September 13, 2021

IntelBrief: What Does the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 Mean for UK Counterterrorism?

(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The 9/11 attacks led to a US geopolitical strategy centered on the “War on Terror” which appears to have ended this year; this approach shaped international and domestic terrorism and counterterrorism in the UK.
  • Islamist terrorism in the UK during this period was motivated by a reaction to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the consequences of a UK policy giving asylum to known extremists.
  • The UK responded with a domestic counterterrorism strategy called CONTEST which has served as a model for other Western counterterrorism strategies.
  • Domestic counterterrorism success did not lead to a reduction in the threat because foreign policy actions created new threat streams.

The future of UK counterterrorism will reflect the way that US, and hence UK, foreign policy has evolved over time. The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks not only marked the end of two decades since those dreadful events, but also the possible end of the much vaunted “War on Terror” started by President George W. Bush in the fall of 2001. The shambolic and haphazard evacuation overseen by the U.S. in Kabul at the end of August symbolized the failure of the approach and the instability associated with the war in Afghanistan. These events further reveal that while terrorism and counterterrorism may be largely domestic in terms of impact, they are mostly geopolitical in their origin. They are known in academic circles as intermestic issues; a combination of international and domestic policy.

The UK was more experienced than most Western countries in counterterrorism due to its imperial past and active campaigns by the Irish Republican Army since the 1970s on its soil. Highly successful televised operations such as the one to end the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege in London showcased the UK’s capability in using special forces in a counterterrorism role. Presumably because UK foreign policy considered that ‘troublemakers’ might have some future utility, several Islamist extremists were given asylum in the 1980s and 1990s, some of whom had served in the US sponsored ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The French coined the term “Londonistan” to describe the dangerous impact of such individuals in the UK who were supporting terrorism in France. As these individuals enjoyed what they called a ‘covenant of security’ because of the asylum provided by the British state, they did not inspire significant terrorist activity on UK soil, even after the 9/11 attacks. It was mainly following the UK’s involvement in what is commonly perceived as an illegal war in Iraq and its substantial civilian casualties that the UK’s extremists began to inspire radicals to conduct terror activity, the worst example of which was the London July 7 bombings in 2005 when 56 people were killed. Mohammed Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the perpetrators, explained in a statement that his actions were in retaliation for the West allegedly perpetuating “atrocities against my people,” linking his attacks to UK foreign policy.

It was largely as a response to such horrific events that the UK developed a sophisticated counterterrorism strategy called CONTEST comprising four pillars: Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare. This comprehensive approach, with its proactive emphasis on prevention, proved to be a market leader with Europe and North America adopting similar models for their domestic strategies. The EU strategy, for example, includes four pillars comprising: Prevent, Protect, Pursue, and Respond. The United Nations Global Counterterrorism Strategy is also reflective of the four-pillar approach.

Prevent involved radical changes such as the UK Police’s Special Branch transforming from a secretive undercover organization to one engaged openly with the community. This led to significant and largely underappreciated successes. In one example, a Special Branch officer who had developed good relationships with Muslim communities in the city of Bristol, received a call from a Muslim citizen regarding Andrew Ibrahim, a new convert, who was acting strangely. The officer, although on vacation at the time, immediately passed on the information to colleagues in the city. When the police raided Ibrahim’s apartment, they found a suicide vest which he was presumably going to detonate at the local shopping mall. Nevertheless, the Prevent element of the strategy also proved controversial, with allegations that it unfairly stigmatized or disproportionately targeted UK’s Muslims. For these and other reasons, subsequent governments revised the strategy so that it now targets all forms of violent extremism and has a wider reach into society with schools, universities and even the health service made responsible for identifying individuals showing signs of radicalization and referring them to Prevent’s ‘Channel’ program for appropriate interventions.

This domestic policy emphasis on counterterrorism has been successful in reducing the number of attacks through prevention, detection and disruption of activities. But it has not been successful in reducing the threat. Instability caused by the Iraq war led in part to the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) which created a new wave of domestic radicalization, foreign terrorist fighters and terror attacks. These factors and the rising number of refugees, many of whom originate from countries where Western forces are involved militarily, has created backlash among far-right extremists, resulting in a few fatal terrorist attacks targeting Muslims and liberal members of the UK Parliament.

The terrorist attack on 9/11 was initiated in response to perceived Western foreign occupation and persecution in Muslim lands. The West’s response was the War on Terror which created new grievances and new opportunities, such as the creation of ungoverned spaces, from which ISIS evolved, as well as a backlash from white supremacist terrorists. This 20th anniversary marks a transition in US foreign policy that will likely lead to a change in its and the UK’s domestic terrorist threat. What that change will look like will depend on the degree to which US foreign policy shifts from being led by geopolitical interests reliant on military confrontation to one that champions international human security through political and economic stability in vulnerable countries. Unless the UK unexpectedly distances itself, it will most likely follow the US foreign policy lead and will enjoy similar outcomes both at home and abroad.

Dr. Afzal Ashraf is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Security at the University of Nottingham. He has served in the UK Armed Forces as a senior officer and has experience of diplomacy within the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office as well as of counter terrorism policy and operations within various UK departments. He has also worked at a security Think Tank and has been an Academic Advisor to NATO’s Centre of Excellence for Defence Against Terrorism