Countering the UK’s counter-terror industrial complex

  • October 16, 2021

Authority & Abolition

Connecting counter-terror policing and surveillance to the question of policing at large is a vital step in advancing struggles against police and state violence.

A soldier and armed police take part in Op TEMPERER — the mobilization plan for military support to the police service in response to a major terrorist attack. Credit: Defence Imagery/Flickr

Following the Taliban’s return to power and the spectacular collapse of the Afghan shell government this August, much has been made of how little has changed since the United States and its allies launched the Global War on Terror on October 7, 2001, when they invaded Afghanistan. The lessons of the past two decades also seem to have been ignored by large sections of the British and US political establishment, who responded to their defeat in the 20-year war with bellicose posturing and battle cries: theirs is a hubris that defies history.

But as much remains the same, much more has irrevocably changed. Despite the end of the war in Afghanistan, the Global War on Terror continues, as do the myriad ways in which it has come to shape government and policy in the West. One of its enduring legacies is the vast expansion of laws in the name of “national security” and “countering terrorism” that have led to both spectacular violence — from dawn raids to citizenship revocation — and the construction of international security apparatuses to consolidate state power and maintain global hierarchies of power.

Counter-terrorism is a set of policies, an ideology, a political project and, increasingly, an industry. Modern “counter-terror” policing and surveillance have expanded in tandem with the War on Terror and have been a key means through which coercive state powers have been transformed — indeed, in the UK and elsewhere, the way through which the welfare state has been remade into the security state. Counter-terror policing and surveillance have led to a qualitative expansion of policing and a massive centralization of surveillance powers, in addition to being used to target left and anti-systemic political activists.

Part of the difficulty in tackling counter-terrorism policies is that resistance has often remained in the legal realm — presenting them as discrete violations of rights or protocols to be combated through the courts — or that opposition extends merely insofar as policies are outright racist and/or Islamophobic. As a result, campaigns too often end up trying to smooth out the “excesses” of counter-terror legislation, focusing on the consequences of counter-terror legislation rather than its political causes.

Neither approach is without merit, but still they are lacking.

Connecting counter-terror policing and surveillance to the question of policing at large is a vital step in advancing struggles against police and state violence. It compels us to broaden our understanding of policing into a space where the boundaries between society and security grow hazy. It also forces us to confront the limits of anti-state violence strategies rooted in frameworks of legalism or moralism that fail to address either the politics or the underlying political economy of counter-terrorism.

British counter-terrorism today

The legislative backbone of Britain’s vast counter-terror complex is the Terrorism Act (2000), which consolidated powers under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (1974) and its successors. Under the Terrorism Act, even viewing certain content online or possession of certain documents can be prosecuted as “terrorism” — as illustrated by the case of the Welsh Muslim woman, who was jailed for possession of two editions of al-Qaida’s Inspire magazine on her phone, despite the judge stating that she posed no threat nor had any intent to commit violence.

Those convicted of terrorism offenses can be liable to lengthy prison sentences — over and above equivalent offenses under non-terror law. Once inside, they may be sifted into extremist segregation wings for maximum control and upon release they can be subjected to extensive monitoring and restrictions on their movement, as well as potentially limitless police sweeps on their homes.

The ambit of counter-terrorism extends beyond the criminal sphere. Passengers at sea and airports can be subjected to suspicionless searches — superpowered stop-and-search examinations under Schedule 7 of the Terrorist Act 2000 — often arbitrarily, sometimes triggered by surveillance from the UK’s intelligence-gathering architecture. Such an encounter can set in motion an escalating set of counter-terrorism interventions, leading to recurrent police harassment, passport seizures and more.

Unconstrained by any concerns of resource scarcity, the counter-terror complex has grown to historically unprecedented levels in its scope, reach and capabilities. But the huge investment in counter-terrorism is at odds with its miserable performance in terms of its stated goal: preventing terror attacks. Based on government statistics between the year 2000 and March 2021, only 12.8 percent of the nearly 5,000 people who were arrested under the broad category of “terrorist-related activity” were ultimately convicted of any terror-related offenses. And the vast majority of individuals tipped off by the public or police each year to the Prevent surveillance program have been deemed “false positives.”

Worse, several acts of violence have been carried out under the nose of policing and security agencies by individuals known to them: a policy failure by any measure. These include the Manchester Arena bomber Salman Abedi, the Westminster attacker Khalid Masood and the attempted Parsons Green bomber Ahmed Hassan.

Yet, arguing against counter-terror policy merely on the basis of efficacy, or lack thereof, is a politically fraught exercise. It can serve to validate what is an inherently political category — the “terror offense” — while also blurring how much of counter-terrorism operates outside the “criminal space” and in the realm of ideological policing and ministerial decree. Moreover, the security framework effectively operates on the unfalsifiable logic that security policies are the only real guarantee of safety. Following this logic, attacks or security breaches only highlight the need for further security policies, which can expand infinitely.

The refrain repeated by successive governments of the need for more counter-terror laws to extend the reach of state agencies ever further, illustrates the resilience of this logic.

Rather than engaging on the same discursive terrain as the state or arguing on the basis of poor application of policies, it is more worthwhile for activists against securitization to analyze the politics and political economy that drives security policies.

The political project of counter-terrorism

Counter-terrorism marshals a complex of policing, surveillance and ideological apparatuses that allow for a set of politics to be recast as “extremist” or “terrorist”; for sections of the population to be rendered “threats”; and for both to be subjected to an expanding array of disciplinary, coercive and punitive powers.

Through this process the many real fractures and contradictions generated by British politics are decoupled from the state and projected onto ideas, individuals and groups.

During the 1990s, the post-Cold War world still turned, as before, on the exploitation of the Global South. Decades after formal independence, states across the South found their fragile sovereignty shattered by political, economic and military policies enforced by the North. Structural adjustment policies (SAPs) imposed by the International Monetary Fund embedded a global neoliberal order to enrich the North, while the creation of regional bodies like the newly-formed European Union enshrined their political and economic dominance.

The leadership of the G7 and EU established a political consensus on the key domesticsecurity threats” they faced in a post-Soviet world. Chief among these were refugees and dissidents fleeing from states of the Global South which had been wracked by years of neoliberal “modernization,” and the violent social and political dislocations these processes produced.

Britain — a key player in both the G7 and the EU — used this security framework to reorganize its policing arrangements on two fronts. First, it provided the context against which it could fortify its borders against asylum seekers, principally arriving from countries across Africa and Asia.

This process took the form of a one-sided war on the rights of asylum seekers and migrants that would lead eventually into a domestic war against Islamist terrorism. The figure of the “Third World asylum seeker” blurred almost seamlessly into that of the “terrorist,” and the police powers for monitoring and controlling both largely overlapped.

Second, the British state deployed counter-terror policing against foreign dissidents at home in order to demonstrate political loyalty to its allies abroad: police batons held aloft with one hand, olive branches in the other. Algerian, Egyptian, Kurdish and Tamil migrant communities in particular were subject to this repression, which was later enhanced by a rash of counter-terror laws.

Across Europe, these political realignments towards securitization were expressed through an increasingly entangled relationship between controlling migration and countering “terrorism.” This would submerge the continent in racial turmoil and lay the groundwork for today’s mass securitization.

From 2001 onwards, the Global War on Terror inspired a global tolerance towards permissive state violence — directed most often, though by no means exclusively, at Muslim populations. Countries worldwide set up an international securitization framework and massively expanded their capacity for policing, surveillance and expulsion during this time. In this way, the expansion of the counter-terrorism complex is inseparable from the contemporary regimes of capitalism and globalization that it helps govern.

The lingering nexus between Muslims, asylum seekers, migrants and a supposed “existential threat to the nation” animated counter-terrorism policy from the 1990s through the early 2000s and coalesced into a tighter political program in the decade that followed the 2007-08 global financial crisis. This period was marked by an acceleration of ultra-nationalist tendencies across Europe and beyond, often held together by politics of virulent Islamophobia, xenophobia and hardline monoculturalism.

Britain embraced this new political realignment with its change of leadership in 2010, after which a series of Conservative-led governments took the opportunity to further ratchet up the counter-terrorism complex. These post-2010 governments married the work of counter-terrorism to more tightly managed nationalist frameworks of supposed British values and muscular liberalism — in contrast to the supposed leniency of state multiculturalism.

It was under the first of these governments that then Home Secretary Theresa May pushed through her flagship Immigration Act (2014), creating a more hostile environment for migrants and asylum seekers in the UK.

Since 2016, we have seen a further unraveling of the political consensus, with hard-right parties surging to state power worldwide, ongoing instability wherever the Global War on Terror was waged and broader geopolitical polarization.

In this context, British counter-terrorism has reached its logical conclusion, by overextending and ideologically collapsing in on itself. The British state is increasingly justifying its counter-terrorism policy to target a far-right that it has itself helped conjure into being. All manner of politics are being ritually denounced as “extremist,” from the direct-action environmental organization Extinction Rebellion and BLM demonstrations to right-wing COVID-19 conspiracy theorists.

National security and counter-terrorism are not only a means of amassing state power, but also offer the framework through which this power is applied: with counter-terrorism being incorporated into social provision and political programs, from funding streams for civil society to anti-domestic violence strategies. Through this, national security policies have trickled down to domestic politics: what began as strategies ostensibly to police the “fringes” of British society have poisoned the heart of political life.

In this way, national security has increasingly become the means through which politics are managed, filtered and controlled: acting as a buffer against democratic politics from below, and serving as justification for an expanding array of powers from above. Alongside this, it has allowed for the consolidation of shadowy “securocrats” at the very center of state power, with an array of think tanks, lobbies and agencies clustered around the hallways of the powerful.

Political Economy of securitization

Over the last decade, counter-terrorism policies have increasingly moved into the realm of private industry and public-private collaboration, with counter-terrorism work being outsourced to an array of third-party private actors alongside a ballooning array of state agencies. It is they who — through a mix of private lobbying and public advocacy — attempt to move their own agendas and secure their own material interests through the burgeoning counter-terrorism industry. This, in turn, has generated a self-reinforcing drive towards further securitization, surveillance and profit.

The turn towards public-private collaboration for counter-terrorism purposes since 2010 —particularly in the context of tackling “terrorism” and “extremism” online — has facilitated the penetration of tech companies and start-ups into the security field. Major players include the “counter-extremism” enterprise Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which has partnerships with governments in no fewer than ten countries including Britain, and has collaborated closely with major social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google.

The Henry Jackson Society (HJS) is one example of the coterie of pro-securitization think tanks. Set up in 2005, its political council has featured government figures such as past and present British Home Secretaries Amber Rudd and Priti Patel, alongside a number of former Labour Secretaries of State, including Margaret Beckett and Ben Bradshaw. Undergoing an ideological lurch to the right towards the end of the 2000s, it managed to consolidate various tendencies of neoconservatism, militarism, Islamophobia and Zionism and convert them into policies and proposals for the new Conservative governments of the decade.

Staff have regularly passed through the HJS as part of the revolving door between various pro-security organizations and political advocacy work, while senior members have been placed in high-ranking positions over the past decade. Former HJS director William Shawcross served as head of the Charity Commission between 2012 and 2018 — during which time it oversaw an unprecedented crackdown on Muslim and pro-Palestine advocacy and made interventions in favor of curtailing the powers of the charity sector. Shawcross has most recently been appointed to oversee an “independent” government review of the Prevent program, as well as being announced as the Commissioner for Public Appointments overseeing appointments to public bodies in Britain.

Moreover, the head of the Extremism Analysis Unit, one of the state’s counter-terror departments, disclosed that analysis provided by the HJS and its side-project, Student Rights, shaped analyses that the Unit provided to counter-terror practitioners in order to inform their own work. Moreover, groups like the HJS form part of the regular inside-track of media coverage and “expertise” on issues of national security.

It is through these dynamics and relationships that the ideological underpinnings of the counter-terror complex — namely, Islamophobia and xenophobia — are made material. They are laundered through the media and state apparatus and made to seem like common sense, consolidated through the legal frameworks governing them and enforced by statutory institutions — presided over by the likes of HJS alumni.

Counter-securitization strategies

Counter-terror policies cannot be decoupled from the issue of policing because they are a weathervane for its eventual trajectory: in Britain, counter-terrorism forms part of the long historical arc of state violence that is entwined with migration control and policing.

Tackling the counter-terror complex necessarily means taking on consolidated power blocs, well-monied interest groups and a state able and willing to exercise all manner of coercive instruments in its defense — not least, counter-terror policy itself.

Reframing the struggle against “counter-terrorism” as part and parcel of the wider struggle against state violence requires a reconsideration of strategies, including the tactical repertoire and political program of campaigns against securitization.

The tactical arsenal of counter-securitization organizing has often hinged on legislative demands. These have generally rested on a mix of media-intensive advocacy campaigns, the defense of legal rights and agitation for greater transparency and oversight through reviews and inquiries.

These have at times amounted to important interventions, with specific counter-terror provisions or cases being deemed unlawful or otherwise reversed. The firewall of human rights laws have certainly provoked the ire of the Conservative Johnson government, now seeking to curtail legal rights. But the lesson of the last 20 years of counter-terrorism underscores the relative impotence of this legal approach as an overall strategy in the face of an expanding security state, whereby judicial defeats are quickly patched over with legal changes.

Rights-based organizing seeks recourse from institutions of the state to adjudicate over violence that is, in the final instance, produced by the state. Despite crucial individual campaign wins, by design legal rights cannot ultimately be the main means to transcend the matrix of domination that characterizes the relationship between the security state and its population.

Furthermore, such campaigns often require choosing politically uncomplicated cases of “good citizens” as the subjects of advocacy in order to elicit public sympathy. In doing so, they often inadvertently mirror the state strategy of differentiating between “worthy” and “unworthy” subjects, who under national security powers are made vulnerable to all manner of exclusion and coercion.

Mapping out the political economy of counter-terrorism can help demystify the relations, institutions and circuits through which counter-terrorism policy is produced. It can also help draw us away from disempowering and over-determinist notions of counter-terrorism policy as being driven by unstoppable laws of nature and throw light onto where effective organizing efforts can be directed.

Recovering solidarity

Recovering solidarity in an age of national security — particularly with those deemed supposedly beyond the pale of support — is a vital, and difficult, component of any campaign against securitization that seeks to build a political base that can advance popular sovereignty.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel is one useful example in illustrating how to build popular pressure through campaigns that disrupt the networks of power, private actors and influence that shape such issues. Private companies seeking to profit from securitization should be subjected to mass public pressure; civil society organizations buying-in to “counter-extremism” work should be robustly confronted: the aim should be to confront and repel the encroachment of counter-terrorism into all areas of social life.

Perhaps the single biggest limitation of traditional civil society, NGO-based and legalistic organizing is that, in being forced to guard against a barrage of attacks, it can only offer an endless defense of the present and does not articulate a political vision for the future.

In developing struggles against the security state, the political programs of anti-securitization campaigners should not just reactively oppose individual laws but also advance a vision for a post-security society, similar to the approach taken by abolitionist organizers.

It is a symptom of deep political decay that “counter-terror” and “national security” policies have gradually come to fill the space in British politics vacated by democratic and social welfare programs, however partial and inadequate they were. Social problems are being addressed as security issues and the projection of political force has prevailed over any semblance of popular sovereignty. The conscription of vast swathes of the public into “counter-terror” work — for example through the Prevent surveillance program — has also socialized national security.

The atmosphere of widespread suspicion that this generates among the general public serves as the cultural project of this instability, replacing the sense of collectivism of earlier generations and going even further than the cult of individualism fostered under neoliberalism. This is the antithesis of the solidarity that is needed to build an emancipatory political project and must be overcome through struggle.

Challenging the security state

There have been recent attempts to develop a wide-ranging agenda that goes beyond simple opposition to counter-terrorism policies and spurns short-sighted nostalgia for a pre-9/11 era.

This includes the 2019 report by the Transnational Institute: Leaving the War on Terror: A Progressive Alternative to Counter-Terrorism Policy, which presents a damning indictment of the domestic and international policies and practices that have defined the past two decades in Britain — including the use of torture, powers of citizenship deprivation, the emergence of what they term a “shadow criminal justice system,” alongside opaque and unaccountable security services.

Informed by the example of the Northern Ireland peace process — and while recognizing the limitations of that example — their recommendations are organized around five key areas for policy transformation: democracy, evidence, human rights, community consent and peace. These include setting up an independent commission on the causes of political violence with public participation, scrapping the Prevent surveillance program, ending the use of Terrorism Act powers to criminalize freedom of expression and association and, finally, repealing citizenship deprivation and passport removal powers.

Similarly, CAGE’s 2020 report Beyond PREVENT: A Real Alternative To Securitised Policies provides a road map towards building a post-Prevent society rather than becoming trapped in circular discussions on reforming the program. Its three-pronged framework includes: addressing the root grievances from which “terrorism” draws strength; countering disenfranchisement and alienation that hinders communities from organizing for their betterment; and dismantling the repressive policy architecture established by Prevent and counter-terrorism.

Further efforts to articulate such broad-ranging programs are very much welcome — steps to organize them into existence, even more so. It is only through doing so that we can resolve the congealed mass of political contradictions that the counter-terrorism complex seeks to silence and criminalize.

Challenging the security state must be an exercise in world-making and a curative to the distress that characterizes the one in which we now live. To do so, it must struggle against the long shadows cast by imperialism, capitalism and the deep alienation fostered by them.

This is an abridged version of “The 9/11 complex: The political economy of counter-terrorism,” originally published as part of the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2021 report.

Azfar Shafi

Azfar Shafi is a researcher on counter-terrorism and security for the UK-based advocacy organization CAGE.

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