Deconstructing CONTEST: An analysis of the UK’s plan to combat terror

Image: Tony Hisgett / Flickr

On 14th August, during morning rush hour in central London, a car crashed through several pedestrians and cyclists. The car subsequently swerved onto the access ramp for the Houses of Parliament, before being immobilised by the security barriers. Within moments, heavily armed specialist firearms officers were on scene, and the car’s driver was detained.

The investigation has been taken over by the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism command. As the story continues to dominate national headlines, we analyse the efficacy of the UK’s current counter-terrorism strategy, laid out earlier this year.

On 4th June 2018, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid published the United Kingdom’s updated counter-terrorism strategy, known as CONTEST. The updated document was the result of an intensive cross-government review of counter-terrorism, following the five successful attacks in mainland Britain that occurred in 2017.

CONTEST, first published in 2003, is the United Kingdom’s overarching state-level counter-terrorism strategy. Broadly speaking, it is divided into four streams:

  • PREVENT: The identification and prevention of radicalisation.
  • PROTECT: Hardening critical infrastructure.
  • PURSUE: The investigation and detention of hostile actors before they can act against national security.
  • PREPARE: Improving UK-wide readiness to respond to a terrorist incident.

CONTEST paints a bleak picture of the current terrorism threat facing the United Kingdom. Security Service (MI5) officers are currently conducting around 500 active operations, with over 3,000 subjects of interest. Over the past five years up to 25 Islamist terrorist plots have been neutralised. Meanwhile, extremist right-wing terrorism is becoming an increasingly central security concern, as demonstrated by the 2017 Finsbury Park attack targeting Muslim worshippers.

The recognition that changes are required within UK counter-terrorism thinking is laudable. However, there are several issues inherent within the proposals set out in CONTEST.

Telecommunications

CONTEST sets out an obligation of telecommunication companies to provide back-doors to encrypted services in the name of national security. Messaging services, CONTEST claims, are enabling terrorist activity by refusing or being unable to effectively police their own users. As smartphones are now ubiquitous, even the most rudimentary militant cell has the capability to communicate in relative security.

However, although this makes operational sense for law enforcement agencies, the strategy underestimates the importance of encryption to telecommunications companies, and overstates the ability of the UK government to take coercive action. The report specifically flags Telegram, for example, as an example of a business that has not complied with previous counter-terrorism requirements. However, Telegram executives have repeatedly stated they regard the encryption and privacy features of their app as one of its key selling points, and will fiercely resist any attempts at undermining their own encryption. Iran and Russia have gone so far as to ban the app, suggesting that it will be almost impossible for the UK to secure backdoor access to to all messaging platforms.

Brexit

CONTEST is notable in its declaration that security agreements will be maintained with the European Union, despite the 2016 referendum decision for the UK to leave the transnational group. At the time of writing, EU negotiators have said that the UK will be excluded from various intelligence-sharing and security cooperation platforms, including the European Arrest Warrant, the European Defence Agency, and Europol.

Despite the UK’s sophisticated security and intelligence apparatus, it appears likely that jurisdictional issues related to London’s rejection of the European Court of Justice will render maintained membership of European Union security agencies unfeasible. The new strategy recognises this, and discusses deepening cooperation with Five Eyes (the intelligence-sharing group of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the United States).However; this will be insufficient to compensate for the loss of access to intelligence from neighbouring countries.

Multi-agency approach

A key development in the 2018 update of CONTEST is the proposed adoption of a multi-agency approach, whereby the intelligence community shares previously highly classified information with local agencies, such as councils. This novel approach would involve the declassification of sensitive data, including biographical information.

This approach, while potentially beneficial in preventing threat actors from ‘falling through the gaps’ of the security bureaucracy, contains a number of significant risks. First, the declassification and dissemination of sensitive data markedly increases the risk of data breaches or deliberate leaks to the media. Given the proposals could include sharing the information of individuals who are not being actively investigated (known as closed cases), this could put innocent people at risk of vigilante violence, discrimination in the workplace, and have a chilling effect on counter-terrorism research in a commercial and academic contest.

CONCLUSION

As the police investigation outside Parliament Square continues, it is clear that terrorism is still one of the overriding concerns of the British security forces. In this environment, developments of CONTEST, given the events of 2017, are welcome. However, without appropriate recognition of the challenges besetting British counter-terrorism, any genuine reform will be at best, piece meal.


Written by James Pothecary, Regional Security Coordinator – Counter-Terrorism at Healix International.

Healix International recognises the risk political violence poses to facilities and personnel across the world, from the Algerian desert to central London. That is why our Global Security Operations Centre (GSOC) has established a counter-terrorism desk, to provide specialist intelligence and consultancy services to clients. For more information, contact us at GSOC@healix.com.

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