Policing and counterinsurgency: A case from Manchester

By Alex Calvo:

Photo by Oggy Roberts.

On 07 August 2013, Greater Manchester Police posted a note on Facebook describing a sexual assault in the city centre two days earlier.[1] It explained that a 27-year-old woman had been sexually assaulted at knife-point at about 0245 on a ‘night out with her friends’ after she ‘became detached from the group’. As she walked, ‘she noticed a black man… who followed her’ and who later ‘shouted to attract her attention and then produced a flick knife, grabbing her by the wrist and leading her down an alleyway at the side of the bar’. He then proceeded to sexually assault her while he ‘continued to hold the knife to her neck’ but was ‘distracted by a passing car, which prompted the man to run off.’ The post described the attack as ‘an isolated incident’ and asked ‘people to remain on their guard while out and, where possible, try to stick together in groups and to well-lit and well-populated areas’.


Although the post by the police only provides an outline of the incident, the following conclusions may be tentatively drawn:

1. The assailant did not seem to have been aiming at any victim in particular, but rather seemed to be on the lookout for vulnerable targets.

2. The victim was seen as vulnerable because she had been separated from the group she was originally in.

3. In addition, although this is not stated, she may have been intoxicated, or at least under some degree of influence of alcohol or drugs, thus compounding her vulnerability.[2]

4. The aggressor took her to somewhere dark and hidden:, an alleyway. He did not initiate the sexual assault until he was someplace he considered ‘safe’.

This latter point prompts the question of how to prevent the use of such spaces for criminal activity, with some possible alternatives being:

  1.  Closing them, so that they cannot be used to commit crimes.
  2.  Lighting them, where there is a direct line of sight from populated areas.
  3.  Overtly monitoring them through CCTV or other ‘electronic intelligence’ [ELINT] means.
  4.  Using them as ‘hunting grounds’, covertly patrolling or monitoring them in real time.

The above alternatives can be compared to similar dilemmas in COIN, for example concerning the night and forested areas. It is easy to see both as favouring action by insurgents, but there is no reason why this should be so. Often the difference is rather psychological. Counterinsurgents tend to see the night and the forest as favouring the insurgent, allowing him to hide. Looking at it objectively, however, the counterinsurgent can take advantage of vegetation and darkness in the same way, if he stops seeing them as his enemy and starts seeing them as his ally.

However, taking advantage of the night, for example, demands changes in the way operations are conducted. Whereas fixed day patrols allow insurgents to either control the population at night (a common pattern in, for example, Vietnam) or to attack counterinsurgents at will, the latter can hunt down guerrillas in the dark if they stop seeing it as their enemy, and benefit from their technological superiority and even better partner with the local population.[3]
The night as such is neutral, but if seen as an enemy then it will actually become one.

A conventional operations example from WWII of the kind of mentality change necessary is provided by the allied experience in the South-East Asian theatre, where the Japanese were initially seen as particularly adept at jungle fighting but such perception gradually gave way, as training proceeded, to the view that allied troops could master the techniques necessary and even bring them to a greater degree of perfection than the enemy. General Slim succeeded in getting soldiers to view the jungle not as an enemy but instead as a friend. [4]

On the other hand, the second approach was the driving force behind the deforestation program in Vietnam, where instead of mastering combat in the jungle the strategy was partly to eradicate wide swathes of that terrain, in order to more easily locate and destroy the enemy.[5] Just like lightning dark areas, the idea was to make the enemy visible. Both darkness and the jungle, though, can hide attacker and defender, having no natural affinity for either.

Although criminality and insurgency cannot simply be equated, and we have to be careful in not simply uncritically translating concepts from one to the other,[6] they share a number of traits in common, making comparative studies worthwhile. One of them is that they cannot take place far away from the population, while, at the same time, they need safe havens (sometimes in the midst of the population, sometimes in isolated, remote areas, ‘isolated and remote’ not always in the literal meaning of the words). Thus, the presence of dark, unused alleys, near main streets, is a clear invitation to opportunistic crime. It may be interesting to study and map their use, employing geographical information systems. Both criminals and insurgents need to prey on the population, but at the same time they need to operate far from the eyes of the authorities. We could note how, in the case described, the attacker used the threat of force (in the shape of a knife) on a street, but did not engage in a more serious crime, potentially attracting a much more serious sentence, until he felt he could not be seen by anybody other than the victim. Thus, if caught before getting to his sanctuary, it may have been very difficult for the prosecution to prove that he intended to carry out a sexual assault, rather than a simple robbery or threat.

Another revealing bit of information in the Facebook posting by Greater Manchester Police is the fact that the aggressor ran away when a car passed by. Again, this illustrates how we are probably facing someone looking for an easy way to commit a crime, minimizing the chances of detection and punishment, and preferring to retreat to strike another day when the slightest threat appears on the horizon.

Going back to the four alternatives listed above, the first (closing off potential safe havens) may offer a relatively simple way of diminishing the scope for opportunistic crime. Sometimes this is easy and does not significantly interfere with economic and social activities. An example of this is the proper fencing of building sites, so that criminals may not take their victims into them at night. However, other grounds may not be so easy to seal off without major disruptions or great expense, an example of this being gardens and other green areas. Whereas large gardens are often fenced and closed at night, this is often not the case with smaller green areas, which tend to be unlit and close to streets. In counterinsurgency we often find similar dilemmas, with some areas employed by the enemy declared free-fire zones while others are either too heavily populated or essential in economic terms to be open to such possibility.

This brings us to the third and fourth options discussed above (overt monitoring with CCTV or other ELINT means, and use as hunting grounds). As explained, the night is neutral, and so is darkness and vegetation cover, just like criminals and insurgents can hide in them, so can police officers and counter insurgents. In Vietnam, for example, one of the key elements of the US Marine Corps’ Combined Action Program were night patrols. Those patrols were designed not to be detected by the enemy, that is, to initiate contact, not fight engagements

at the time and place chosen by insurgents, as was rather the rule in day-time patrols. This was important for different reasons, such as fewer casualties (for two reasons: the side initiating a fight tends to enjoy the benefit of surprise and retain the alternative to disengage) and moral ascendancy over the enemy (going from ‘prey’ to ‘hunter’). The night has a further advantage: by day, normal chores by civilians going about their ordinary business means that patrols will surely be detected. Actually one of their purposes is to reassure the civilian population and show that the authorities are present in the area. This reassurance, while essential in a counterinsurgency context (where the population is the ultimate arbiter of success and which is essentially an exercise in nation building) provides the enemy with an information advantage, with civilians often coerced into providing intelligence or just ‘sitting on the fence’, or insurgents disguising as civilians. On the other hand, a curfew provides the chance to ‘leave the fish without the water’ and make it possible to detect insurgents without the risk of inadvertently harming civilians.

There are, though, two key differences between the military and the police in this regard. First of all, while banning movement at night is possible in a counter insurgency scenario, this is not usually the case in a stable area under normal policing operations. In addition to legal and constitutional restrictions, it could have a very negative impact on the local economy, in particular in tourist or leisure areas such as the zone where the described incident took place, where many local businesses make a living precisely at night. Second, while the military may have the option of choosing whether to conduct visible patrols or undetected night patrols, both the applicable law, custom, and citizens expectations tend to restrict such possibility for the police. In most jurisdictions, at least in broad terms, the prevailing approach is reactive, that is officers must wait until a crime is committed to investigate and arrest those allegedly guilty. They may (and this is one of the key purposes of visible patrols) provide a measure of deterrence by ‘showing the flag’, making it clear to potential criminals that they are present in the area, but the circumstances in which they may hide in order to observe the commission of crimes and proceed against those responsible for them tend to be restricted, and often limited to fields such as drug trafficking and organized crime, where infiltration and sting operations are common. In the law of armed conflict, just belonging to the military means you can be killed or made prisoner (subject to the relevant Rules of Engagement), whereas in the criminal law, while belonging to a criminal enterprise is often a crime in and by itself, the rule is that one must carry out at least certain preparatory acts before one can be charged with a crime. Thus, someone walking in a city centre in the early hours, looking for isolated, vulnerable targets, to commit rape, would not generally be considered to be committing a crime. He would, on the other hand, be committing a crime once he employed force, or the threat of force, to move that target to an isolated area, where to conduct a sexual assault,[7] and hence the possibility of monitoring such areas.

A third factor to take into account is that, whereas insurgents will tend to react to patrols by attacking them, with either the authorities finally pushing them out from a given area or refraining from entering it,[8] the same does not apply to opportunistic criminals, who will simply seek a way not to be detected. Their goal is not to master territory and exclude government institutions, but to exploit a portion of the civilian population.

As already noted, and stressed by a number of authors, we have to be careful with analogies between counterinsurgency and policing, and cannot simply automatically translate concepts from one field to another. However, at the same time we can observe some similarities or at least employ the comparative method to shed light on certain key concepts. For example, the reliance by criminals on pre-determined hidden areas where to conduct the acts attracting the heaviest penalties (in the case study considered here an unlit area where to sexually assault a victim dragged at knife point from a street), is to some extent similar to insurgents’ reliance on a ‘logistics nose’. This term denotes the gradual piling up of material in an area chosen to fight a battle, with troops following supplies instead of the other way around, as is the norm with conventional forces.[9] There are different reasons why insurgents may choose to act this way, but one in particular is interesting when it comes to comparing insurgency with crime, namely reducing the likelihood of detection. Once weapons and ammunition are in place, troops, disguised as civilians, can travel to the hidden depots and if challenged claim that they are simply civilians, otherwise they can take up arms, conduct an attack, and then go back to being civilians.[10] Furthermore, insurgents have the initiative, by choosing when to move into the areas where their weapons and other supplies are awaiting them. Similarly, a criminal who has pre-selected a spot where to commit his crime, but who is awaiting in another area, may look to all intents and purposes as an ordinary citizen. Even if his behaviour is suspicious, it may be difficult to prove that he intends to commit a crime, or at least the more serious crime he has in mind. Thus, in the case described, the author first followed the victim, then threatened her, and did not commit the more serious crime (sexual assault) until he had forced her to move to the area he had previously chosen and which he thought was away from prying eyes.

Concerning his weapon, he may have been carrying it from home, but it is also possible that he had hidden it nearby and only took it once he detected a vulnerable target. That way, if challenged by the police, no weapon would have been found on him.

Finally, with regard to the advice provided by the police in their Facebook note, namely to ‘stick together in groups and to well-lit and well-populated areas’, we can also find analogies in counterinsurgency, where often authorities will seek to concentrate the population, or restrict its movements, to more effectively protect it, as done by US forces in the Philippine-American War. However, one of the key distinctions between policing and counterinsurgency is the degree of coercion allowed, clear from the fact that the Greater Manchester Police are only advising people to stick together and remain in well illuminated areas where others are present, having no legal powers to compel citizens to do so. This difference, however, may be just one of degree, as the limited success or even backfiring of mandatory policies such as the Strategic Hamlets Program in Vietnam shows, although a similar approach worked in the Malayan Emergency. In practice, authorities in both policing and COIN scenarios may be forced to rely on persuasion, rather than coercion, in order to bring about the social changes necessary to deprive criminals and insurgents of the social milieu from which they pray. In the case of rural insurgency, for example, the introduction of new technologies and improvements to transportation infrastructure, or a wider social and economic trend towards urbanization, may provide an incentive for the population to re-concentrate out of their own volition, thus making it easier to provide security. In the case of policing, the development of new leisure and entertainment models[11] may reduce the scope for the kind of opportunistic sexual crime described in the note by Greater Manchester Police.

Conclusions: As noted by different authors, we have to be careful not to confuse policing
with COIN and carelessly apply concepts and lessons from one field to the other. However, at the same time, we have to be aware of some overlapping notions which at the very least may facilitate both scholarship and practice. Greater Manchester Police has explained to the public a case which shows some of this overlap and which can be the basis to discuss some of the strategies that may be used in both policing and counterinsurgency..

From the outline of the case, it seems that the aggressor was on the lookout for vulnerable targets, the two key criteria being isolation and (perhaps) intoxication. Once he located one, he used the threat of force to take her to a dark alleyway, where he hoped to be able to assault her at no risk of detection.

This brings up the issue of how to prevent the use of such spaces, a concern in both the fight against crime and insurgency. Four possible alternatives are closing them to the public, illuminating them permanently, monitoring them continuously and overtly by electronic means, and doing so covertly (or patrolling them also covertly) thus turning them into hunting grounds. In examining these alternatives, similar dilemmas found in COIN are useful, and scholars and practitioners in policing and counterinsurgency may benefit from regular exchanges of views.


Alex Calvo is a guest Professor at Nagoya University, interested in military history, international law, geopolitics, and defence and security policy. You can follow him on Twitter @Alex__Calvo



1             Post on the Facebook page of Greater Manchester Police, 7 August 2013, available at https://www.facebook.com/GtrManchesterPolice/posts/375618175841541
2          The issue of intoxicated victims of sexual assault is controversial, a recent campaign by the British National Health Service having attracted criticism by those who considered that it amounted to blaming victims. L. Buchan ‘Cambridge University student Jack May started the petition last week calling for the removal of a Home Office alcohol awareness poster bearing the statement: “One in three reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking”’, Cambridge News, 31 July, available at http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Cambridge/Cambridge-students-petition-against-Home-Office-alcohol-awareness-poster-gains-more-than-23000-signatures-20140731064700.htm#ixzz3AIYiJkbm’
[3]          As done by the US Marine Corps in Vietnam. A. Calvo, “Preventing the Barbarization of Warfare: The USMC CAP Program in Vietnam”, Small Wars Journal, 15 December 2013, available at http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/preventing-the-barbarization-of-warfare-the-usmc-cap-program-in-vietnam
[4]         R. Lyman, Slim, Master of War, (London: Robinson, 2004), p. 143.
[5]          As well as its food supplies, this tool being controversial right from the start due to the risk of alienating peasants. G. A. Cosmas, MACV: the joint command in the years of escalation, 1962–1967, (United States Army in Vietnam) (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2006), p. 90.
[6]         ‘At first glance, counterinsurgency (at least the “soft,” population-centric American version) bears a fair amount of resemblance to community policing: It’s all about changing the dynamic in the communities where insurgents operate, encouraging troops to “walk the beat” and bringing in social services. And many of the tools of the modern counterinsurgent — forensic exploitation, pattern analysis and social-network diagramming — would be familiar to any detective. (The Law Enforcement Professionals program for combating roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan even called on retired agents from the FBI, the DEA, and the ATF to help take down insurgent networks.) … But to the COINdinistas I would say: Be careful what you wish for. Counterinsurgency is still a tool for dealing with political emergencies, and it involves a heavy degree of population control. And at home, it’s a bridge too far. “Policing can be informed by counterinsurgency – and they are in fact similar at some points,” said John P. Sullivan, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and an expert on transnational gangs. “But at others they really diverge. So you need to be very, very careful.”’, N. Hodge ‘”Counterinsurgency” to Fight U.S. Crime? No, Thanks’, Wired, 24 November 2009, available at http://www.wired.com/2009/11/counterinsurgency-to-fight-us-crime-no-thanks/
[7]        Which raises another operational and ethical question: if the police detected such an incident, should they intervene before the victim was assaulted, thus sparing her the ordeal but probably failing to secure a substantial conviction against the aggressor, or wait until he initiated the assault, raising the chances of conviction and diminishing the likelihood of future attacks but subjecting the victim to much greater harm?
[8]       ‘Patrolling demonstrates dominance. A patrol is an affront that challenges the manhood of the local insurgents, who will strike back. … One of two outcomes follows. Either the patrols persist until the insurgent shooters are killed or forced to flee. Or the patrols cease going to those areas where they are persistently shot at.’ B. West, The Wrong War: grit, strategy, and the way out of Afghanistan, (New York: Random House, 2011), pp. 151-152.
[9]         L. Sorley, A Better War, (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1999), p. 21.
[10]          ‘They drive up on their cycles without weapons, so we can’t shoot. Twenty minutes later, they hit us from across the canal with AKs and a few RPGs.’ B. West, The Wrong War: grit, strategy, and the way out of Afghanistan, (New York: Random House, 2011), p. 232.
[11]         A historical example of social change putting an end to a form of crime may be the spread of sports, summer camps, cinema, and lads’ clubs in late XIX Century Manchester and Salford, contributing to the decline in ‘scuttling’. A. Davies, The Gangs of Manchester, (Preston: Milo Books, 2008), pp. 337-342 and 353-354

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