bungling the legal components of the fight against terrorism, the government has allowed itself to be distracted by efforts to win in Brexit negotiations – to the detriment of arguably more important issues, such as preserving intelligence sharing and cooperation with Europe. As divorce proceedings got underway last month, security experts raised alarms that tensions between the UK and Europe could jeopardise security collaboration. Senior figures said it would be crucial for the UK to continue fully participating in EU security and intelligence cooperation, citing fears that a hard Brexit could leave British security officers with inferior access to critical European databases and other tools.

Intelligence sharing: A key aspect of counter-terrorism

Making a few compromises in favour of continuing intelligence cooperation would only mean living up to Theresa May’s own words. Before last year’s referendum, then-Home Secretary (and Remainer) May listed several key benefits of Britain’s membership in the EU, including the European Arrest Warrant and the EU Passenger Name Record directive, without which, she said, “Britain would be less safe.”

To be fair, while May has let her commitment to intelligence cooperation with key allies fall by the wayside, she has at least made a few steps in the right direction – especially by engaging with Middle Eastern partners on security matters. Of course, the motivations are primarily economic: Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries like Saudi Arabia are important trade partners and investors, with UK-GCC trade worth £30 billion annually – and they’re set to become even more so post-Brexit. This is especially true for Riyadh, already London’s most significant economic ally in the region and eager to secure foreign investment as part of its large-scale economic diversification plan.

May became the first UK prime minister to attend the annual GCC summit in Bahrain last December and followed up with a visit to Saudi Arabia in April, using both opportunities to push for trade and investment agreements between the UK and the bloc. That outreach, though, also contains a strong security dimension. In Bahrain, for example, May announced plans to invest more than £3 billion in defence spending in the region as well as millions of pounds in spending to strengthen security and screening measures at regional airports.  Both sides also promised to bolster their defence cooperation, including efforts to combat Islamic state, while pursuing a strategic partnership in maritime security and cyber-security.

Restructuring security forces

Such partnerships are all well and good, but to have any hope of stopping the inevitable next attempt at an attack, the government needs to seriously revisit its domestic and regional anti-extremism strategies. More than anything, in addition to reviewing the Prevent programme and renewing a commitment to intelligence cooperation with Brussels, May needs to rethink austerity measures that have left the police forces stretched thin. After May became home secretary in 2010, she cut police budgets by 18%, and their numbers have fallen by 21,500 since then. Not surprisingly, according to Britain’s former counterterrorism chief, among others, such austerity measures had severely harmed neighbourhood policing and community intelligence efforts.

Between May’s announcement of a new counterterrorism package in early June, and her latest efforts to corral tech companies into anti-extremism efforts, she has had to undergo two difficult tests – the Finsbury Park attack and the fire at Grenfell Tower – that have caused her to tone down some of her harsh rhetoric. As a result, the public has started to confound her austerity policies with concerns over public safety. If May finally revisits some of the most dysfunctional aspects of the government’s anti-extremism policies, including the cuts in police funding, there might be an unexpected silver lining to what has otherwise been a tragic few months for Britain.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Klisman Murati

Klisman Murati is the former President of the International Public Policy Review and has a focus on regional issues in the Balkans, Sino-US-Russia relations, MENA, Sub-Saharan Africa. And subject specific topics such as: corruption, political economy of global energy policy, nuclear weapons, NATO, terrorism & strategy and outer space warfare and policy. Murati holds an MSc in Security Studies from the University College London and an alumni of the Transparency International anti-corruption studies program.