Stefan Wermuth / REUTERS British Prime Minister Theresa May in London, April 2017.

British Counterterrorism After the Election

The Meaning of May's Plans

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a snap election, a move meant to strengthen her hand in the United Kingdom’s Brexit negotiations, ended up rendering her future as prime minister uncertain. Whoever leads the United Kingdom in the coming months, however, won’t just have Brexit at the top of the agenda. Counterterrorism policy may well take center stage.

The attacks that punctuated the election campaign illustrate the scale of this task. In Manchester, a suicide bomber set off a sophisticated homemade bomb; in London, a group of three terrorists carried out a low-tech attack using a van and knives. Both incidents may have been connected to conflict zones in Libya and Syria and came soon after a previous van and knife attack in London in March. But the recent attacks have not been limited to supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS). Earlier this week, a 47-year-old white male drove a van into a crowd of worshippers who had left Finsbury Park mosque in London, fuelling fears of a rise in far-right, anti-Muslim terrorism. Witnesses reported that the Finsbury Park attacker shouted, “I want to kill all Muslims” during the assault.

Three issues in security policy dominated the election campaign and will remain at the center of the security debate: the allocation of counterterrorism resources for policing, intelligence, and prevention work; the balance of state powers in relation to human rights and civil liberties; and the nature and consequences of London’s policies toward Muslim-majority countries. In all these areas, continuity is the most probable outcome. May’s reappointments of Amber Rudd at the Home Office, Boris Johnson as foreign secretary, and Michael Fallon as secretary of defense reinforce this likelihood. Michael Gove’s return to the cabinet may also prove significant: although Gove now serves as environment secretary, he is known for his hard-line views on Islamism and was a driving force behind former Prime Minister David Cameron’s counterextremism policies. It is likely that May’s Conservatives will seek to further widen the state’s powers and increase its focus on policing so-called nonviolent extremism, especially among Muslim communities, deepening measures that date back to Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government.

Police officers in London, July 2012.

Police officers in London, July 2012.

AUSTERITY IN A TIME OF TERROR

The first issue facing May is government spending on counterterrorism. In a statement after the election, May said that she was resolved to give “the police and the authorities the powers they need to keep our country safe.” Yet May’s relationship with the police has historically been fractious, dating back to her tenure as home secretary between 2010 and 2016, when she backed money-saving cuts to the police force. During this time, the overall number of police officers in England and Wales fell by at least 13 percent, with a higher 19 percent fall in armed officers—a fact not lost on Labour, which argued during the election campaign that Conservative austerity measures had put the country in danger.

May responded to this charge by arguing that the overall counterterrorism budget has been protected, even as police numbers have fallen. There is some truth in her implication that the government’s record on security can’t be reduced to the number of police officers. The British government supports an ever-widening array of security programs—from conventional police and intelligence services to community-oriented preventive work, which now reaches into nearly every public body. Yet the prime minister still faces two related conundrums: first, how to reconcile the Conservatives’ austerity agenda with the public’s growing view that there is a link between cuts to services and threats to their safety as citizens; and second, how to distinguish the Conservatives’ policies from those of Labour, which seems equally committed to plowing more resources into security-related programs. (The two parties’ convergence on this issue sits awkwardly with Labour’s wider criticisms of Conservative counterterrorism policy as overly expansive and intrusive.)

Although it may make political sense for May to signal a definitive loosening of austerity to solve the first conundrum, such a turnaround seems unlikely in the short term, and following her electoral debacle, she will need to turn her attention to the growing fissure over the future of austerity within her own party. As for the second dilemma, it is on matters of prevention and civil liberties that Conservative counterterrorism policy is likely to remain distinct: Labour’s pledge to review the Prevent Strategy, a program begun in 2003 that seeks to curtail radicalization, puts some daylight between the two parties, even though the Conservatives have also promised a review of counterterrorism strategy. May could also try to reinforce the Conservatives’ election-campaign message that Corbyn is weak on terrorism for having repeatedly voted against counterterrorism legislation.

LIBERTY AND SECURITY

The second question for May or her successor is how expanding the state’s powers will affect human rights and civil liberties. Central here will be the government’s implementation of the Conservatives’ 2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy—a document that emphasized asserting what it described as “British values” in the face of “nonviolent extremism”—and its attempts to bolster the beleaguered Prevent Strategy. (The 2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy was originally tied to a promised government bill that never materialized.)

In an address a day after the June 3 attack on London Bridge, May outlined a four-part counterextremism plan. It echoed the Conservatives’ pledge, in the party’s election manifesto, to establish a commission for fighting extremism. Yet May also appeared to move beyond the manifesto’s commitments by raising the possibility of introducing new regulations in cyberspace and toughening the punishments for terror-related offenses, even for what she called “less serious” ones—in all likelihood, an allusion to instances of nonviolent extremism.

As for the Conservatives’ counterextremism commission, the government has not yet offered much detail as to what it would entail. But whatever the commission’s responsibilities, its efforts are likely to be limited by the fact that lawmakers have not yet established practical criteria for what constitutes extremism. The cross-party Joint Human Rights Commission has repeatedly asked Rudd, the home secretary, to explain how the government would establish a more useful definition. But it has not yet received an answer to its concerns about the government’s definition, which it sees as vague and unworkable, likely to cause confusion among the public, and inclusive of social ills that are not clearly linked to the causes of terrorism, such as forced marriages. (The government has also said that its Counter-Extremism Strategy is separate from the Prevent Strategy, despite the significant overlap between the two.)

To make matters worse, although the 2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy mentioned both Islamist and far-right extremism, the Conservatives’ election manifesto and the four-point plan outlined in May’s June 4 speech appeared to focus only on Islamist extremism. After the attack on Muslims in Finsbury Park, May and her government changed tack and again raised the issue of far-right extremism. That was a welcome change, since downplaying the threat posed by far-right and Islamophobic extremism would be dangerous if left unchecked and counterproductive in its potential to further alienate Muslim communities. (Last weekend’s nationwide commemorations of the first anniversary of the lawmaker Jo Cox’s murder by a far-right extremist was another reminder of the threat.)

May’s intention to introduce more stringent regulations to monitor extremism, her professed readiness to change human-rights laws in the name of security, and the passing of the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act, which granted the government more sweeping surveillance powers, all suggest that a Conservative-led government will continue the expansive approach to dealing with extremism instituted under Cameron. The trouble with this approach is that it is divisive, alienates many citizens, and threatens civil liberties: last month, a UN Human Rights Council report on the United Kingdom singled out the Prevent Strategy, Counter-Extremism Strategy, and Investigatory Powers Act for undermining the rights to peaceful assembly and association. One of the roots of those measures’ problems is the government’s linking of all kinds of nonviolent extremism to violent terrorism.

At the scene of an attack near Finsbury Park Mosque, London, June 2017.

At the scene of an attack near Finsbury Park Mosque, London, June 2017.

TOUGH TALK

In a speech after the London Bridge attacks in which she condemned “the single evil ideology of Islamist extremism,” May also spoke of the “difficult conversations” that needed to be held to address what she described as “far too much tolerance of extremism” in the United Kingdom. Her appeal led to calls from Labour and the Liberal Democrats to publish the results of a government inquiry into foreign funding for extremism in the country that May had approved during her time as home secretary. That inquiry is widely believed to point to Saudi Arabia—an important British partner—as a major source of such funding.

May’s statement offered an opportunity to her detractors, since the Conservatives have foregrounded ideology rather than other factors, such as socioeconomic marginalization, as the main source of radicalization, and yet have continued to seek close ties with Riyadh. Indeed, May or her Conservative successor will almost certainly stick to business as usual with Saudi Arabia for reasons of security and trade, as she stated during her visit there in April. When it comes to the third area that will shape the Conservatives’ counterterrorism policy—foreign relations—British interests rather than British values will reign.

That brings complications of its own. The United States will continue to be the United Kingdom’s closest ally for the foreseeable future, for instance, yet Washington is also set to make the United Kingdom’s relations with the Muslim world more difficult. U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, his apparently unqualified support for autocratic Sunni states in their feud with Shiite Iran, and the regional crisis over Qatar will test London’s commitment to the independent foreign policy that Leavers argue Brexit will allow.

Equally important is the possibility of the United Kingdom carrying out air strikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as the United States already has. Johnson, May’s foreign secretary, has said that he and the prime minister agree that it would be hard to ignore an American request for assistance in the case of a chemical attack, even without a parliamentary vote. Although May referred to Johnson’s comments as “hypothetical,” her own willingness to join American military interventions remains unclear.

Since the election, May has had to weather two tough tests—the Finsbury Park attack and the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower—which have led her to temper her rhetoric. Meanwhile, the public has come to link austerity to questions of public safety. If the prime minister’s weak mandate forces her to tone down some of the more problematic aspects of her government’s counterterrorism policies, it would be a rare silver lining in what has been a chaotic few weeks.

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