In Europe the terrorist threat remains high and governments have to deal with both returning foreign fighters and homegrown people embracing the path of violent Islamism. Furthermore, they must deal with unprecedented numbers of radicalised individuals and potential terrorists, who can operate in small cells or even alone, as lone wolves. The Schengen agreement, allowing individuals to freely move across EU countries, represents another vulnerability to European security. While European countries collaborate with one another in dealing with returning foreign fighters and violent extremists, they deal with political violence and terrorism in different ways.
The United Kingdom remains a country at high risk of Islamist terrorism, especially after last year’s attacks near the Palace of Westminster, at the Manchester Arena, on London Bridge and on a district line train at Parsons Green Underground station in London. To deal with the terrorist menace, the United Kingdom has put in place a strategy called CONTEST (an acronym for COuNter TErrorism STrategy). This strategy was first developed within the Home Office in 2003 and made publicly available in 2006. Revised versions appeared in 2009, 2011 and 2016; the latter via a new National Security Council committee chaired by the Prime Minister. CONTEST is a domestic, multiagency strategy that evolved from the British experience of combating Irish-related terrorism during the Northern Ireland conflict. Subsequently, it was adapted as a way to respond to the growing menace posed by Islamist terrorism at the beginning of the twenty-first century. While as a strategy it is not only focused on Islamist terrorism, but encompasses Irish-related and far-right terrorism too, nonetheless it has in practice been mostly utilised to combat jihadism.
CONTEST works around four “Ps”: (1) to Prevent violent extremism; (2) to Prepare the country for a terrorist attack; (3) to Protect the country from a terrorist attack; and (4) to Pursue terrorists. Several regulations and pieces of legislation stand in support of the country’s counter-terrorism provision: the Terrorism Act 2000; the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001; the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005; the Terrorism Act 2006; the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008; the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011; the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012; the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014; and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.
Within the four “Ps” of CONTEST, Prevent stands as the most debated approach to stop people from becoming and / or supporting terrorists. Prevent was initially led by the Home Office, but since 2006 it moved within the Office for Security and Counter-terrorism. Central government disburses funding to local government, which funds third parties (for example, charities, voluntary groups, NGOs and so on) for grassroots activities. Preventative activities challenging extremism and promoting cohesion revolve around: capacity building; governance, research and training; general cohesion and integration; cohesion and integration activities with reference to extremism and / or terrorism; and activities focused on terrorism and targeted at the most vulnerable people and sectors.
Further ways in which Prevent has unfolded are targeted interventions via the Channel Programme, which is overseen by police and government partners. Understanding that radicalisation is a process and not an event, Channel puts in place early interventions for vulnerable people. When certain factors are ‘triggered’, such as travelling to high-risk countries, isolation, new suspicious friends, secret meetings and so on, referrals to Channel via police, schools, universities, the health service and prisons commence the process of one-to-one interventions with a vulnerable individual.
As a “pre-crime” and “net-widening” approach to countering terrorism, Prevent has met several challenges due to allegedly being a ‘spying tool’ that is too focused on Muslims and that turns the Islamic community into a ‘suspect’ one. It has also been distrusted by some local authorities, opposed by unions and civil liberty groups and accused of having funded some irrelevant project, while lacking a clear strategy or impact. Whether Prevent’s successes have overshadowed its failures remains to be seen. Either way, it reflects a soft power ‘British model’ and a low policing strategy that is typical of Northern European countries. The ‘British model’ focuses on preventative and community-oriented approaches that aim at increasing the engagement with Muslim communities to steer Islamist extremists and their followers away from ideologies that may turn them into terrorists. Indeed, this model focuses on improving communications, favouring social integration and marginalising extremists. Importantly, it seeks to stay clear of harsh and repressive responses to extremism and radicalisation, while defeating the ideology behind Islamist terrorism.
Unlike the United Kingdom and other Northern European countries, Southern European countries privilege a high policing or hard power ‘Latin Model’. This is an approach that focuses on harsh counter-terrorism measures based on preventative arrest and extradition. Such an approach also seeks to symbolically reaffirm state sovereignty in the security sphere. Therefore, in this model state measures to combat Islamist terrorism tend to focus on low visibility activities of intelligence and both human and financial repression and disruption.
Given that individuals embrace terrorism for a variety of reasons, whether they be political, religious / ideological, social / cultural or psychological (revenge, group victimhood or a sense of mission) and that economic deprivation and mental disorders are not necessarily associated with terrorism, it is important that responses are both multi-pronged and taken forward in a multi-agency fashion. In this sense, Northern European countries and the United Kingdom have led the way. In his masterpiece ‘Terrorism: How to Respond’, Richard English highlights seven key principles of counter-terrorism: (1) addressing the root problems and causes of terrorism; (2) collecting high-quality intelligence; (3) respecting the rule of law and orthodox legal frameworks; (4) avoiding over-militarised responses; (5) coordinating financial and technological measures; (6) maintaining public credibility; and (7) learning to ‘live with terrorism’. It is only by understanding how terrorism works, and that it may work differently in different socio-cultural contexts, that governments can put in place the correct measures to identify and disrupt terrorist activities.