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Combatting Terrorism and Organised Crime in the UK: A Synergistic Approach

Updated: Jun 18, 2018

Military interventions and the subsequent investment by international leaders including the United States and the United Kingdom into development programmes aspiring to encourage the growth of stable and predictable nations, has encouraged the growth of the private security sector. While the role of such commercial enterprises in foreign conflict zones is akin to that of the conventional military units from which they draw their pool of employees, the reduced funding for public sector services within domestic environments caused by the present financial climate, has increased the reliance upon the private security industry by Law Enforcement and Security services within the UK. The ever-growing threat to UK national security from Organised Criminal Groups and Terrorists requires for specialists from within both the private and public sector to evaluate and to develop appropriate modus operandi in order to effectively counter these threats.

While elements of the security industry may argue that they offer the panacea to this concerning situation, the covert activities required to counter the identified threat groups raises a number of legislative and ethical challenges. This point is a particularly pertinent consideration for incumbent governments who remain eager to retain the support of a voting population, and the public services employed by when considering the use of private security professionals. Such organisations are aware of the widespread public mistrust of them, as emphasised by the reactions and media interest into controversial undercover law enforcement operations (Lewis & Evans,2013; Splaek & O’Rawe, 2014) such as that of officers Mark Kennedy and Bob , and the release of classified evidence by Edward Snowden illustrating the intercept of communications by foreign states (Greenwald, 2013; MacAskill et al., 2013). Although the aforementioned examples may have resulted in great criticism, the necessity to conduct covert operations in the interest of public safety remains.

Acknowledging the range of threats to public safety and security, the Strategic Security and Defense Review (2010c) outlines the existing operational parameters within which to achieve the aims of the National Security Strategy (2010a). Collaboratively these published documents provide a framework for evaluating strategic threats and adopting appropriate responses. In support of this political focus, the UK state is transforming its Counter Terrorism (CT) infrastructure, with changes to potentially the transfer of responsibility for CT from the Metropolitan Police to the National Crime Agency (NCA) (Home Office, 2014). The challenging and potentially high-risk nature of CT and operations against criminal groups (OCG's) requires the performance of covert actions; in addition to the Security and Intelligence Agencies (SIA’s), the NCA international experts in the planning and execution of human intelligence and surveillance operations. The potential addition of CT responsibilities to the NCA is reflective of the continued developmental approach of the present UK government towards Law Enforcement since the Labour government of the early 2000’s, but also the recognition that there is a requirement to develop effective operational techniques to counter both terrorists and serious criminals. While the UK has over 40 years experience of conducting operations in Northern Ireland, an on-going requirement exists to conduct proactive surveillance operations within the rest of its territories in order to gain intelligence and to support operations against other groups which pose a threat to the security of the nation; the capacity and application to perform such operations should be considered in order to ensure that techniques remain effective. Such a review process could consider both advances in the technological capabilities that are available to support surveillance tasks, existing and previous methods adopted by agencies and services which may be appropriate to the present environment, and the current legal and ethical challenges which exist in the UK.

It would be appropriate to initially outline that previous definitions of terrorism have not been without drawbacks (Lord Carlile of Berriew, 2011). Lord Lloyd of Berwick (1996) attempted to revise the definition adopted in the Prevention of Terrorism Act (1989), by endorsing the adoption of the description used by the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigations which stated that terrorism is the “the use of serious violence against persons or property, or threat to use such violence, to intimidate or coerce a government, the public or any section of the public, in order to promote political, social or ideological objectives”. he still accepted that the definition was not without flaws, as it did not include electronic attacks and disruptive actions towards air traffic control. A search for an appropriate definition therefore continues. While it has been widely accepted that an all-encompassing statement does not exist at present (Lord Carlile of Berriew, 2011), section 1 of the Terrorism Act (2000) acts as a recognised definition to guide the UK legal system (Appendix 1) Similar challenges have been experienced by those attempting to define the complex subject of organised crime. The document “Local to Global: Reducing the Risk from Organised Crime” (2011) described organised crime as a group of activities which involves “individuals, normally working with others with the capacity and capability to commit serious crime on a continuing basis, which includes elements of planning, control and coordination, and benefits those involved” (Home Office, 2011). This latter definition outlines a common theme between terrorism and crime; the commonality being that groups of individuals plan and carry out actions for personal gain at the expense of the security of others.

Governments of civilised nations have a primary responsibility to protect national populations. The national security strategy for the United Kingdom, " A strong Britain in an age of uncertainty" (2010a), ranks the threat from International terrorism upon UK interests both at home and abroad as a Tier One threat to national security and the potential impacts of a significant increase in the levels of organised crime affecting the UK as a Tier Two threat. These high rankings should not perhaps be viewed to present themselves unexpectedly as individuals and groups have historically committed organised criminal acts in order to achieve personal gain in terms of wealth and power (Fiorentini & Peltzman, 1997), and orchestrated acts of violence aiming to cause destruction and to instill fear in the name of ideological and political beliefs (Jenkins, 1974; Crenshaw, 1981; Chandler & Gunaratna, 2007). Reassuringly, the recognition of the potential impacts of these threats has not merely resulted in responses limited to the production of strategic guidelines, outlining the potential impacts and stating the governmental committal to protecting the United Kingdom, it's interests and citizens, but also to an acknowledgement that they are a daily reality which threatens both UK physical and financial security (HM Government, 2010b). These threats include the potential large-scale devastation and loss of life caused by a terrorist attack and the relatively small scale, yet less devastating loss of life caused by crime, be that related to drugs, firearms or another related means. The associated instability caused by the threats to life and infrastructure from terrorist attacks and crime results in an existing and perceived lack of confidence in a region by both commercial and foreign partners. The reticence to invest in such regions can potentially thwart national development, international collaboration and therefore long-term global security, alongside negatively impacting upon the quality of living of nations populous. A prudent threat assessment is necessary to manage potentially apocalyptic responses from Governmental and public bodies. While the first published National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) which was included in the UK National Security Strategy (2010) classifies the threat from international terrorism, including the potential increase in terrorism related to Northern Ireland as a Tier one threat in terms of likelihood and impact, it does not differentiate between the different sources of terrorism which may potentially impact upon the UK and its interests. This is important, as differences in the background and the adopted methods of different groups will determine the effectiveness of responses. For example, clear differentiations have existed between the individuals who have carried out high impact terrorist attacks on members of the UK public in the name of Islam and the historic adoption of strategic attacks upon authoritative and public figures by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Similarly, the impacts of different organised crime groups differ dependent upon a range of factors including the type of crime, the size and locality of a crime group and its ability to negatively influence public officials and services. This unfortunate situation demands an appropriate and pragmatic approach to ensure that UK security is sustained. The growing recognition that there is a need for national agencies and public services to increasingly collaborate, not only in response to potential crossovers between organised crime and but also to operate in an increasingly challenging public and financial climate, is initially reflected by the common adoption of strategic framework components in both the National Strategic Assessments for Counter-Terrorism and Serious and Organised Crime; Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare. Such a thematic statement could be viewed to indicate the beginning of an influx of new methods and the shared use of existing practice, when it is viewed to be appropriate. Recent global interventions are illustrative of the necessity for early and on-going communications to take place between different bodies, particularly in recognition of the increasing evidence of the crime: terrorism nexus. The crime: terror paradigm has its foundations in a number of key areas (Makarenko, 2004); shared access to specialised services (e.g. counterfeiting), access to specialised knowledge (e.g. cybercrime), operational support (e.g. trafficking and smuggling networks) and the financial gain offered by criminal acts (e.g. narcotics) (Makarenko, 2012). These criminal and terrorist hybrid groups may grow in different ways; crime groups (OCGs) may adopt extreme and violent approaches, prior to seeking political recognition, or they may form from terrorist groups that adopt a political facade in order to hide criminal activities. Prior to the recent day threats from Islamic extremist groups, paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland have historically threatened the security and stability of the UK. While Loyalist paramilitary groups were engaged in criminal activities from as early as the 1970s in order to finance terrorist activities (Makarenko, 2012), members of both Loyalist and Republican groups may have increasingly engaged in crime for individual financial gain (Independent Monitoring Commission, 2011). In addition to interactions with criminal elements, evidence exists that terrorists such as dissidents in Northern Ireland are increasingly employing tactics used by other extremist factions as observed on the battlefields of the Middle East, having viewed instructional footage provided by jihadists on the internet (Oppenheimer, 2014), a vast number of examples exist to demonstrate that the complex links between organised crime and terrorism become particularly prominent during times of armed conflict. The fact that parties on all sides of the political divide of the troubles experienced in Northern Ireland have been linked to both terrorism and serious crime is not isolated in terms of the potential impacts of the relationship upon UK security. Insecurity, organised crime and opium trafficking has also required focused contributions from military, intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic parties in Afghanistan. Furthermore, more recent developments in Syria have highlighted the potential risks of interaction between criminals and terrorists; this is of particular importance to UK security given the increasing volume of British citizens that have gained battlefield experience in the region in support of conflicting groups. It is that individuals with criminal intent can gain both experience of aggressive actions and potential access to weapons, which may be used to cause harm to the UK. The compounding factors observed through the relationship between crime and terrorism are concerning; the increased availability of resources to commit crimes and terrorist and the opportunities of financial gain for personal benefit and to facilitate terrorism will continue to motivate subjects from both groups to interact. The level of threat to the security and stability of the UK will remain high while groups and individuals are increasingly exposed to each other, communicate and collaborate. It is therefore imperative that the UK national security infrastructure considers how it may be able to effectively counter the threats from both terrorist and criminal groups in a period of increased public scrutiny and financial challenges. Agencies and services charged with responsibility for the security of the UK must be empowered with robust and effective capabilities and procedures in order to fulfill their different roles; it would be right to initially consider the legal parameters within which agencies charged with national security and how the UK has previously responded to this threat prior to considering developments.

Prior to considering existing nuances between different interventions, it would be appropriate to consider the strategic guidelines, which exist to provide overarching rationales for operational responses to counter both terrorism and crime. It may be of worthy note that the UK Home Secretary at the time, Theresa May confirmed in its foreword that the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy (2013) was strongly influenced by the Counter Terrorism strategy, CONTEST (2011). The strategy outlined the aim to combat serious and criminals through promoting increased collaboration between partners, to be led by the National Crime Agency, which became operational on the 7 October 2013. While the document focuses on the four outlined strategic areas, the immediate focus is determined as Pursue; aiming to prosecute and disrupt serious and criminals. The published strategy splits this focus into five key areas; to establish strong, effective and collaborative , to develop capabilities, attack criminal finances, ensure that effective legal powers are available and to improve upon existing international capabilities The NCA fulfills this responsibility through proactive action in the form of intelligence collection and analysis, leading to an investigation and either direct intervention or through leading collaborative actions. Similarly, CONTEST (2011) defines the purpose of Pursue as stopping terrorist attacks in the UK and against its interests overseas, through intelligence collection, investigation, disruptive actions and prosecution where possible (HM Government, 2010b, pp. 46). Both proactive approaches require agencies and to undertake operations both within and foreign territories. While CONTEST (2011) recognised the need for increased collaboration between the intelligence and security services, in order to coordinate intelligence collection and responses, the strategic paper outlines the challenges faced by UK services to monitor communications between target individuals and groups, in an age where sophisticated technology has enabled increasingly secure transmissions of information to take place. The intercept of communications is a major component of modern intelligence collection; facilitating the ability to monitor and record the "communications, travel and the movement of money" (HM Government, 2010, pp. 48) between both terrorists and criminals. The importance of this form of collection to UK security is reflected by the construction of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) (RIPA), which enables intrusive surveillance to take place if it's justification is warranted enough to satisfy the conditions required to permit interference with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Council of Europe, 1943), a person's right to respect for their private and family life, home and correspondence. While it is clear that the interception of communications is a vital component of intelligence collection operations for law enforcement, security and intelligence services, and military units, is both controversial and challenging for a plethora of reasons.

The use and existence of interception cannot be in a UK court of Law; ECHR Article 6, the right to a fair trial is consequently protected (Council of Europe, 1943). While previous debates have taken place to consider the impacts of changes to this legislation (HM Government, 2009) it presently remains in place, thereby satisfying potential critics of 'state intrusion' for the immediate period. The power of such public expression should not be underestimated. In addition to a nation which could be described as conflict-weary and wary following costly operational commitments in the Middle East, the discontent within elements of the British public at the use of interception and the perceived intrusion upon an individual's privacy has been further exasperated by the well publicised revelations in 2013 of a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, regarding the intercept of communications of high profile figures. While such challenges exist to the use of intercept, the existence of RIPA (2000) enables its use in appropriate circumstances. This, therefore, supports elements of tactical operations with a valuable resource of 'real time' support, particularly in terms of the planning and deployment of other intelligence collection assets, including the use of mobile surveillance operatives and human intelligence sources. Such resources are vital; while the digital surveillance of transactions and the intercept of communications is a crucial component in many operations, the utilisation of human intelligence sources and the deployment of surveillance operatives is still necessary in order to provide forewarning of the actions and intentions of subjects, and to witness and provide definite confirmation of actions by individuals. Directed covert surveillance in the course of investigating the actions and movements of subjects is covered under RIPA part II (2000), as it is viewed to be as a means of obtaining private information about an individual while ensuring that an individual is unaware that any such action is taking place.

Legal approval for surveillance operations in the UK will only be granted if viewed to be a necessary and proportionate course of action; the covert gain of private information, to be used as intelligence and evidence for a specific operation may be classified as directed surveillance. Such physical surveillance requires highly trained individuals, capable of making dynamic risk assessments in potentially volatile situations; the skills sets and adopted approaches may differ depending upon a target subject. Such operations are conducted by the security services, police forces, the National Crime Agency, and military units to counter threats to national security from both terrorists and serious criminals. The UK military has a wealth of experience of conducting covert operations in Northern Ireland. Covert units including the Special Reconnaissance Regiment and its predecessor have gained a wealth of experience in conducting surveillance operations, which have empowered it to perform similar roles in other territories (Moran, 2013). Military human intelligence units have therefore developed working practices in highly stressful environments, carrying out operations against armed forces and terrorists often well trained in counter surveillance drills, which may benefit future collaborative approaches to tackling the CT: OCG challenges within the UK.

It is important to consider a range of ethical implications prior to adopting new methodologies to use within the national territories. While there may have been some initial successes in Northern Ireland, changes have taken place in terms of the level of public scrutiny and the increased oversight of operations due to examples of human rights breaches and Covert Human Intelligence Sources committing serious crimes in the province (Moran, 2013). It is therefore crucial that any future practice developments do not make similar mistakes as the public backlash from any revelations in the modern world of instant communications could be devastating for the National Security infrastructure, potentially leading to further capability limiting changes. An example of such critical feeling among citizens, related to the perceived intrusive nature of surveillance operations has already been reflected by the number of publications outlining unrest in elements of the United States of America, following changes to law enforcement since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Waxman (2008) has since expressed the opinion that the challenges to gaining external and public support for activities to counter terrorism which may be viewed as negatively impacting upon the private life of an individual, are further exasperated by the potential internal difficulties faced by Law Enforcement agencies, more accustomed to taking responsibility for traditional law and order activities, delivered on a local scale.

The great contribution and the determining effects of the appropriate deployment of intelligence collection assets during counter-terrorism operations require for it to remain covert for prolonged periods of time; the same considerations exist for investigations into serious and crime. The UK has responded to this operational challenge by attempting to empower services through the development of RIPA and the construction of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), latterly renamed the National Crime Agency (NCA) in 2006. The NCA has the authority to lead other law enforcement agencies nationally; supported by an international network of liaison officers who support the agency to perform proactive and long-term operations to disrupt and counter serious and criminals (Home Office, 2011). SOCA was empowered under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005) to conduct covert surveillance and human intelligence operations, both of which may require the long-term deployment of surveillance operatives and the ability to build and maintain relationships with individuals. The information and subsequent intelligence developed from such operations enable the Agency to perform proactive and reactive intelligence-led actions in support of its own operations and for designated tasks on the behalf of partner services and agencies. While SOCA relied upon the previously acquired expertise and skills of a workforce taken from precursor services including the National Crime Squad, National Criminal Intelligence Service and elements of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise in order to fulfill the immediate surveillance requirements upon its inception in 2006, a cultural change and commitment to becoming a world-leading Law Enforcement Agency since the launch of the NCA has resulted in changes in terms of officer training, more aligned with that of national police forces. Furthermore, the stated aspiration to become facilitates opportunities for the development of new and better methods. A consequence of improved methodological approaches and the associated operational successes of the NCA would strengthen the agreement that they should adopt degrees of responsibility for CT in the future. Critical foresight based on the present political climate may suggest that logistical and financial reasons rather than performance will be the rationale for such a decision. Regardless of the reasoning, the increasing indications of collaboration between and criminal groups warrant the completion of a series of reviews and a detailed research process in order to determine how to improve the effectiveness of the UK National Security machinery in terms of proactive operations.

Given the high volume of individuals known and suspected to be associated with, and or involved in terrorism or serious and crime, the UK private security industry may offer a resource of highly trained and experienced surveillance and intelligence operators, capable of supporting public security, responsible for identifying and disrupting these pervading threats. Such consideration would offer financial benefits in addition to supporting national security, given that these specialist resources could be and contracted on an ad-hoc, flexible basis if required. Furthermore, given that a large proportion of the professionals within this element of the security industry were once members of the public utilizing their services again, all be it as a private contractor rather than as a public servant, interoperability with public sector teams would be possible, prior vetting current or recent, and importantly the motivational commitment to protecting national security evident.


Council of Europe. (1948). European convention on human rights.

Chandler, M. & Gunaratna, R. (2007). Countering terrorism: Can we meet the threat of global violence? London, UK: Reaktion Books.

Crenshaw, M. (1981). The causes of terrorism. Comparative politics, 379-399.

Fiorentini, G., & Peltzman, S. (Eds.). (1997). The economics of crime. Cambridge University Press.

Greenwald, G. (2013). XKeyscore: NSA tool collects' nearly everything a user does on the internet'. The Guardian, 31 July 2013.

Horsley, R. A. (1979). “The Sicarii; Ancient Jewish “terrorists.” Journal of Religion, 59, 439-440.

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HM Government. (2000). Terrorism Act. HM Government. (2005). Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Retrieved from

HM Government. (2009). Intercept as evidence: A report. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

HM Government. (2010a). A strong Britain in an age of uncertainty: The national security strategy. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

HM Government. (2010b). CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s strategy for countering

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