Events in Woolwich

The awful event at Woolwich has caused much soul searching and debate but at the heart of it is a human tragedy of a family who have lost a loved one in a senseless act of violence. The whole nation has been able to see the grief of Lee Rigby’s family, while many other families undergo such pain few have to experience this weight of publicity and the knowledge that so many people saw Lee’s body at the murder scene due to the nature of the television coverage.

One of my national responsibilities is being the lead for what is called the Prevent Programme. The aim of this programme is to dissuade people from being drawn into violent extremism and was put in place after the July 7th bombings. It is not just a police programme but one which draws in all the public services to identify those who may be expressing extreme views and who may be vulnerable to the process of radicalisation leading to violent action.

I have given a number of interviews as the media tried to make sense of what happened in Woolwich and why some men are drawn into such violent acts. I then had to withdraw when the issue became a party political one.  

I had already planned to visit the North West Counter Terrorism Unit the day after Lee Rigby’s murder so it put a context to the conversations I had there. The fact is that the Counter Terrorist Units working with the Security Services have been successful in foiling a considerable number of bomb plots and conspiracies. Some of those were planned from abroad most were instigated in this country. The trials of those involved attract a lot of publicity but what goes largely unseen is the day-to-day work of analysing intelligence, investigating and monitoring individuals who have come to notice. This may be as a result of their activities arising suspicion or information from the public or from other countries.

There is now a parliamentary inquiry to see whether more could have been done to control those who went on to commit the Woolwich attack. However the inquiry will have to take into account the huge number of people and groups who come to notice and the reality of what can be achieved with the available resources and the powers and tactics allowed by law.

There is a constant process to review current investigations and prioritise the greatest risks to ensure that effort is targeted where it will have most impact in protecting the public.

In the many comments made by politicians and the media some have been unrealistic as to what can be achieved. For instance it is extremely expensive and practically very difficult to keep someone under surveillance for long periods of time. It is not like it is portrayed on the films where the detective follows a man down the street dodging behind lampposts. The gathering and analysis of intelligence is not an exact science. Much of the analysis involves subjective judgements and interpretations trying to put different bits together and not being able to confirm some crucial aspects for fear of alerting the suspect or revealing the source of the information. Those we investigate or monitor are careful to cover their tracks especially in terms of internet communications. They are careful who they speak to and who they associate with.

This work is not becoming any easier. The world is a more complex place with new areas of conflict and causes for people to be drawn into. One of the principle concerns is people who travel to war zones such as Syria, parts of Africa and Afghanistan. They have often been indoctrinated before they go and then undergo further radicalisation abroad. They will return to this country with military experience and having seen many traumatic scenes but without the training, discipline and ethos of serving in our own armed forces.

There is also serious concern about material on the internet. Again there is much work undertaken to monitor and where possible take down these sites but many are hosted overseas where different laws apply. They also proliferate very quickly. Again there has to be a sense of realism on what can be achieved and more investment into our technical ability to identify those who produce and disseminate this material.

The third area of concern is extremist speakers. We know a number of these people who tour venues to give speeches promoting extremist views and are often linked to groups who have advocated violent action in the past. Officers will visit these venues to ensure that the managers understand the nature of the event and the views of the speaker. Some cancel the event while others decline to do so.

The Prime Minister has announced that he is setting up a taskforce to review the Prevent Strategy in the light of the Woolwich attack. This will no doubt look at the issues I have outlined above. It is very difficult to judge the effectiveness of a programme such as Prevent precisely because it is impossible to assess what we have prevented. Some might argue that the steady stream of plots which have been foiled indicates that the programme has failed but this is not the case. The programme is trying to impact on a huge section of the population mainly young people but not exclusively so. It is not just about what might be called Muslim extremism or Jihad but other forms of extremism as well. You cannot compel people or institutions to take part you are working on persuasion.

This is not just about the police although we are major players in the programme. It involves a number of other agencies; in particular education and the local councils but also has to involve the whole of society. If we are to be successful it involves issues such as alienation and unemployment which can generate extremist views and this is true of all youths irrelevant of race or religion. It involves constantly countering extremist narratives and promoting alternative views. It involves all sections of society accepting the reality that we are now a more ethnically and religiously diverse country and making an effort to understand the real fundamentals of the Muslim faith. It involves minority communities making their own efforts to integrate, understanding the core values of British society and for instance our attitudes towards the rights of women, gay people and the importance of free speech.

There is a real tension here. Events such as the murder of Lee Rigby cause us to consider adopting harsher methods of restricting free speech and depriving people of their civil liberties eroding those values which we espouse – exactly what the terrorist wants. We have to be very careful of reacting too quickly to one event.

In my view the Prevent Programme has made significant progress. After the death of Lee Rigby there was a united voice from all sections of the Muslim community but particularly the Imams condemning in the strongest terms what had happened so that there could be no doubt. There is a much higher level of understanding between the various agencies involved in Prevent and the mosques and other sections of the Muslim community. There have been a number of successful individual programmes such as work with Muslim women and with the universities. There is a higher degree of awareness of how to identify those vulnerable to radicalisation. The work has expanded as the threat of right wing extremism has grown and this is very much included in the work. Overall when you look at what is happening in other countries, when you consider the complexities of the makeup of our country, when you see some of the difficult issues of foreign policy and history overall community relations are good in the UK  and there is an attitude of live and let live. On the other hand this is precisely why we should take the threat of extremism and particular violent extremism very seriously because it is a threat to the progress we have made.

There is one aspect of the Woolwich attack where it seems to me a line was crossed. The footage captured immediately afterwards, the filming of the body lying on the road, the blood stained hands and the justification by the attacker was material of a type not broadcast before. We are being led here by the development of technology rather than considered policy on what should be broadcast. It has always been the convention that a dead body is not shown before the relatives have been informed.  Extremists do what they do because they want to cause shock and horror and gain publicity for their cause. Unfortunately that piece of film gave them that publicity and created the danger that others may want to copy that to get their moment of notoriety and fame. I hope that broadcasters will reflect on whether this was the right thing to do.

Sir Peter Fahy
Chief Constable
Greater Manchester Police

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