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Questioning Disruption in the Counter-Terrorism Fight


 By Martin Innes et al

In a brief article written for The Times Newspaper following the recent marauding terrorist attack near London Bridge, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley who is the UK police service national lead for counter-terrorism, revealed that Khuram Butt, the alleged ring-leader of the attackers, had previously been targeted by several disruptions. In so doing, Rowley validated one of the central claims of our article published in the June edition of Law and Society Review, where we highlighted the danger of police and intelligence services becoming overly-reliant upon disrupting violent extremists. 


Of course, our analysis had not predicted the specific details of the incident. But one of its central claims was that delivery of the Prevent strategy, part of the UK government’s wider counter-terrorism policy, was becoming heavily dependent upon a logic of disruption. Disruption is a form of prevention whereby interventions are designed to inhibit the possibilities of action without necessarily seeking a criminal prosecution. It has become increasingly prominent within UK counter-terrorism owing to a need to solve a ‘demand-supply’ tension, because the number of ‘subjects of interest’ about whom police and the intelligence services have concerns is outstripping the assets available to robustly monitor them. 


The tragic events that took place in London Bridge on the night of 3rd June showed that we were right to be concerned. Of course, the challenge is what can be done about such a situation? Violent extremism and its causes and consequences is a complex, multi-faceted and morphing form of social problem. One of the key lessons from the recent cluster of terrorist incidents across the UK has been that there is now a full spectrum of threats to be countered, ranging from sophisticated multi-actor plots, through to ostensibly self-radicalising lone actors who attack with brutal simplicity. As a consequence, there are sharp political disagreements about what is to be done in practical terms. 


Our article also pointed to what we referred to as ‘the legislative reflex’ – a tendency amongst politicians to assume that, in the wake of terrorist incidents and other major crime events, a solution can be found through introducing new legislation. At the time of writing this blog, we are seeing this ritualised response being brought forward once again, with the newly formed government vowing to review current counter-terrorism powers and bring forward new laws if needed, as a cornerstone of its programme for government. 


Whilst the research we conducted is not clear about what a more effective response to the kinds of ‘demand-supply challenges’ in counter-terrorism outlined above might be, it is probably not about new legal powers. More positively though, what our article does showcase is how evidence and insights from independent research on some of the ‘wicked problems’ that states grapple with can help to diagnose the limits of what they are doing.


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