The Emergence of a National Police Counter Terrorism Service in the UK

Olympic Security
By Arthur Hayes

The first edition of the UK Terrorism Analysis was published in early February 2012 by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). One particular section of the report, ‘The Post Olympic Challenge – Staying Secure’ examines the potential reforms to the UK national counterterrorism (CT) community once the 2012 Olympics are over. 

It was on 6 July 2005, that London won the right to hold the 2012 games, and on the following day four men murdered fifty-two people in London in what are now known as the 7/7 attacks. Since the failed Glasgow airport attacks of 2007, the UK mainland has not been successfully attacked by Al-Qaeda inspired terrorists, although multiple plots have been disrupted through the efforts of the police and intelligence agencies. In the year 2010-2011 one hundred and twenty one people were arrested with terrorist offences in the UK and nineteen charged. Due to diligent CT efforts there has largely been an absence of "successful" attacks in the UK, although there are growing concerns over a re-emergence of terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Domestic CT policing has been a success from this perspective. It ought to have been, given that CT spending in the UK has increased from £1 billion per year in 2001 to £3,5 billion per year in 2010, and 7,700 Police officers are now engaged in CT roles. However, this level of expenditure is now regarded as under threat given that the UK coalition government has adopted spending cuts effecting all departments including the police and intelligence services. It is likely that this policy will continue at best and possibly be revisited with greater vigour should the economy necessitate it.

Changes in the CT police environment have been mitigated by an overriding need to ensure operational readiness for the largest peacetime event in London for decades. However, once the games are over, the CT policing environment in the UK seems set for radical change toward a defined single national structure; likely falling within the remit of the new National Crime Agency (NCA) which will be officially launched in 2013. The current Home Secretary, the member of the British Government responsible for Policing and National Security, Theresa May, has said that the decision on whether to move CT responsibility will be taken only after the Olympics finish.  

The UK government already acknowledges that CT policing already has effective national structures, in the form of four regional Police CT & smaller CT Intelligence Units, the largest and most experienced unit being the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command (SO15).  But, it seems that the government has already decreed that from its birth the NCA will be involved in CT policing through the creation of a Border Policing Command (BPC). The BPC role is defined as "addressing national security threats such as terrorism", which will include working with Special Branch CT ports officers. Currently CT policing in London for instance is the domain of SO15, assisted as required by other elements of the Metropolitan Police Service. 

How will the new NCA Border Police Command liaise with SO15? Will they have compatible IT equipment? Will the NCA staff be vetted to a sufficiently high enough level to allow SO15 to share secret intelligence? These are some of the issues yet to be addressed.

The current CT policing structure ensures that a single thread exists across the UK policing spectrum linking each individual front line Police Constable directly to a local CT intelligence hub. This allows the flow of intelligence, operational requirements, tasks, briefings and assorted miscellaneous activity across the Police service. Ultimately this allows SO15 for example to ‘upward load’ the Police CT intelligence harvest, capabilities and specialist expertise to assist MI5, which retains primacy in National Security matters. Any reform of the national Police CT capability would recognise that MI5 has the lead in intelligence matters, leaving the NCA as little more than an executive & research arm of MI5.

The RUSI document concludes by noting that budgetary restraint and policy decisions must not degrade the service to the British people that these agencies provide. Such sentiment is praise worthy, but it will be extremely difficult to ensure this demand is met. If the government does decide to subsume CT policing into the NCA it will take years of continuing effort to build a truly national capability from the ground upward. However, it is not impossible and with sufficient political impetus, financial resources, and wise mature leadership it can be done. 


Arthur Hayes is a Senior Counter-Terrorism Officer with over 20 years’ experience. He has taken part in major counter-terrorism operations and intelligence gathering against a diverse range of targets, including Irish Republicans, Middle Eastern and domestic Islamic extremists.  


24 February 2012