The Importance of Bilateral Collaboration in International Counter-Terrorism Investigations

May 30, 2017

A range of prominent voices – including my former colleague Sir Hugh Orde and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – have expressed their concern that Brexit has made security cooperation harder and might have made Britain more vulnerable to terrorism. Are they right?

First of all, we are still in the EU – so the status quo in security cooperation remains. It didn’t stop the Manchester attacks.

Second, Belgium, France and Germany remain at the heart of the EU with all the attendant data sharing – but it didn’t stop attacks in cities from Brussels and Paris to Berlin.

Third, most counter terrorist investigations have international dimensions beyond the UK and Europe and their success is largely dependent on the extent to which a country’s police and intelligence agencies have ‘global reach’ and strong bilateral state to state relationships. The term ‘Global Britain’ could have been invented to describe our counter terrorism efforts.

The international dimension stands out particularly prominently in the Manchester investigation with the attackers connections to Libya. Salman Abedi returned from the country just days before carrying out the attack; his Libyan-born father Ramadan Abedi (a former member of the Libya-based terrorist group LIFG) and brother Hasem have both been arrested in Libya and most of those subsequently arrested in the UK have either been dual British/Libyan nationals or members of Abedi’s immediate or extended family. So within 24 hours of this suicide bombing, it bore all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack planned and orchestrated by Jihadi terrorists affiliated to Islamic State and originating from or linked to Libya.

The Libyan dimension presented immediate operational challenges for British counter terrorist detectives investigating the attack. Many of Libya’s remote geographical areas continue to be controlled by a variety of extremist Jihadi networks. A fallback location for retreating Islamic State fighters escaping the war in Syria, western military forces (led by the US) have been heavily engaged in the country since 2014 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that three Libyan provinces belonged to his self-styled ‘caliphate’. Some intelligence sources are reporting that Baghdadi himself has retreated to Libya from Raqqa in anticipation of Islamic State being defeated there soon.

Despite these challenges, Ramadan and Hasem Abedi were both swiftly arrested in Tripoli within two days of the Manchester attack by RADA, the local Libyan counter terrorism force, clearly demonstrating the importance of bilateral state to state co-operation in counter terrorism investigations. The inevitable race against time was made more critical by the leaking of Salman Abedi’s name to the world’s media by US intelligence sources, which could have been a catalyst for Abedi’s father and brother to flee to safe jihadi ‘havens’ within Libya, out of reach of moderate government forces and western influence.

This didn’t happen, owing perhaps to the speed of the international response in Libya, coordinated from the International Operations unit of New Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) and greatly assisted by the British intelligence agency MI6.

The importance of state to state bilateral collaboration in upstream counter terrorism investigations cannot be overstated. Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State are loosely networked organisations with global reach and influence. Both can direct, enable or inspire terrorist attacks in countries across the world either from their core territorial bases in Afghanistan (AQ) or Syria (Islamic State) or via the use of social media from any geographical location with an internet connection.

In order to tackle upstream terrorism threats, the UK has built its own global network of intelligence officers and experienced overseas counter terrorist police liaison officers who work with local counterparts in host countries helping to build CT investigative capability and capacity. As far as possible, this network is resourced and geographically situated around the world to match the scale and nature of the threat it is designed to confront. The teams work closely with similar expertly trained personnel from other countries, especially those from the ‘Five Eyes’ countries (US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand).

In the aftermath of an attack such as we experienced in Manchester last week, this network comes into its own with British operatives already deployed “on the ground” who can fast track enquires with local agencies and facilitate a subsequent deployment of counter terrorism professionals from the UK. Long-standing relationships enable successful outcomes to be achieved quickly as demonstrated by the responses to the mass casualty terrorist attacks in ‘In Amenas’, Algeria and Westgate, Nairobi, Kenya, both in 2013 and in Sousse, Tunisia in 2015. Following each of these, a multi-agency crisis response team was deployed from the UK within hours, but only made possible by the existence of locally based UK counter terrorism specialists already in situ.

Post 9/11 (prior to the advent of ISIS), most UK based counter terrorism investigations involved both covert and overt inquiries in Afghanistan or the FATA region of Pakistan, where the leadership of ‘AQ core’ and ‘AQ International operations’ were based. The ‘airlines plot’ in 2006 is a notable example: an attempt by AQ to place bombs on airliners flying from the UK to the USA — a conspiracy disrupted by outstanding upstream work by British intelligence working with Pakistan counterparts.

Since the emergence of Islamic State in 2011, with its more extensive global network, upstream counter terrorism investigations have been more common in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Libya. In 2016, in response to growing threats and a proliferation of terrorist groups in these states, the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) committee approved a significant uplift of the UK’s upstream counter terrorism capacity, resulting in the deployment of additional overseas intelligence officers and a doubling of Scotland Yard’s overseas liaison officers to fifty detectives.

The uplift was designed to plug gaps in pre-existing capabilities and some of these resources have been used in the past week to assist local Libyan units pursue urgent enquiries leading to executive action in Tripoli. Some Libyan sources are also reporting that Abedi’s brother Hasem has been providing vital intelligence relating to the network of individuals involved in the Manchester bombing. The speed at which the Manchester counter terrorism unit have identified and then subsequently arrested outstanding members of this terrorist ‘network’ in the UK tends to support the belief that information has been passed to Manchester detectives via British operatives on the ground in Libya.

Contrary to what my esteemed former colleague Hugh Orde says, international bodies such as Interpol and Europol are far less important to ‘upstream’ international CT investigations than bilateral collaboration between states. Both are useful for the checking of data against respective databases that they host but neither has the remit, investigative capability or capacity to undertake complex terrorist investigations.

For instance, searches on the Europol databases may have helped the North West Counter Terrorism Unit confirm the frequency and routing of Abedi’s travel from the UK to Libya and back — but bilateral cooperation is necessary to obtain additional evidence including CCTV imagery to prove whether Abedi travelled alone or with accomplices. British counter terrorism police will share information relating to the type of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) used in the Manchester attack to countries across the world regardless of any country’s membership of Europol and Interpol.

Most intelligence relating to known terrorist suspects or terrorist operations (and often gathered covertly by intelligence agencies) of EU states never appears on either Europol or Interpol databases as the data is classified and only shared bilaterally or multilaterally on a ‘need to know’ basis. Libya is a member of Interpol but does not receive sensitive British intelligence relating to terrorism via Interpol channels — but rather through state-to-state bilateral engagement.

During the EU referendum debate, it was argued by some that Brexit would negatively influence the ability of the UK to conduct counter terrorism investigations, especially those with international dimensions. The reality is that Brexit will have little if any impact on UK counter terrorism operations even if it ceases to become a formal member of Europol. The UK contributes substantial amounts of data (mostly relating to criminals as opposed to terrorists) to Europol databases and access to them is not dependent on formal membership of the EU. UK bilateral and multilateral collaboration on counter terrorism with EU states is already robust and the UK has a more extensive and effective counterterrorism overseas network (with global reach) than the EU; a network that EU states will no doubt continue to draw upon post Brexit.

In a rapidly changing digitally interconnected world, terrorist networks will continue to morph and evolve. New ungoverned spaces will emerge in fragile and collapsing states, providing opportunities for terrorist groups to take and hold territory and conduct attacks overseas. The UK will continue to depend upon its expanding multi agency overseas counter terrorism network to tackle these ‘upstream’ threats; protect British nationals overseas; build local counter terrorism capacity; and respond with speed and efficiency when international leads emerge from terrorist attacks in the UK.

Judging by the speed of the response in Libya to the Manchester attack last week, the UK has demonstrated that it still has the capability, capacity and global reach to be effective in international counter terrorist investigations.

Whilst it remains to be seen which of the suspects arrested since the Manchester attack are charged with terrorist offences, it is likely that any charges will substantiate the existence of a UK/Libyan terrorist nexus — one that has been uncovered by a highly effective investigation in the UK and in Libya. The UK’s international CT network has played a key role in this and will continue to be a vital part of its ongoing defenses against terrorism. Cooperation with European states is very much part of that – but that will not be affected by Brexit.

Walton’s analysis for Policy exchange featured on the Today programme and in The Sun.

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