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ACSO Mark Rowley speaks to the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism

11 Sep 2017

The national lead for counter-terrorism addressed the 17th Annual Conference in Israel today, focusing on building a 'global system effect' to fight the threat of terror. 


[The text below is the prepared speech that ACSO Rowley delivered, which should be checked against delivery. More information about the conference can be found here].

Good evening distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Can I thank you for inviting me to the ITC and for giving me the opportunity to talk about one of the greatest global challenges of our time…

…the enduring threat from terrorism.

This evening I will be focussing on four key themes about our experiences in the UK:

  • the long developed relationship between UK policing, intelligence agencies and our communities;
  • how we prepared for and responded to recent tragic events and mitigated the effects;
  • ISIL’s terror cult and how it reaches the minds of the vulnerable around the world;
  • How the evolving threat requires a whole system effect to help make us all safer.

Before I describe these areas in more detail it is important we recognise that while I may talk about “successes” in the UK at tackling the threat, I do so with a heavy heart.

Even though tragedies were feared we were none-the-less devastated when they did.

This simply makes us even more determined to stop further attacks taking place.

1. A hard fought relationship

We have a highly effective counter terrorism policing model because…

…we have learnt from the past and from bitter experience…

We have been fighting terrorism since the late 19th century with the then threat posed by Irish Republicans. Indeed our own headquarters, New Scotland Yard was bombed as far back as 1884.

These events led to the formation of the world famous Special Branch.

As we all know the threat from Irish Republicans endured for many years, and in part still exists today in the form of dissident groups who oppose the peace process.

In those years British policing further developed our response, with the formation of the Anti-Terrorist Branch in the 1960s, and contended the threat posed by…

Northern Ireland paramilitaries….

extreme left and right-wing groups…

animal rights extremists…

…and others who sought to further their cause through violence.

Throughout these years we honed our skills and learned from our mistakes – and believe me there were many.

Then 16 years ago today that all changed. 9/11 marked a huge shift in our thinking and then four years later Islamist terror arrived in the UK on what we call 7/7.

These events caused us to have a fundamental change in relationships between intelligence agencies and police.

We now have a police and intelligence community that work day by day and hand in hand – at home and overseas…

  • We sit side-by-side in the same buildings
  • We work on the same investigations and operations…
  • We share the same intelligence…
  • and we work to the same objectives.

Another factor to our successful model is that we have a service that is built on foundations of community policing.

The founder of British policing, Sir Robert Peel, said in 1829; “the police are the public, and the public are the police….”

And to this day….

  • We have a presence on the streets and in our communities
  • We remain a predominantly unarmed service….
  • We have a workforce that is becoming more reflective of the people we serve…

This has allowed to build high levels of trust and confidence. Trust is even higher in CT policing, 76% vs 67%. 

These are just some of the reasons why we were able to:

Bring 386 people to justice for terror related offences in three years;

Stop 13 attacks in just under four years;

Make an arrest a day for over two years;

Safeguard 100s of vulnerable people (being preyed on by radicalisers or being influenced by graphic propaganda online) by putting community engagement at the heart of our work.

2. How we responded and prepared for the worst

This year there has been significant step up in pace and…

Since the Spring the UK has suffered a wave of vicious attacks in both London and the thriving northern city of Manchester.

17 weeks saw four attacks leaving 36 people killed… and more than 200 injured

and countless people affected and traumatised by the unfolding events.

In those four months addition to the attacks which ‘got through’, a further six deadly attack plots were thwarted.

Our response to these dreadful incidents was significant. And I will touch on those later.

But what we did to prepare for such events over the past few years was equally as significant and important.

With the growing threat from marauding attacks with government support we boosted our specialist armed capacity.

We refined our plans and endlessly tested and exercised them.

Indeed, just a week before the attack on Westminster Bridge we held a large scale counter terrorism exercise on the River Thames…

…to test our responsiveness to incident in or around the river.

We enhanced our capabilities with the uplift in our highly specialist firearms officers who are trained to work hand-in-hand with UK Special Forces under police command.

Working with the British Government we designed plans for large-scale mobilisation of the military to help boost our armed policing capacity in the event of an ongoing imminent threat to the UK – defined as threat level “critical”.

We invested in our investigative capabilities, particularly in digital exploitation, biometrics and forensics.

And working with community leaders we developed plans for when the worst should happen that police and communities would come together to call for calm and unity

By March 2017 we felt as ready as we could be should something awful happen.

The vehicle ramming attack over Westminster Bridge and the subsequent murder of one our own officers in the grounds of the UK Parliament building lasted just 82 seconds.

Five people, from all different backgrounds and nationalities were killed in all and 49 injured, some life-changing.

Quick-thinking officers responded immediately to neutralise the deadly threat posed by the terrorist and no doubt prevented further loss of life.

Further specialist officers arrived to ensure there were no further attacks.

A huge investigation then followed involving the whole UK CT policing network, working closely with MI5 and others.

Within 24 hours we had enacted our community plan to help bring Londoners together and stand against revenge attacks or hate crimes.

We soon assessed the attacker acted alone. But as soon as the dust had settled we begun our debrief to learn any immediate lessons.

Then in May as young people and families leave a pop concert in Manchester a terrorist explodes his home made bomb in the crowd.

It would kill 22 people, including an 8 year old girl, and injure more than 250.

The UK network mobilised once again.

This time there was potentially a wider network in the UK and possibly overseas.

A number of people are arrested, but later released. As a precaution the UK threat level was raised to “Critical”.

This saw us enact our mobilisation plan: Operation Temperer, to free up more armed police on the streets to reassure the public and deter further attacks.

Within a few days we believed we had control of the threat and we could start to stand down the military.

This matter is still very much a live investigation.

Then on a balmy Saturday evening in June a white van is deliberately driven into pedestrians on London Bridge.

After crashing their rented van near Borough Market – filled with revellers out having a good time…

…the three occupants jump out and begin stabbing and slashing anyone in their path.

With kitchen knives strapped to their hands and fake explosives belts around their chests they create a terrifying scene.

An incredibly brave unarmed police officer takes on all three and is badly injured but stalls the attack.

Then within eight minutes of the first emergency call coming in armed officers arrive at the scene.

Within seconds they have neutralised the threat using nearly 50 rounds of ammunition in the process.

Sadly, eight people were killed by the terrorists, with a further 48 injured.

Again, a huge joint investigation follows to find any potential accomplices.

Later that month a van collides with worshippers outside a mosque in North London.

One person is killed and ten are injured.

The alleged attacker is surrounded by members of the public, but is shielded from the anger by the local imam while the police arrive.

The man was arrested and later charged with murder and terrorism offences – this time relating to XRW.

At the height of the summer these four attacks absorbed over 700 counter terrorism detectives.

And during the same time we, and the intelligence services, managed to stop a further six attacks taking place.

There’s no doubt what we’re now facing in the UK, and indeed seeing throughout Europe and beyond, is a shift in the terror threat, rather than an isolated spike in incidents.

Inevitably, our work, and our collaboration with partner agencies, has had to shift to meet the surge.

Today, with MI5 we are currently working on nearly 600 investigations involving over 3,000 “subjects of interest” across the UK.

These are individuals assessed to pose the biggest threat to our citizens.

Added to that figure is a wider pool of people previously reviewed by police and the intelligence community…

– some 20,000 people who could still pose a risk having violent extremist views but short of acting illegally that years later could suddenly turn their views in extreme violence. 

3. The terror cult that is Daesh

To help us overcome these challenges -and to learn any lessons from this year’s tragic events – we, as a country, are actively reviewing what happened.

History has shown us that by looking back, we are better able to look forward and enhance what is already a good model.

Before I go on to describe how we intend to contend the challenges ahead, I will talk about the how the threat is changing and of the violent cult-like movement that is behind it.

This cultish movement is able to reach into communities around the world - and influence and encourage those who are vulnerable or violent to act.

What we have seen in recent months are small groups and individuals who have been inspired by or directed overseas by Daesh, AQ and even XRW rhetoric.

I first used the term “cult” to describe Daesh in February 2015.

I said they were creating a deviant movement “that was trying to attract misfits, criminals and the vulnerable”.

Their sophisticated propaganda was successfully encouraging citizens from every corner of the world to come and join the fight in their illegitimate “Caliphate”.

At the same time they were carrying out highly sophisticated attacks:

  • Series of suicide bombings in Sa’ana, Yemen killing 142;
  • Coordinated car bomb attacks in Kobani murdering between 200-300;
  • The bombing of a Russian passenger aircraft over Egypt killing 224;
  • The double suicide bombing in Ankara, killing 102;
  • And the coordinated attacks on the Bataclan, Stade De France and cafes in central Paris leaving 130 dead.

These major attacks helped them draw the easily led and vulnerable to their fold.

However, for some time now – and knowing they would lose their grip on their strongholds - they have been urging their followers not to bother coming to Syria…

…but to act in their name where they lived.

And urge their supporters to do what they could, how ever they could, promoting and favouring low-tech, unsophisticated methodologies.

While we had already seen crude attacks involving knives and vehicles, such as the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013; and the series of ramming attacks in Jerusalem & West Bank in 2014 many, 2016 saw the advent of the low-tech, high impact attack: Nice, Ohio and Berlin.

Of course, the bombings, shootings and the coordinated assaults continued – mainly within the confines of Syria and other conflict zones.

But, what is clear is that the crude attacks got almost as much attention than the highly planned ones.

And of course the less sophisticated the attack, be it with a knife or a vehicle, the easier it is to plan and the harder to detect.  This makes us vulnerable.

The virtual world has played a major role in this vulnerability.

And it is online where the cult of Daesh can flourish.

A plethora of social media & messaging platforms, supported by encrypted channels, has enabled a vile ideology to spread unfiltered to an enormous world-wide audience.

What is alarming in this new landscape is the rapidly shifting demographic now succumbing to the pernicious propaganda.

Men, women, young people – some just children, and older people are being inspired and radicalised by the online narrative of hate. 

Of course we don’t allow this spread of hatred to go unchecked.

We counter the poisonous narrative by working with on-line platforms and providers to remove illegal terrorist material from the internet

4. The Whole System Effect

As the UK reflects and learns from what occurred throughout 2017 we are considering what we must do to tackle the growing and evolving threat.

We see the future as being increasingly about a whole system effect

This means every part of society – not just those charged with national security responsibilities – coming together to have a more effective counter terrorism machine.

We need a machine that has the buy-in of:

  • councils,
  • universities,
  • hospitals,
  • health practitioners,
  • offender management institutions,
  • the commercial, retail, and communication sectors,
  • and the third sector

…to come on board and be part of our collective efforts to protect the public and our national security.

As I said earlier the UK police and intelligence community are working as one to counter the threat.

We are innovating and constantly reviewing our tactics and strategies to counter the ever changing threat.

But what is needed now is for these efforts to be matched – where possible - across every strand of our society.

We need the full force of “UK PLC” to collaborate to enhance our “discovery” of the threat;

to put in place strategies to do even more work to prevent radicalisation;

to further boost our protective security and preparedness so that we can enhance our physical defences…. and if an attack gets through to reduce the impact;

to redouble efforts to make the UK and virtual world a more hostile place for terrorists and extremists to operate.

We need the support and backing of every sector: public, private and third to make our communities even safer.

We need to address the vulnerabilities that allows a person to be radicalised online by viewing illegal content on the internet;

Where no-one spots his safeguarding needs or change in views;

where he can talk with extremists using encrypted communications;

where he can research potential targets online without leaving a trace;

where he can purchase vast quantities of bomb-making materials from online retailers without anyone noticing;

And where he can download instructions on how to assemble and detonate his device.

Sadly, the above reflects real cases we have had to deal with after tragedies have occurred.

In conclusion...

I have talked about the constantly evolving threat, and how we in the UK are evolving and enhancing our response so we are better able to confront it.

I have described the massive acceleration of the threat and how the cultish movement of Daesh is, through the virtual world, able to influence and direct attacks anywhere.

…And I have talked about how we in the UK are seeking to better mobilise all our skills, expertise and determination to bring about a whole system effect.

Now, I am not here to lecture you on how you should organise your operating models or policies or counter terrorism strategies.

I have been fortunate to have visited international counterparts who are doing amazing things in highly challenging environments.

I am delighted that UK CT policing has a presence in over 80 countries working closely with their hosts to boost security and enhance

We are learning from our global partners just like they learning from us.

On many occasions we have successfully collaborated with our international partners to prevent major attacks and save lives.

But I think we can do even more.

We, as an alliance of nations and institutions, can work towards having not just a “whole system effect”, but a “global system effect.

With our collective efforts we can do more to share insights, ideas and good practise.

We can operate closer together and adopt more common standards and expectations.

We can do more to help join the dots.

We can bring to bear more influence on global organisations and industries to help us tackle the threat.

We can engender more responsibility to help make the virtual world a more hostile place for terrorists to hide in and operate.

While much progress is being made to confront today’s terror threats…

We all must recognise that the threat is enduring and ever-changing…

We must adapt and evolve to, and bring in as many partners as possible – to help build an alliance against an evil, cultish movement that threatens citizens in every corner of the world.

We need a global solution to what is a global threat.

…I look forward to working with you to help us achieve that. I know we will.

Thank you.