‘Remember, remember…’ year three: The police, terror and consent

By Jill Russell:

Parliament Votes On Air Strikes Against The Islamic State In Iraq

‘Murderous Plan to Kill Police Officers Disrupted.’ 27 October 2014

On this the third anniversary of StrifeBlog’s arrival and commemoration of the security ramifications of Guy Fawkes Day, I would like to consider Isil’s recent threats in which the group has called for independent, self-motivated attacks against police officers. [1] Attempting to spur on what they hope might be some legion of stranded but loyal followers, their vision is of lone wolves let loose upon their targets, which makes the opening headline quoted above seem quite sinister.

Except that headline was in fact a reference to events in Northern Ireland. In that case, a group had called in a bomb threat to a location where another had been placed in hopes of catching the officers sent to deal with the first unawares. The gambit failed as the second device was discovered and disposed of without harm.

It is cold comfort, then, that Isil’s threat is not novel, especially in recent British experience. And on its own, if we are honest, neither is such a tactic any sort of strategic threat. Unlike our seventeenth-century plotters, whose planned mass destruction of the government – in structure and flesh – would displace power according to their preferences, singular attacks upon individuals do not in themselves enable such change. Nor, given British tradition, is it likely to change much about everyday life or policy. Certainly those responsible for the Northern Ireland bomb threat expected only minor political effects from their action. Similarly, in recent years PSNI officers have been targeted in shootings. In those cases it is understood that those responsible – identified by some as a splinter faction of the most radical republicans – envision nothing more than a modest effect: target Catholic officers to deter others in the same community from serving. This tactic is only a small part of a strategy seeking to disrupt the Northern Ireland peace process.

It seems, then, that with respect to the West and those foreign powers Isil views as a threat, the group’s current agenda for action is spectacular but pointless acts of barbarism, death and tragedy to little political effect, and not even much terror. Officers, singly and by force, and with their fellow citizens, will mourn and lament any loss. It would be a tragedy for all involved, but I struggle to imagine those same officers and organizations folding in the face of such an act. So why does this particular episode merit consideration as a security concern?

While Isil may not be savvy enough to imagine the ramifications of their actions, such a targeted campaign against the police could, in fact, threaten the foundation upon consent of British policing. Disrupting that keystone of the fine institution which has served well through tumult, disorder, war and peace, would be a success Isil could not have envisaged.

In the short term, care must be taken when considering what measures would be appropriate to maximize officer safety. One American politician, with a background in law enforcement, recently called for the arming of the British police. Whether this is a policy change that is in the interest of the country, its police, or its people, this response to a moment of crisis would certainly lack due consideration of the effect it would have upon the culture of British policing or the terms of consent. And, once armed, a reversal of policy would be highly unlikely. This would necessarily change the nature of the relationship between the police and society, it would increase the distance between officers and those whom they serve, protect, and, in a certain sense, represent.

More worrying is the spectre haunting police and community relations, especially its potential to weaken consent across many critical demographics. If we are honest, Isil’s announcement targets vulnerable members of immigrant and minority communities. The same communities with whom the police are struggling to build better relations. This is a crucial moment, and how the police respond to the threat by way of their interactions with these segments of the public will matter. It would be too tragically easy for the police to allow fear to drive a wedge of suspicion between them and the relevant communities, to break the fragile but growing bonds of consent which inevitably develop within every new generation of recent arrivals. Such a trend could, in fact, create the real and serious problem of growing disaffection with British society, laws and governance, in which case, the needs and objectives of Isil would be served by fractures and increasing strife for the British at home.

But whereas consent could be mortally wounded by rash and ill-considered responses to this threat, it is equally true that this is also a moment where the terms of consent could be strengthened, its wisdom reaffirmed. In addition to every bit of fine, pro-active counter-terror tactic and policy, the single best weapon against Isil and its immediate and long-term threats is the strength of relations between the relevant communities and individuals and the police. Local knowledge and assistance are the most effective answers to lone wolves, plots, and radicalization. Every action taken to build rapport, trust and respect between the two will not only be an improvement to security, but will be a down-payment on the strength and vibrancy of society in years to come.

These moments are the crossroads in history. At such points, there is often confusion over which path to take. While it might seem that the signs point only towards fear, despair, and deep societal division and weakening, in fact the option in the other direction should be the beacon.

Jill S. Russell is a regular contributor to Strife, Kings of War and Small Wars. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on American military logistics and strategic culture. You can follow her on Twitter @jsargentr. 

[1] This threat has been made to law enforcement and government personnel in the US and Canada as well. See, for example, the Joint Intelligence Bulletin from 11 October.

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