The Dynamic Trajectory of Counter Terrorism

Uniformed soldiers with masks and machine guns is the image for most when we think about fighting terrorism, writes PerpetuityARC Training’s Richard Pendry MLitt, FdA, MSyI

In reality, counter-terrorism has a softer approach when it comes to tackling political violence. The UK has a long history of being proactive in shaping and redefining its strategies to combat terrorism. In fact, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland to the era-defining events of 9/11 and beyond, the UK’s active approach to counter-terrorism has evolved to address diverse and ever-changing threats.

The journey from historical struggles to modern complexities reveals a nation committed to safeguarding citizens and forging resilient strategies. In this exploration, we delve into the multifaceted tapestry of counter-terrorism in the UK, tracing its evolution through pivotal moments and examining the challenges and innovations that have emerged along the way.

Pre-9/11 and the Troubles

Before the seismic shock of 11 September 2001, and the subsequent global realignment of counter-terrorism efforts, the UK faced the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This was an era marked by a protracted conflict fuelled by nationalist and sectarian tensions, largely characterised by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries. The nature of terrorism during this period was predominantly domestic, with a focus on territorial and ideological disputes. The Security Services’ response played a crucial role in containing this, as authorities grappled with the intricacies of quelling the conflict.

Although the Troubles resulted in over 3,500 deaths, the IRA focused on direct attacks. For example, the attacks in London at the Baltic Exchange and Bishopsgate were preceded by the codeword ‘Kerry Gold’, sent to the press so that the area could be evacuated. In short, they wanted a lot of people watching, but not many dead. But, avoiding collateral damage was far removed for the groups that were to come.

The introduction of CONTEST

The devastating bombings that rocked London on 7 July 2005 – often referred to as 7/7 – triggered a huge shift in the UK’s counter terrorism paradigm. These homegrown attacks, carried out by British citizens with extremist affiliations, shattered the assumption that New Terrorism was solely a foreign import. The need for a comprehensive, adaptive strategy became glaringly evident, and thus, the CONTEST framework was born.

CONTEST, an acronym for “Protect, Prepare, Prevent and Pursue,” emerged as a multifaceted approach that transcended traditional law enforcement measures. It recognised the intricate interplay of security, prevention and community engagement as essential components in tackling the diverse threat of terrorism. A notable departure from previous strategies, CONTEST marked a commitment to early intervention and proactive measures aimed at preventing radicalisation, reducing the risk to the UK and its interests overseas from terrorism.

Despite its intentions, CONTEST’s Prevent pillar has encountered its share of complexities and criticisms, particularly concerning its engagement, with some considering it a toxic brand. The objective of Prevent is to identify and deter individuals vulnerable to radicalisation, offering them support and counselling to divert them from extremist ideologies. However, concerns have emerged that Prevent disproportionately targets some communities, thus inadvertently fostering feelings of alienation and mistrust.

It is argued that the Irish community was also regarded with suspicion during the Troubles and subject to disproportionate targeting; I can indirectly attest to this. I bought a car while in the army serving in Northern Ireland and, as such, it had a NI number plate. Everywhere I went in mainland UK, I was stopped by the police.

Ultimately, although it is accepted that there is an increase towards Extreme Right Wing Terrorism (XRWT), we must also acknowledge that there is a broad

range of ideologies and narratives which draw people into supporting or committing acts of terrorism. Our focus should not be on one particular group or category of people, but instead on clear detection and prevention methods utilised at critical moments in the terrorism phase targeting individuals vulnerable to radicalisation.

Shifting landscapes: What are the emerging threats?

I started my study into terrorism at University of St Andrews in 2012. My Master’s was delivered by distance learning via unreliable internet connections over five years while I worked in Afghanistan and Africa. I remember my professor speaking of cyber terrorism but was not able to give any examples. When it came to Module Four, the elective module, I chose to study Suicide T


It made sense to me as I had studied Arabic in Damascus and was developing mitigation strategies for terror attacks for the UN and other clients in hostile environments. A fellow student opted for XRWT, but like cyber terrorism, back then, limited was happening. There is a theory that terrorism occurs in distinct phases over one to two generations, each characterised by specific motivations: Ideologies, tactics and historical contexts. It’s called the ‘Wave Theory’ and has been popularised by David Rapoport. Rapoport identifies the four phases as:

  1. Anarchistic Wave – late 19th and early 20th centuries
  2. Anti-Colonial Wave – mid 20th century
  3. New Left Wave – 1960s and 1970s
  4. Religious Wave – late 20th century to the present day

But, what could be the next wave? As the global dynamics of extremism continue to morph, the UK faces two salient emergent threats: Far-right extremism and, in my opinion, eco terrorism. Far right extremism is already here. Driven by virulent ideologies and often fanned by online platforms, this menace thrives on exploiting vulnerabilities within society. The digital realm has become a breeding ground for toxic ideologies.

But what of eco terrorism? The vast majority of activists advocate for peaceful methods to raise awareness about environmental issues. But, there is a growing concern that a small subset of activists might resort to more direct action in the form of sabotage, vandalism, property damage and even violence against individuals. Eco terrorism has drawn attention due to a few high profile cases and incidents, but what of the likes of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion in the future?

Martyn’s Law

No article about CT would be complete without a reference to Martyn’s Law, the new legislation designed to keep people safe and scale up preparedness for, and protection from, terrorist attacks. I applaud the hard work of Figen Murray, whose son, Martyn Hett, was one of the 22 fatalities during the Manchester Arena bombing of 2017; Figen has worked tirelessly to push the bill to Royal Assent.

I am also confident that it will enhance public safety, reduce vulnerabilities, create public awareness and act as a deterrent. However, we must acknowledge that it is not a silver bullet. We have to understand where it fits within The Terrorist Attack Cycle, which is recognised as having five phases: Target Selection; Planning; Hostile Surveillance; Deployment and the attack.

The expectation is that Martyn’s Law will be able to deter a target from being selected through hard targeting and then be able to identify hostile surveillance through heightened alertness. But, like other types of crime prevention, it does not stop the act from occurring, it displaces it. If the attackers are intent on carrying out the attack they will select a softer target – and we must also acknowledge that if an attack is properly planned and once it has moved past the deployment phase, it is very likely to succeed. In which case, all we are able to do is manage the response.

Original article published in International Security Journal here.

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