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AC Mark Rowley discusses the threat of terrorism

Blog post   •   Aug 11, 2017 14:58 BST

[Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley]

During an interview on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Friday, 11 August, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, head of National Counter Terrorism Policing, discusses the current threat from terrorism and how this has changed in scale and nature in the past six months.

Q: It’s been widely reported that at any one time, there are around 500 active counter-terrorism investigations involving some 3,000 subjects of interest – is this still the case?
A: Those numbers have been correct. Frankly the numbers are currently growing as the tempo’s increasing and some of you will also have heard spoken about the wider pool of people previously worked on, of the order of 20,000 - and it’s that wider cohort that we have to keep an eye on as well; to see if any of them that reactivate, so to speak, and become dangerous again.

Q: Just to keep on person under surveillance requires a dozen, or even 20 police officers 24-hours a day, so how big a challenge is it to keep an eye on 20,000 people?
A: Where we succeed is when we have people in the middle of those concentric circles of risk, the most high-priority operations - we always succeed there. The challenge is how good is our radar at spotting the ripples in the pond further out? We joined policing because we all want to protect the public. The events of the last six months have been tragic and they hurt us because we haven’t succeeded as much as we would like to. We’re going to have to improve what we do but it’s going to take a whole system effect - not simply counter terrorist specialists and MI5, but local policing, councils and the public - to be able to deal with something which is becoming more of a cultish movement and less of a small terrorist organisation.

Q: If a terrorist gets through or a killer gets through and kills someone that’s a failure by definition but what do you mean by you haven’t succeeded as you would like?
A: Our ambition - it may be unrealistic - our ambition is to prevent any terrorist attacks. We know from time to time, terrorist attacks will get through and that’s what’s happened but when it happens it is awful; when 36 people die and 200 people are injured. And we have to redouble our efforts, so at the moment we are looking with MI5, “how do we improve what we do?” The threat is changing. As I say, it’s becoming broader and broader - and, both in terms of what we do and how we connect to local agencies and the public, we’re going to have to do even more than we’ve been doing already.

Q: Have you got enough people to do that?
A: I think that’s what we’re working up at the moment and we’ll obviously be talking through issues with Government in the autumn. I think there are issues about both our systems and how we can improve how we work together and how we connect across the country. There’s going to be issues about powers and legislation that might help us do our work and the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have both spoken about that. And probably the resourcing issues as well. A bundle of new measures and new resources and new tactics that help us become even more effective than we have been to date. Bearing in mind the change in tempo is quite dramatic. In February, Andrew Parker [Director General of MI5] and I would have spoken about “in four years foiling 13 plots” and how that felt quite a challenge. And then over a few months we had four successful attacks and at the same time we stopped six more plots. That number of ten over a few months compared to 13 over four years illustrates the change in tempo that we’ve seen which is a real challenge for us and that’s why we’re going to have to do some things differently.

Q: Are you seeing the terrorist plots being directed by known terrorist groups, or is it lone-actors intent on causing harm and destruction?
A: Unfortunately it’s not an either/or; it’s both. The diversity of what we’re wrestling with is extraordinary. So you’ve got plots directed by Al Qaeda, plots directed by Isis - organised and planned - at one end of the spectrum, that is within that sort of cohort of attacks and disrupted plots; all the way through to individuals who have been inspired by the propaganda online, radicalised perhaps - some of them who are vulnerable - and decide to pick up a weapon and act in the name of Isis. I think there’s a tendency sometimes in public debates to try and simplify this and say, “it’s all about lone actors” or “it’s all about threats coming out of Syria”. It’s much more complex than that. It’s diverse. We’ve got young people who are being radicalised; we’ve got men and women; we’ve got some much older people who are hardened jihadists who’ve been in and out of prison and want to commit attacks again. You’ve got simple attacks with knives and cars through to the most sophisticated plots - look indeed at what’s happened in Australia recently, where they’ve foiled a sophisticated attack on aviation.

Q: Police now work closely with MI5, sitting, literally, alongside them, so you’re getting all that intelligence. But is it harder to counter the threat from lone actors, because, by definition, they are loners and are working alone?
A: Well you can get intelligence about loners but it comes from different sources. So many of the lone actors have at some stage in their radicalisation connected into extremist groups in this country; or connected online to some of the propaganda being put out by Isis and other groups. So that gives us opportunities but also, of course, intelligence comes from communities. So, we’ve got examples where an escalating threat from lone actors has been spotted first by someone in the community who’s picked up the phone to us and that makes a difference. So when I talk about a “whole system effect”, I think expecting a small group of a few thousand police officers and security service officials to be able to solve this is not realistic. We will do everything we can to improve but we’re going to need that wider input from public and other agencies.

Q: In relation to the four recent attacks in London and Manchester, do you know whether they were the result of outside forces, some kind of organised effort or whether they were lone actors?
A: I’ve got a clear picture. I think there are still prospects of criminal charges in at least one of these cases and of course we’ve got inquests and things to come - I wouldn’t want to tread on the Coroner’s toes.

Q: But can you give a broad idea of whether there is a plot out there and it was of these attacks.
A: So if I add those four together with the six foiled plots from very recently that are pending trial, then within that we’ve got lone actors who have been radicalised by what’s online and sometimes by contact with extremists, but then have decided on their own that they are going to go attack so-and-so or do such-and-such an act. At the other end of the spectrum we’ve got people directed from Syria, online, sometimes in relationships with someone online in Syria and being encouraged to do attacks or be suicide bombers and that sort of thing. And we’ve also got examples of people as part of long-term Al Qaeda plots in that cohort as well - so you’ve got that range. People who’ve picked up the ideology and come up with their own plan based on the encouragement of propaganda all the way through to the more organised, directed attacks.

Q: With the rise in threat, do you think that the word ‘terrorism’ is perhaps used too loosely to describe certain acts or activity?
A: Well the word ‘terrorism’ is defined in legislation so I, being a police officer, am slightly pedantic about it. I will work to the legislation definition, but at the centre of it is violence for a political motive.

Q: With the emergence of these new threats, do you still think that it is a ‘terrorist’ threat as per this definition?

A: They are captured by the legislation. I think the thing that we’re wrestling with is this idea that we sort of understood, with IRA and Al Qaeda where you’ve got a very tight network of wicked individuals who are plotting terrorist acts. What we’re wrestling with today is something which is more of a cultish movement where they are putting out propaganda and saying “anybody and everybody, act in our name and you’re part of our terrorist campaign”.

That’s a different sort of problem and frankly it’s a different problem in communities because this widening cohort of people that we’re concerned about - and I mentioned 3,000 and 20,000 - our ability to keep our radar on them, that’s no longer just a job for police and police and security services. We will always do what we can do to improve our business but it’s going to take a whole community effect. You will have seen some of our campaigns over the summer, such as helping the public be prepared if they’re involved in an attack or appeals for information. As I said already, some of our attack disruptions have come directly as a result of information from the public.

You will have also seen some of the work we have done over the summer with the travel industry about how they look after their customers more as they travel for their summer holidays. So, all of these are examples of us moving more towards a system effect and saying this is less about just the police and security services. Meanwhile, there will always be the most wicked individuals, dangerous individuals, in the middle of the rings of threat that we’re going to throw a lot of resources at and try and put in prison for a long time.