Skip to content

Fighting Terrorism in the U.K.

“I don’t have any confidence in the Metropolitan Police,” one Muslim youth told officials from London’s law enforcement community at a meeting of young Muslims. The meeting was an outreach effort in the wake of the July 2005 attacks in which four Muslim British citizens killed 52 people by becoming suicide bombers. In a series of community meetings throughout 2005 and 2006, other youths spoke of being angry about being stopped repeatedly by police and treated with suspicion. Many also expressed anger over a June 2006 incident in a London neighborhood called Forest Gate in which, acting on an intelligence tip about a dirty bomb, police raided a Muslim home at 4 a.m., using stun grenades to disorient the inhabitants and accidentally shooting one man. No dirty bomb was found, and the two men arrested were released without being charged.

Muslims were also incensed over the July 22, 2005, Jean Charles de Menezes incident in which the police, investigating attempted suicide bombings that occurred the day before, shot and killed Menezes as he entered the London Tube. Police said that he was a suspected suicide bomber, but Menezes turned out to be an electrician with no connection to terrorists. In November 2007, the police department was found guilty of endangering the public in the Menezes case.

London’s police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, though sympathetic to Muslim concerns, has defended police tactics even when they result in mistakes like the Menezes incident and raids like Forest Gate. He told the Muslim youth at one meeting that it was simply the reality of what the terrorists had forced police to do to keep London safe. “There has to be an acceptance of robust techniques when the threat is very terrible,” he said. But he also acknowledged that police need to find a way to fight terrorism without stigmatizing whole communities.

The emotions voiced during the outreach meetings reveal the depth of anger among Muslims, which could impede intelligence collection or fuel radicalization. At the same time, the botched bomb attacks this summer against London’s club district and Glasgow International Airport show that the threat of terrorism is ever present. It is in this charged atmosphere that the U.K. is struggling to strike a balance between hard and soft tactics in its counterterrorism strategy. Here’s a look at the progress being made, with a special focus on efforts at the community level.


Muslims make up about 3 percent of the U.K. population, according to census figures, and constitute about 8.5 percent of London’s population. It was from this London community that the July 7 bombers arose, three being native-born U.K. citizens who had become “homegrown” radicals. That reality had the potential to irreparably divide the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the U.K., especially in London.

To stop this from happening, the Home Office, which is responsible for protecting Great Britain from crime and terrorism, made community engagement a core plank in its counterterrorism effort. After consulting with Muslim leaders about ways of steering Muslim youth away from violent extremism, the government created the “Preventing Extremism Together” (PET) framework. Three PET programs were singled out in the government’s counterterrorism strategy.

First was the Radical Middle Way Roadshow program in which influential mainstream Muslim scholars took to the road and denounced terrorism as “un-Islamic” while delivering arguments against radical interpretations of Islam that justify terrorism. The roadshows target Muslims ages 18 to 30. As of April 2007, 60,000 people had attended, according to the Department of Communities and Local Government, the government agency responsible for implementing the recommendations of the PET. They are ongoing.

The second plank of PET was the creation of Muslim Forums on Extremism and Islamophobia. Six regional forums were initially created so that members of the local Muslim community, local law enforcement, and public service agencies could speak freely about the best ways to combat extremism and Islamophobia in their areas, generating mutual trust and goodwill in the process.

According to the April 2007 report “Preventing Violent Extremism,” which lays out this leg of the government’s counterterrorism strategy, the government is funding local authorities to create at least 40 local forums by April 2008.

The final component for tackling extremism was the establishment of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB). Led by the Muslim community, the board was created to be a resource of support and guidance for Britain’s 1,600 mosques and their imams.

A key responsibility of MINAB will be the accreditation of imams. The goal is to create a new generation of mainstream, English-speaking religious leaders, comfortable with Britain’s legal and political systems, who will enter hotbeds of radicalization, such as prisons and universities.

As of December, MINAB had yet to agree on a constitution laying out its principles and mission, but a government source says the government is pushing it to complete the constitution in the next few months.

The U.K. has also passed laws against the incitement and encouragement of terrorism to prevent radical imams from operating in the U.K.

London. Nowhere has community engagement been taken as seriously as in London. The July 7 bombings rekindled among Muslims the same fear they had after 9-11—that the police would see all young Muslim or South Asian men as potential terrorists.

Community leaders felt the new terrorism laws, such as expanded police powers to stop and search without probable cause, would be used disproportionately against Muslims, and lead to Islamophobia and racial profiling, which would fuel radicalization further. London’s Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), the city’s independent police watchdog that scrutinizes London’s Metropolitan Police Service (the Met), recognized the need to try to bridge the growing divide between the area’s Muslims and non-Muslims.

Sources within the MPA told Security Management that if there were to be any hope of cooperation, the Met had to demonstrate to London’s Muslims that they were not the enemy. Cooperation would be a critical component in getting intelligence that could stop future extremist attacks. The question was how to go about establishing those lines of communication and mutual trust.

With that objective in mind, the Met reached out to various Muslim organizations. This dialogue has been enduring, and it has been effective in creating some goodwill among the parties.

Azad Ali, an executive member and former chair of the Muslim Safety Forum, is among the leaders in the Muslim community who have built a working relationship and ongoing liaison with the police. Today, Azad regularly advises the Met on safety and security issues concerning British Muslims. He says that while his organization’s relationship with police is not perfect, the police are more willing than other state agencies to engage Muslim communities.

To better understand how Muslim Londoners were reacting to and handling the events of July 7, the MPA held additional meetings and issued its findings in the report Counterterrorism: The London Debate. Its key finding was that while there was broad-based support for the police’s counterterrorism efforts, many communities distrusted the police. The report offered a series of recommendations on how the Met could forge better community relations with the city’s Muslims.

Recruiting. Chief among the MPA’s recommendations was an effort to bolster relations through better community policing in Muslim areas. To do that, the police redoubled efforts to recruit more Muslim police officers and intelligence agents.

That effort represented a significant break from the past, according to Peter Chalk, a senior analyst at the Rand Corporation. “The representation [in the Met] of certain ethnic or racial groups has not been good,” he says.

So far, young British Muslims have been unenthusiastic about joining the Met or the security and intelligence services. “There is a very long history, very similar to race relations in the U.S., of distrust between ethnic groups and the police,” says Paul Bagguley, Ph.D., of the University of Leeds’ School of Sociology and Social Policy.

Many Muslims feel joining the police force or the intelligence services would constitute collaboration with oppression, according to Professor Paul Wilkinson of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. This feeling extends beyond young Muslim men and women to their elders. “There is a definite reluctance of many Muslim families to see their young people going into the police force,” he says.

This reluctance could be fading, however, as British Muslims become angry at violent minorities within their community, and outraged at being associated with terrorist acts that they argue have no place in their religion. Looking to release that anger constructively, Ali says, he sees more young Muslims showing interest in a law enforcement career.

Meanwhile, the police department’s continued community outreach efforts are helping to dissipate the sense of distrust about law enforcement among Muslim groups, says Ali, because it’s clear that “They are quite genuine and they do really want to be fair and open.”

Police outreach may be viewed as “a fluffy add-on to serious counterterrorism business,” by some security professionals, says an MPA source, but it is really “mission critical” in building trust and confidence. It’s the only way that community members will come forward with intelligence that could stop the next terrorist atrocity, he says. It has “a role to play in stopping bombs, just as detective work does,” he says.

Neighborhood teams. In addition to the periodic outreach through townhall-type meetings, the police have created specific community patrols that they call Safer Neighborhood Teams, which consist of six additional officers deployed to every local council and ward. “The purpose of those officers is not to respond to emergency calls but to link in with the community, both as the eyes and ears on all levels of criminality,” says Lord Toby Harris, the Home Secretary’s Representative to the MPA who oversaw the publication of The London Debate. The hope is that “If those police are there in a supportive way in communities, they are more likely to pick up concerns, even from within the Muslim community,” he says.

Safer Neighborhood Teams take community engagement and policing to its most “extreme end.” Teams only work on those issues deemed a priority by the communities in which they work, building trust, and hopefully intelligence-sharing relationships, as they go.

Terminology. Another police action that has been well received by the Muslim community is the change in terminology used to describe jihadist terrorism. Emotion-laden phrases, such as “Islamic terrorism” and “Islamic terrorists,” which proliferated after 9-11 and the July 7 bombings, alienated and isolated British Muslims. Those terms fueled distrust of police and authority figures.

The Met was the first to understand how damaging this terminology was to community engagement. The agency changed its language accordingly. Terrorists such as the London bombers are now called terrorists or criminals, with the modifiers “Islamic” or “Muslim” left out. Ali says the switch “has been very encouraging and useful.”

It’s also a strategy that has been adopted by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Immediately after the botched terrorist attacks on London’s club district and Glasgow International Airport, Brown ordered his ministers to stop using the phrase “war on terrorism” and to no longer use “Muslim” as an adjective of “terrorism.” This was Brown’s bid to recast jihadists as mere criminals and to try to deny them the legitimacy of being heroic soldiers in a holy Islamic war—the role they have tried to claim for themselves.

Ali, of the Muslim Safety Forum, lauds these changes in language, saying that before that change, the jihadist recruiters could exploit the conflation of terrorism with Islam and convince conflicted young Muslim men that a war on Islam was afoot. They may still try to do that, but at least the government won’t give them the ammunition to make their case, he says.

Perceptions. While community outreach and more diplomatic terminology is being well received by some in the Muslim community, police face an uphill battle, made more difficult by persistent perceptions of bias and prejudice.

Most Muslims in the U.K. come from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—or can trace their family roots back to that region. Some accuse the police of racism. That feeling, whether valid or not, is fueled by the way police have used their expanded authority, specifically with regard to two powers: stop and search, and the right to hold suspects without criminal charges.

Stop and search. Even before 9-11, police had the authority to stop and search persons without probable cause, but after 9-11 critics say that police have used that authority more often against Blacks, Asians, and Middle Easterners—the races and ethnicities most associated with Islam. Muslims complain that the law stigmatizes them as terrorists. “[T]here is this image that if you get stopped under the counterterrorism powers,” the Muslim Safety Forum’s Ali says, “you are in other people’s eyes a terrorist.”

Criminalizing Muslim youth in this manner only serves as a recruitment tool for radicals, critics say. One man complained at a townhall meeting that police harassment provided jihadist recruiters with a perfect pitch: “Well, they stop and search you anyway; they think you’re a criminal anyway; why not join us?”

The criticism is not supported by Met statistics. Of the 22,672 people stopped and searched from September 2005 to September 2006, 16 percent were of Asian descent, while 52 percent were white.

Muslim feelings of discrimination may stem from the aftermath of 9-11. According to a 2004 MPA report, stops and searches of Black and Asian people increased by 30 percent and 41 percent respectively from 2001 to 2002.

While police may not be applying stop and search powers disproportionately to Muslims, the perception that they are doing so is damaging community relations. As a result, the MPA has recommended that police curtail their use of stop and search if they don’t see clear evidence that it is an effective tool in helping to prevent terrorism. But proving or disproving that is no simple matter. As every security professional knows, it’s difficult to prove a negative—to say what prevented something bad, such as a theft or a terrorist attack, from occurring.

The Met’s statistics show that during the same 2005 to 2006 time period, 27 terrorism arrests were made from stop and search incidents. Of the incidents directly related to counterterrorism, there was a 1.2 percent arrest rate compared to an overall arrest rate of 11.8 percent for all other stop-and-search incidents. But the police say that those numbers do not tell the whole story. Their ability to stop and search any person or vehicle helps them to disrupt terrorist activity and is not intended to result in arrest and conviction, they say.

Chief Superindentent Ali Dizaei, a senior Muslim police officer at the Met, disagrees. He argued in Jane’s Police Review that stop and search has harmed counterterrorism efforts by making it less likely that the Muslim community will share intelligence with the local police.

While not willing to abandon the practice, police are attempting to put a more friendly face on stops to blunt the harm they may do to relations, says Harris. To that end, the Met has introduced a new strategy that stresses courtesy and explains to suspects why they have been stopped.

“There is a difference between stopping them because, ‘You look like the sort of person that would plant a bomb,’” Harris says, “and explaining to someone, ‘We’re stopping one in every ten people in this area to lessen the threat of terrorism.’ Most people would be affronted by the first type of approach, whatever their race or religion. Most people feel it’s reasonable if they get the second type of approach.”

Detention. Even more contentious than stop and search authority is the police force’s power to detain a terrorism suspect without charge. Police held the authority to detain suspects for up to 14 days even before 9-11. That authority was expanded to 28 days when Parliament passed the Terrorism Act 2006 in response to the July 7 bombings.

Proponents say that detentions help police gather evidence and intelligence. Aside from civil liberty concerns, critics say that the practice hurts efforts to gather intelligence by making the community hostile to the government’s antiterrorism efforts.

Between 9-11 and the end of 2006, 1,162 people have been detained under suspicion of a terrorism-related offense in the United Kingdom. The longer suspects were held in detention, the more likely they were to be charged with a crime, but that alone does not prove the worth of the longer detention.

The Home Office argues that the 2006 airline plot illustrates the need for a 28-day detention period. Police held 24 men on suspicion of conspiring to blow up two airliners flying from London to the United States. During the investigation, the police seized 200 cell phones and 400 computers. They took 8,000 CDs, DVDs, and computer disks, containing 6,000 gigabytes of data. They searched 70 homes, businesses, and open spaces.

It takes time to sort through that volume of data to find evidence that can serve as the basis for charges. Police officers argue that they would have had to release suspects before they could fully examine all of the materials if it weren’t for the 28-day maximum detention period.

In defending detention, Harris differentiates it from internment without trial—a practice the British used against IRA suspects in Northern Ireland that “acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA,” according to Justice Secretary Jack Straw. Suspects are taken into custody in connection with a specific crime in precharge detention, says Harris. Judicial oversight is constant, and at the end of 28 days, a suspect must either be charged or released. “This is a very different process,” he says.

Yet British Muslims don’t see the distinction, says Ali. As a result, it is alienating many Muslims and causing segments of the community to see the police as an occupation force.

Project Griffin

Police have also reached out to the private security industry to help in community counterterrorism efforts. Project Griffin is a police initiative that trains private security guards in counterterrorism tactics, supplies them with the most current and relevant intelligence, and lays out a role for the private security industry to maintain cordons during a crisis.

Started in 2004 by the City of London Police, the program has spread to other cities throughout the United Kingdom and is about to go national. The program has already been imitated internationally across Australia, in Hong Kong, Singapore, and New York City, where it has been rebranded as the SHIELD program.

Project Griffin has three core elements: awareness days, weekly intelligence briefings provided by police, and cordon support.

Awareness days. The attacks of 9-11 upended the view of terrorism among police in the U.K. They were accustomed to IRA terrorism, which sought to limit civilian casualties. The new international jihadist terrorism used indiscriminate massacre to make its point.

“We had to brief our police officers to ensure that they understood the difference,” says Superintendent Brett Lovegrove, head of counterterrorism for the City of London Police. It was a logical extension of that to turn to “all the security guards in London to make sure they were briefed on the new tactics of international terrorism.”

An already tight relationship between London’s police and security industry led the City of London Police to create awareness days. These one-day training seminars brief private security guards on the history and nature of the international terrorist threat, what tactics to expect, and what their responsibilities will be during a crisis. The Griffin security guards learn about vehicle bombs, person-borne bombs, the structure of a bomb from explosive experts, and how to spot hostile reconnaissance.

Recognizing hostile reconnaissance is key, says Lovegrove, because it “is one of the most visible parts of the terrorist planning process. So if we can identify them at their most visible stages, we are doing a good job protecting ourselves.”

More than 7,000 private security guards have been issued Project Griffin certificates since the program’s creation. This November, e-based learning modules will be provided to refresh Project Griffin graduates in what they learned during their awareness day.

The learning modules are separated into five different lessons: person-borne improvised devises, crime scene management, hostile reconnaissance, suspect package, and suspect vehicle, says Robert Taylor, a training manager for Wilson James, a private security provider. He says the e-based learning modules are “about maintaining the standard and the integrity and the quality of counterterrorism training” for Griffin-trained guards.

Bridge calls. Every Friday evening, members of the City of London Police hold a teleconference with Project Griffin stakeholders called a “bridge call.” During these bridge calls, an up-to-date threat assessment from the police’s Special Branch and the Force Intelligence Bureau is given to both the companies that supply the Griffin guards and the companies that are protected by Griffin guards. Also, specific intelligence is provided on vehicles and people to look out for. This intelligence is then passed down to the Griffin-trained guards.

While the police are responsible for collecting and vetting the intelligence given during a bridge call, private security guards are encouraged to contact the police with any information they come across that could be helpful in producing an accurate threat assessment.

The information provided to police by security guards is funneled to the police’s Special Branch, its intelligence gathering unit, and into the Joint Terrorism and Analysis Centre (JTAC), the United Kingdom’s one-stop-shop for intelligence analysis and threat assessments created in 2003.

Project Griffin’s success, says Taylor, depends absolutely on the working relationship between police and the security industry and on the intelligence that the security industry can gather and get to the British police.

Cordon support. The third element of Project Griffin is cordon support. When something does go horribly wrong, the police tap those Griffin-trained security guards to provide cordon support, or a security perimeter, for a crime scene after the guards have looked after their own people and buildings.

“If an incident occurs and we need a 400-meter cordon around the scene, that’s a lot of people keeping an area safe,” says Lovegrove. Now police have Griffin guards provide the cordon, which releases police officers to perform other specialties, such as take witness statements.

While Griffin-trained personnel did not perform cordon tasks during the July 7 bombings because most of the explosions were underground, they did provide a valuable show of strength to the city of London, says Lovegrove. After the attacks, 6,000 Griffin trained guards, their highly visible Project Griffin jackets on, fanned out across the city as a statement: “Anyone considering further attacks would find it very difficult.”

Results. Project Griffin has shown results. Griffin-trained guards were partly responsible for spotting the car loaded with dynamite that was successfully defused last summer in London’s club district. In addition, the Griffin program has given Griffin-trained guards a newfound sense of pride, which is reverberating throughout the private guard industry.

Lovegrove says he has received calls from guard managers flabbergasted by the change in their guards after receiving Griffin-training. “Their managers would ring my team and say…‘They are coming back into the workplace with their chests puffed out, they’re really concentrating, they really have confidence [that the police are] going to be there when we call.’”

This has led to a higher value placed on Griffin guards in the marketplace. Companies are saying, “If you’re not part of Project Griffin, we don’t want you,” says Lovegrove, which translates into a higher quality and more professional private security guard as well as another link in the nation’s counterterrorism defense.

Despite all these efforts, the risk of terrorism from within has not diminished in the United Kingdom. In July, Prime Minister Brown told the House of Commons that the number of individuals believed to be involved in planning terrorist acts in the U.K. jumped by 400 since October 2006, meaning that the security services are now monitoring 2,000 individuals.

This continued threat shows the difficulties that the British have faced in balancing the desire to reach out to the Muslim community and the need to find the radical elements that may be hiding within. It is the same problem faced by every country that is trying to develop an effective counterterrorism strategy.

Matt Harwood is an assistant editor with Security Management.