16 April 2020

Something in the terrorism data doesn’t add up


At the end of last month, as Covid-19 obliterated the normal news cycle, some rather startling terrorism statistics were published by HM Government.

The March 2020 transparency report on disruptive powers provides the latest in a periodic analysis of the use of state powers to disrupt and deter terrorist activity in the UK. For the first time it also includes statistics on live and closed investigations by our domestic security service, MI5.

The overall picture that is painted is somewhat muddled. While the text refers to the most recent threats including the London Bridge and Streatham attacks either side of last Christmas, the numerical data relied on is often stale – much of it now over a year old. In the age of big data, it really shouldn’t be beyond the wit of government to bring both elements much closer together.

As an example, the Government reports that in the year to 31st March 2019 there were a grand total of three Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures, a watered-down version of earlier efforts to control the risk of terrorist suspects at large who were otherwise not amenable to criminal law. These measures are now described by the Ministry of Justice as central to the new regime for managing terrorist prisoners after emergency legislation was passed in the wake of the Streatham rampage. But we have no up-to-date idea if, or how much, they are being deployed.

However, one figure stated as ‘current’ stands out – and not in a good way. The number of people who the security service has investigated for links to terrorism has doubled from 20,000 in 2017 to 40,000 now. This dramatic hike needs a bit of unpicking. MI5 currently regard 3,000 people as an active risk to our national security across 600 investigations. That in itself is a huge ongoing logistical challenge.

The balance – some 37,000 people – are referred to somewhat confusingly as ‘Closed Subjects of Interest.’ The ‘closure’ doesn’t mean they have stopped being of concern, merely that “the current level of threat is not judged to be sufficient to prioritise allocating investigative resource against them”.

The enormous jump in these figures gets further context in the report. A ‘significant’ number of current and now closed subject of interest investigations relate to people overseas including those reported to MI5 as potential risks to the UK by other foreign intelligence agencies.

While there are no further clues about the make-up, location and intent of this foreign threat group, it would seem reasonable to infer that they must include British nationals either detained or at large in places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other theatres where IS is active. If we exclude the fact that foreign intelligence services wouldn’t be alerting us to, say, a man in a cave in the Hindu Kush armed with a bicycle and a bad attitude, this is still a very large number of people on either side of our national border with some capacity to attack us.

The report is at pains to point out that recent changes have meant fewer people leave the group of Closed Subjects of interest than join it. This is presumably intended to mean that we should read less into the growth rate. One factor influencing the new approach must have been the presence of Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, on the closed list prior to his attack in 2017 when he murdered 22 people. Abedi was under ‘active investigation’ in 2014 and 2015 but subsequently downgraded after information was received that ought to have waved a red flag.

Subsequent reviews by the intelligence and security committee and Lord David Anderson QC, a former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, pointed to a degree of complacency by the security service which might have prevented Abedi’s apprehension before his attack. Hindsight is an easy stick to beat our stretched protective services with but the possibility lingers. The result was clearly a change in emphasis to an abundance of caution when dealing with people who aren’t quite ready to commit acts of terrorism.

While this might go some way to explaining why 40,000 people at home and abroad are now assessed as showing at least some level of ongoing threat to us, it can’t be the whole story. The logistical effort to manage active surveillance of 3,000 dangerous people working around a global pandemic will be enormous as it is.

What confidence can we have that the bigger latent threat is being assertively managed? Are changes in behaviour and intent in individuals at home and abroad are being detected and acted upon?

We know far too little about the drivers of re-engagement in terrorist activity. We rely too much on very low proven rates of reoffending for released terrorist prisoners for comfort. The recent Streatham attack, memory of which is now lost in the enveloping Covid crisis, was a stark illustration of the harm just one released terrorist with a kitchen knife can do.

We are at war with a virus that rightly occupies the Government’s attention. But for all that, the insurgent threat posed by violent extremism has not gone away and is arguably greater than it has ever been. The mismatch of commentary and data sets in this report shows a record low number of arrests for terrorism in the year to March 2019, but a record high number in the overall threat group today. It doesn’t add up to a convincing result.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison officer and Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.