Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the nuances surrounding the recommendation that counter terrorism operation should be moved into the National Crime Agency:
On the surface the suggestion made by the Home Affairs Committee to integrate the effort against terrorists with the operations of the National Crime Agency (NCA) has some logic. Increasingly it is self-evident in parts of the world such as West Africa that international criminal and terrorist groups are forming an active nexus.
But that does not mean that the existing model which has seen over 400 terrorist-related asserts and over 80 successful convictions in the last two years should be summarily abandoned. All the may seem to glitter in the proposed move of responsibility for counter terrorism into the NCA may not turn into gold.
Just because some of Al Qaeda’s franchises have created the ideological arguments for closer working with international criminal groups to suit their own local needs this is not a widely accepted viewpoint. Indeed it is fair to say that the large majority of elements of the close to 70 franchises that now have some affiliated status with Al Qaeda would vehemently oppose any such cooperation, regarding international criminal groups as being opportunists and having little morality.
Whereas in the past there were ideological and practical difficulties to such cooperation of late the wider geographic spread of Al Qaeda’s foot print across the Sahel and into the Maghreb in Africa has created new opportunities for both groups to cooperate in this specific area. Those moving economic migrants to the North African coast on the Mediterranean Sea from the depths of Africa have no compunction about accepting money from groups allied to Al Qaeda to move terrorists along those same routes into Western Europe.
But the problem is this nexus may only be a temporary link that serves the immediate needs of those involved. If the suggested merger of the counter terrorism command activities and the NCA was to go ahead who knows what that might trigger in terms of a reaction from the groups being targeted.
Obvious home for co-operation
The groups that operate in West Africa have made what the British Government believes to be over $60 million from ransom payments paid through highly questionable networks. Groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are therefore cash rich and happy to pay international criminal groups to carry some of their acolytes through Africa and across the Mediterranean Sea into Western Europe with the aim of creating groups capable of carrying out atrocities in Western Europe.
If terrorists and criminals are working more closely together then it would make some sense for the agencies trying to counter those activities to operate under a single integrated umbrella. But little evidence has emerged of a wider involvement of international criminal groups in the movement of people into and out of Syria – the current major focus for counter terrorism in the United Kingdom. If that element of the current counter-terrorism picture does not have, or is ever likely to have, such obvious connections with international criminality then why bother to change what already works?
Given its newness the NCA would seem to be an obvious home to some politicians looking for answers to specific instances of cooperation between these two very different elements of criminality. However when viewed from some broader perspectives and apparent cohesiveness of the arguments quickly fall apart. One problem is that contrary to public and some political leader’s perceptions the counter-terrorism teams in the United Kingdom are not all operated by the Metropolitan Police.
Chief Constables in each police force have control over their resources and can allocate priorities to suit specific local threats. With the Extreme Right Wing rapidly fragmenting and posing an increased threat this means that the local decision making can reflect the on-the-ground situation. With such a complex multi-faceted threat it is vital that local priorities are reflected in resource allocation rather than going for the headline grabbing disruptions of those involved in international criminality.
Dangers with the single integrated model
If one is clear about the multi-dimensional terrorist threat that exists today is that responding to the local picture is important. With resources being finite it is far from clear that a single FBI-like organisation would be any better than the current bi-agency approach. In fact there are dangers with the single integrated model.
If these resources were to be stripped away from the Police Forces in effect the responsibility for all counter-terrorism operations, irrespective of the ideological base of the threat, would come under the NCA. Inevitably some of the complex resourcing decisions made every day by those involved in Special Branch would be focused on operations with an international criminal element to secure the high profile disruptions that would help the NCA create its reputation. It is easy to see given the covert and unheralded work tirelessly carried out by many counter-terrorism teams would be seen as a backwater inside the NCA. Not an area to work if you are an ambitious person looking to develop a career.
At the moment this kind of resources focus would mean that the on-going operations against the Extreme Right Wing and the Dissident Republican movement would be at risk of being down-graded in importance with consequent risks for disruptive activity. Whilst both of these dimensions of the threat do have some international connections with criminal groups these are not as problematic or complex as the tentacles that are now being developed between Al Qaeda and international criminality in West Africa.
The small footprint in Northern Ireland of the hard-core individuals that are still involved in the Dissident Republican movement means that their international links are quite different from the social networks associated with groups linked to Muslim extremism. Similar arguments also apply to the increasing footprint of Hezbollah on the world stage as the Shia counterweight to the Sunni terrorism propagated by Al Qaeda.
The danger of moving the counter terrorism operations inside the NCA is therefore clear. They will focus on their priority associated with addressing international criminal groups and the counter terrorist operations that are not considered a priority could be viewed as second-class investigations. Care is therefore needed in the analysis of the recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee. What may appear attractive on the surface may actually be creating a situation where the United Kingdom becomes more vulnerable to the wider dimensionality of terrorism that exists today.