Overview: The UK remains one of the strongest and most able U.S. partners in the global fight against terrorism. CT cooperation with the UK is excellent.
Throughout most of 2019, the terrorism threat level in the UK was at the second-highest rating (severe). In early November 2019, the UK lowered the threat level to substantial, meaning the threat of an attack was reduced from “highly likely” to “likely.” UK officials categorize Islamist terrorism as the greatest threat to national security, though officials identify a rising REMT threat, which they refer to as “extreme right-wing” terrorism. In 2019, the UK government transferred responsibility for investigations and operations to counter REMT from local police to the national-level Security Service (MI5). Since March 2017, police and security services have disrupted 15 Islamist and seven REMT plots.
The threat level for Northern Ireland-related terrorism within Northern Ireland, set separately from England, Scotland, and Wales, remains severe. In November 2019, the four-member Independent Reporting Commission published the second of four annual reports assessing that paramilitarism “remains a stark reality of life” in Northern Ireland. The report noted that the absence of an executive and functioning legislative assembly since the collapse of Northern Ireland’s devolved government in January 2017, as well as the “continuing uncertainty regarding Brexit,” have made efforts to end paramilitarism “immeasurably more difficult.”
As a partner in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the UK continued to contribute to stabilization efforts in Iraq and northeastern Syria. Countering ISIS remains one of the UK’s top CT priorities, and the UK is working with regional partners to develop border infrastructure, watchlists, and biometric capabilities to counter FTF movement.
2019 Terrorist Attacks: The UK suffered one terrorist attack in November 2019, in which a convicted terrorist who was out on parole killed two people with a knife at an event highlighting education programs for violent offenders. In addition, in October, an assailant stabbed three people at a shopping mall in Manchester. The UK government initially described the attack as terrorism, but later reclassified it as a mental health incident.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Following the June 2018 release of the UK’s CONTEST CT strategy, Parliament passed legislation granting the Home Office and law enforcement entities additional authorities in February 2019.
The Counterterrorism and Border Security Act of 2019 went into effect on April 12 and included several provisions that enabled implementation of the new CONTEST strategy, including one allowing the Home Office to make it a criminal offense for UK citizens to travel to or remain in any geographic area designated by the government as “necessary to protect the public from terrorism.” To date, the UK has not formally designated any areas.
The Act also grants UK police, immigration, or customs officers the authority to stop, search, question, and detain individuals at a UK border area to determine whether they are “engaged in hostile activity.” As of December 2019, UK law enforcement authorities were coordinating on implementation guidance for this new authority.
In December 2019, the UK General Election resulted in a large majority for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in Parliament. PM Johnson has publicly called for longer sentences without the option for parole for convicted terrorist offenders and announced his intent to recruit 20,000 new police officers nationwide.
According to Home Office figures, UK law enforcement agencies made 266 arrests for terrorism-related activity from January through June 2019. As a result, 63 individuals were charged with terrorism-related offenses. The Metropolitan police say there are about 800 active investigations involving about 3,000 individuals. From July 2018 through June 2019, the UK convicted 50 people of terrorism-related offenses, and currently has more than 200 people in custody. Of those convicted, 76 percent received sentences of less than 10 years. Three were sentenced to life in prison.
The UK uses advanced biometric screening at some points of entry and utilizes biometrics for vetting during the visa process; however, some ports of entry, such as ferry ports, have no biometric screening. In 2019, the UK expanded the use of e-gate technology at major airports to include all Five Eyes travelers, as well as those from Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and travelers from the European Economic Area. E-gate incorporates facial recognition technology to match travelers with data recorded in the e-chip of eligible passports.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: The UK is a member of FATF and has observer or cooperating status in the following FATF-style regional bodies: observer of APG, observer of ESAAMLG, observer of MENAFATF, and a cooperating and supporting nation of CFATF. Its FIU, UK Financial Intelligence Unit, is also a member of the Egmont Group. The UK is also a member of the Defeat ISIS Coalition’s CIFG.
The 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act provides the legal framework to implement sanctions after the UK left the EU. In March 2019, under the Act, three statutory instruments were laid before Parliament that will ensure continuity of the UK’s counter terrorism sanctions obligations.
As of June 2019, the UK had $91,237 of terrorist assets frozen under EU Regulation 881/2002, which implements the UN Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) and al-Qa’ida sanctions regime, and an additional $11,719 frozen under the Terrorist Asset Freezing Act 2010. It also has $23,448 frozen under Council Regulation (EU) No 2580/2001.
Countering Violent Extremism: In October 2019, the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE), a non-statutory expert committee of the Home Office, published a report calling for an overhaul of the UK’s approach to “extremist behavior,” with an emphasis on what it defines as “hateful extremism.” The CCE operates independently and recommended that the Home Secretary chair a new task force charged with formulating a “victim-centered” strategy.
In April 2019, the UK released the Online Harms White Paper, announcing its intent to establish in law a new duty of care for technology companies toward users for broadly scoped “harmful content” online, which will be overseen by an independent regulator. Under this potential future law, companies and their senior executives will be held to account, including through criminal prosecution, for addressing a sweeping range of online content, including terrorist use of the internet, extremist content, disinformation, cyberbullying, and child sexual exploitation and abuse.
Birmingham, Derry/Londonderry, Leicester, London, Luton, and Manchester are members of the SCN.
International and Regional Cooperation: The UK continued to strongly support CT efforts in regional and multilateral organizations, as well as through the GCTF. The UK is also a key member of the Five Country Ministerial, which promotes multilateral ministerial dialogue on border security and counter-terrorism issues. The UK also cooperates with other OSCE participating states in the fight against terrorism.