Mark Rowley outlines essential contribution of regular officers and suggests police cuts could hamper counter-terrorism effort in time of growing threat
Mark Rowley’s comments came as he warned that hundreds of people who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State had returned to Britain.
Britain’s counter-terror chief has said he will fight for police to be kept on the beat, amid fears budget cuts will see fewer officers gathering the vital intelligence needed to thwart a growing tide of people trying to stage terrorist attacks.
Assistant commissioner Mark Rowley’s comments came as he warned that hundreds of people who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State had returned to Britain, and of a growing threat of attacks with several plots to kill foiled.
Over the last three years arrests for terrorism offences were up 56% and Rowley, the national police lead for counter-terrorism, said his detectives across Britain had made 338 arrests over the last year. The scale of counter-terrorism activity by police was on a level similar to that after the July 2005 attacks on London, Rowley said.
He estimated over half of 700 Britons who had traveled to Islamic State territory were back in Britain. There was no end in sight to the numbers attracted and incited by jihadi propaganda spread mainly through social media, police said.
Against the context of intense activity to thwart a terrorist attack, Rowley gave the clearest public indication yet that he and fellow police chiefs are concerned cuts to neighbourhood police officers working in communities could hamper the counter-terrorism effort. It is a fear police chiefs have been discussing privately for some time.
Police forces are bracing themselves for further large cuts, some 20% to 25% by 2020, from the new Conservative government, on top of the cuts suffered in the last five years. Thousands of officer jobs are in jeopardy.
One chief constable, Chris Sims in the West Midlands, has said his force will cut neighbourhood policing, which has been seen as vital for building relations with communities that hold intelligence that may help thwart the terrorist threat.
The government is giving more money for counter-terrorism policing given the escalating threat.
But Rowley, speaking at a media briefing, said an “essential” contribution was made by regular officers on the beat, developing relationships with communities and protective work. He said: “Counter-terrorism is not simply delivered by the counter-terrorism network,” adding that “mainstream policing makes a big contribution”.
With budget negotiations due within months, Rowley said: “Our discussions over the next few months in terms of the spending rounds … around counter-terrorism, will make the point it’s not simply about the counter-terrorism network enforcement, it’s about the strength of those other elements of policing …”
Asked if cuts to uniformed officers could jeopardise the counter-terrorism effort, Rowley said: “It depends on the combination of the size of spending cuts and the nature of the changes police forces make in terms of that.”
Police chiefs warning of any damaging effects of budget cuts have to walk a fine line. The government has proven unimpressed by dire warnings, believing they have shown they can cut costs and crime.
Britain’s fight against terrorism is split between the domestic security service MI5, which leads on gathering and developing intelligence, and the police making arrests and doing other preventative work.
In the last parliament, the Conservatives actively considered stripping police of their lead on counter-terrorism and handing it the the National Crime Agency, a move that the powerful home affairs committee of MPs supported.
Police counter-terrorism efforts are organised in a series of regional hubs, known as the “network”.
Rowley said:” I think the network is an absolute strength. He added: “We are in the right position to nationally work alongside [the security services] and have a high degree of connectivity to local policing, which is essential.”
Rowley said police may ask for new powers to force people on to deradicalisation programmes to beef up efforts to prevent people before they stage or plan attacks: “Do we need a mandatory counter-radicalisation programme that we can force people on to?” the counter-terrorism chief said.
Currently only those convicted of an offence can be forced into a programme to deflect them from extremist views.
The threat from Isis and those they incite comes in addition to those threatening national security who existed before the rise of the Syria and Iraqi-based extremists.
In essence, while Isis gains the headlines, al-Qaida and its affiliates also continue to plot attacks.
Rowley said: “At one end of the spectrum you’ve got well-organised plots, potentially choreographed and even directed from overseas.
“At the other end, you’ve got people who are inspired by some of the propaganda and messages and other communications coming out from Isis but largely acting of their own volition.
“Those will often be low-tech in methodology – very basic in terms of bomb-making, using knives or plans to use cars to run people over.
“The challenge for us is that range from the sophisticated, organised, directed through to the volatile lone actor. The reach of this problem into communities is different to what we’ve had before.”
Counter-terrorism officials are still unsure exactly why Britain faces such an intense and sustained jihadi threat. Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe stressed it was a Europe-wide problem with thousands having gone from countries such as France, Belgium and Germany to jihadi controlled lands.
Events such as Isis’s declaration of a caliphate had seen a spike in terrorism arrests in Britain, according to police figures.
Of the 338 arrests in the last year, 17% were aged under 20, 11% were female and eight out of ten were British nationals.
Imran Khawaja, 27, was jailed for 12 years in February. He was filmed in a terrorist propaganda video with a severed head and faked his own death so he could return to the UK from a Syrian training camp.
In May 2014, Mashudur Choudhury, 31, was convicted and jailed for four years. He was one of at least five men from Portsmouth who travelled to a jihadi camp in Syria to join al-Qaida-inspired rebel groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Mohammed Nahin Ahmed and Yusuf Zubair Sarwar, from Birmingham, were arrested and convicted in December 2014 after their family members reported them to police.