The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has urged tech companies to take a more active role in protecting people against terrorism and other forms of online harm.
Delivering the keynote speech to the International Institute of Counter Terrorism’s World Summit this morning, Monday 13 September, Cressida Dick told an audience of international CT experts that should tech companies ‘ignore their responsibility for public protection’, governments around the world must be prepared to enact new rules and regulations designed to strengthen their ability to protect their citizens from harm.
The speech also marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, and analysed how counter terrorism operations in the UK have had to evolve to meet the rapidly-changing threat during that time.
More information about the ICT’s World Summit can be found here, and you can watch Cressida Dick delivering her keynote address at the following link: https://www.facebook.com/ICT.org.il/videos/welcome-to-ict20/593522612010616/
A full transcript of the Commissioner’s speech can also be found below.
Speech by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism Summit, 2021
Good morning everybody, I am Cressida Dick and I am the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police here in London, speaking to you from our headquarters at New Scotland Yard by the Thames here. I am responsible for the largest police force in the UK of about 44,000 people, and one of the most important roles I am tasked with is protecting London against terrorism in all its forms.
I do that with the help of thousands of brilliant and dedicated officers and staff led by my Assistant Commissioner, whose job it is to co-ordinate a £900m Counter Terrorism Police budget and not only lead the response for London, but also lead the national policing body responsible for protecting the UK against terrorism. Of course, as we all know policing is just one facet of the multi-agency approach that is needed to protect any country, our country, and I’m going to talk in a little bit more detail about how that collaboration in the UK works in practice a bit later on.
But I must start by thanking the Institute properly for this invitation to be here and to speak today. I have, as Sir David [Garrard] said, benefitted from the conference in the past and I have learnt a huge amount on my various visits to Israel. So thank you and thank you Sir David for your stalwart support of us in the Met
And as most speakers have noted, we are here marking the 20th anniversary of possibly the most significant moment in counter terrorism history. Those terrible, terrible attacks on 9/11 and it’s almost a cliché, we all remember where we were when we saw that dreadful news footage. I was a newly-appointed Commander in the Met I, of course, remember the feeling of disbelief, the unfolding horror of what one was witnessing and, slowly, a profound feeling of a tectonic shift, a realisation that huge changes in how we responded to terrorism were coming, not just in the US or the UK, but in our global response to this new threat.
And so I do want, briefly, an opportunity to reflect on just how much has changed since twenty years ago on how far we have come in the UK in adapting to deal with the shifting and evolving threats that we have faced in the intervening years.
But also to look to the future. And to ask whether we are prepared to face a new age of terrorism threat – one dominated by technological advancement, and the borderless and unregulated spaces of the internet.
The global threat we have faced together since 9/11 has evolved, it’s mutated. It’s certainly crossed international borders. And they seek out grievance, vulnerability and ungoverned spaces.
And so our global cooperation has to evolve too, working more closely across borders, collaborating agency to agency to meet the threat from Al-Qaeda, Daesh, the rising threat from Extreme Right Wing Terrorism and others.
The 20 years since 9/11 have seen an unprecedented period of international cooperation and we should be pleased and proud of so much of that. As we reflect on that joint effort, I want to use this speech to ask whether we are prepared to come together once again to fight a very different terrorist threat to the one we faced back then. One which is increasingly complex and influenced by the actions of corporations as well as nation states, as extremists use technology to reach into people’s lives to terrify, to influence, to radicalise.
As the threat changes, so too must the coalition we have built since 2001 to fight terrorism. We now need a wider collaboration across society, business and beyond to respond effectively. The threat may be different, but our primary defence remains the same – greater teamwork and greater information sharing between those of us charged with protecting our citizens.
The way terrorism presents itself on our streets may feel radically different to what we faced 20 years ago. But whilst the ideologies and drivers have diversified and tactics changed, what constitutes terrorism and the devastating impact it has on so many lives remains the same as it did back in September 2001.
Conflict remains the primary driver of terrorism globally, the UN say that 99 per cent of terrorist-related deaths take place where there is an active conflict or high levels of political terror. In countries with greater political stability and economic development, what causes terrorism remains a complex mix of social alienation, lack of opportunity and dissent with political policy at home and abroad.
As many of you will know, the UK’s own Counter Terrorism operation was forged out of the crucible of the Troubles and the persisting campaign of terror perpetrated by the IRA in both Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. Whilst this particular threat has certainly not gone completely away, the ideologies of those who wish to do harm through terrorism are much more diverse. To see this you only need to look at the terror plots foiled by Counter Terrorism Policing and the UK Intelligence Services in Great Britain since 2017. We have stopped 18 Islamist plots, 11 linked to Extreme Right Wing terrorism and two in a category which did not even exist just a few years ago – what we call Left, Anarchist or Single Issue Terrorism.
These figures demonstrate just how diverse the terror threat has now become, and while the 20 years since 9/11 has largely been dominated by the rapid growth in the threat from Islamist terrorism globally, more recently we have seen the reciprocal growth of extreme right wing terrorism.
And we’ve seen the ideology which drives terrorists change, as well as a significant shift in tactics.
We all know 9/11 precipitated an increase in complex attacks targeting aircraft, and we also saw international groups such as AQ emboldened to direct attacks on foreign soil by carrying out complex and large-scale explosives or marauding firearms attacks. In response, Counter Terrorism agencies developed specialist covert capabilities, requiring significant resources to target a relatively small number of investigations compared to the demand we face today.
The threat of international groups directing attacks on foreign soil remains, of course, and highly pertinent at the moment. But now the power of influence and inspiration is also great, thanks mainly to the surge in open source terrorism and self-radicalisation which followed the rise of Daesh.
The desire to inspire rather than direct – as well as an increase in our powers of disruption – has also driven changes in terrorist methodology, with lower sophistication attacks using knives and vehicles as weapons becoming much more prevalent. Of course, we have also seen even here in the UK the devastating consequences in Manchester and elsewhere around the world even more so, the threats from explosives, marauding firearms attacks and other complex plots still loom large.
These low sophistication attacks inspired by the proliferation of online extremist material can reduce the process of radicalisation and attack planning from years to weeks, dramatically narrowing the window we in law enforcement have to identify and neutralise a threat.
I would suggest that the most significant change in the context we face has, perhaps,not been brought about by terrorist groups or actors, or even by international conflicts or traditional drivers that I’ve talked about before – but by technology.
The internet has eroded the physical barriers that would once have restricted terrorists – international borders, the need for clandestine meetings and face-to-face communication.
Online, the threat picture is infinitely more complex, with the fragmentation of the threat away from well-resourced and large-scale organisations towards smaller, closed groups with differing ideologies and no clear physical base or leadership structure.
The extreme right-wing threat in the UK is one such example. In 2016, our Government proscribed, banned, a group called National Action and we have seen since then splinter groups crystallise and break apart almost as quickly as police and the Security Services can identify and target them.
More broadly, the internet has globalised extremism, proliferated the spread of poisonous ideologies internationally and made it possible for anyone with an internet connection to reach into the lives of people halfway round the world.
And in an information age with around the clock news and social media, there is a level of scepticism and misinformation which collides with individuals who are vulnerable and isolated to create a perfect storm that can put people on a path towards hateful ideology.
In short, an attack may be less sophisticated, but the socio-political ‘reasoning’ driving those with hostile intentions and how they develop such views has never been more complex.
And terrorists, certainly for the UK, have a new target audience in the young and the vulnerable. There’s a new generation of extremists, and the reach of the internet has meant that in the UK we have seen increasing numbers of children lured towards terrorist activity.
From the 14-year old convicted of directing an attack in Australia, to the teenage leaders of extreme right-wing groups, there is no doubt the internet has changed our target audience.
For example, in the UK, children under the age of 18 made up 13% of all terrorism arrests in the year to 31 March 2021. That’s nearly triple from the year before. While terrorism arrests across every other age group have fallen as a result of the pandemic – children were the only demographic to show an increase.
This change in the target audience is not only limited to children and young people. We are also increasingly seeing people experiencing mental ill health issues being drawn to terrorism when at their most vulnerable.
Terrorists have recognised that high-sophistication attack planning creates a higher risk of disruption and detection. They have learnt they can achieve their aims by inspiring smaller, low-sophistication attacks, carried out in short timeframes, with greater frequency, by pumping out vast quantities of propaganda targeting those they identify as being susceptible to influence.
In the past, perhaps, recruiting children, or those with mental ill health, would have been an unacceptable risk when trying to execute a complex bomb plot. But when you’re simply trying to push vulnerable people over the edge towards crude, direct action such as a random knife attack, the opposite is true.
So their propaganda is designed to resonate with the experiences and challenges people often face in their everyday lives. It is designed to exacerbate grievances, to attract lost souls looking for acceptance and belonging, who feel socially isolated or even rejected by society altogether.
Children and people with mental health problems are particularly vulnerable to the deluge of extremist material – and we are seeing the consequences of this clearly in all our data and in our convictions.
In the year to March 2020, more than half, more than 50%, of what we call our Prevent referrals were classed as being of ‘mixed, unstable or unclear’ ideology. That is more than our Islamist and extreme right wing referrals put together.
‘Mixed, unstable or unclear’ relates to instances where people exhibit a combination of ideologies, they shift between different ideologies, or where they simply don’t present a coherent ideology at all.
Just five years ago, this was only 11% of our referrals and we do think we are witnessing a significant change.
Of course, this is partly attributed to an improvement in the way we can spot and record these cases. But there is no doubt that the increasing prevalence of hateful extremist content online, its ability to reach into the lives of the most vulnerable via the internet, is having a very significant effect.
This vulnerability is relatively consistent; social isolation; problems in people’s lives; historic grievances; mental health issues; complex needs; behavioural disorders.
If we look at these contributing factors, we can see why we should be highly focused on the potentially far-reaching consequences of the pandemic that we have all been enduring.
Covid-19 has created an environment in the UK certainly, in which extremists may find it easier to identify, target and potentially radicalise vulnerable people.
It has done so by exacerbating pre-existing inequalities, by stoking distrust in authority and inspiring a new wave of conspiracy theories, which have more easily reached the mainstream.
Not only that, but longer-term impacts like unemployment and financial uncertainty caused or exacerbated by the pandemic are exactly the problems in people’s lives that extremists can latch onto when they are looking to radicalise.
If you add to that the increased social isolation that people have endured over the last 18 months, and the reduction in support services such as mental health provision and social care during long periods of so-called lockdown, that is a potent mix, which is of real concern.
During the first lockdown, we saw Prevent referrals fall by about 50%. But they have now surged back back to higher than usual levels in the months afterwards. How this widespread impact on the nation’s mental wellbeing will affect the threat as we emerge from the pandemic is, as yet, unknown. What we do know is that we have already seen an uptick in demand and in operational tempo and a record level of casework.
The internet may be creating new problems for us to try and solve, and Covid has added unforeseen complexity, but of course, as so many speakers, I know, have talked about, recent global events remind us that the old threats remain poised to cause us all security issues.
I won’t dwell on that any longer, except to say all of us who saw the horrific attacks in Kabul, which claimed the lives of so many Afghan civilians, American soldiers and UK citizens, shows us that organisations like Daesh and AQ intend to make their presence felt both locally and internationally, and we must be ready.
In the UK, our strength lies in our Intelligence agencies’ ability to work hand-in-glove with law enforcement to protect the public, enabled by the effective oversight and safeguards controlled by our elected officials.
The partnership between policing and the intelligence agencies has grown substantially since 2001. 24/7, 365 days a year, we work together to build and analyse the intelligence picture of our most prominent threats, stopping attacks before they happen and strengthening policing’s ability to put compelling evidence before the courts.
We are constantly refining how we work together to jointly achieve operational successes, and will soon take that relationship to yet another level by co-locating so many of the agencies responsible for national security in a single, state-of-the-art facility called the Counter Terrorism Operations Centre.
Born out of the 2017 attacks, and the organisational learning that we undertook as a result, CTOC, as we call it, is an integrated, partnership-driven approach within a purpose-built working environment – bringing the right people, the right skills and the right technology together to help strengthen our ability to protect the UK.
This won’t be just restricted to our traditional partners, either. We recognise that turning the rising tide of extremism and hatred requires what we call a whole-system approach. We now work alongside health and education partners, prisons, probation, anyone else who is able to help us support a much wider cohort of individuals who may be vulnerable to radicalisation, and deal with those who exist in the chronic extremist space , so we can try and stop them reaching the acute terrorist phase.
Co-locating and daring to share more intelligence than ever before are fundamental to responding to the increasingly complex casework we are seeing – casework with more inter-related dimensions such as mental ill health issues or other complex needs.
But while we can and should look to strengthen our own ability to fight the terror threat we face domestically, we also know that we can only achieve so much if we only look inwards.
When so much of the threat we face is global, spanning the borderless and unregulated spaces of the internet and shared by international partners the world over, it is clear that only a collective approach will help us prevail against those who wish us harm.
I have spoken about the international collaborative effort that 9/11 inspired across the world, and how much that strengthened our collective ability to protect ourselves. This is a pre-requisite for responding to whatever security challenges emerge from Afghanistan and the many other unstable spaces where terrorist ideals might prosper.
But 20 years on the threat has evolved, and though our collective efforts and collaboration are stronger than ever, the solution to the problem cannot be reached by nation states, governments, and law enforcement and intelligence agencies alone.
Where once we relied on an international alliance, we now need an even more powerful societal alliance to take a globalised threat, facilitated by the growth, reach and influence of online actors who are increasingly adept at praying on the young and the most vulnerable in society.
Our strongest weapons are still, of course, greater teamwork and information-sharing crossing international borders, learning from the experiences of others; responding collectively to a threat that can manifest itself anywhere, and anytime.
Our coalition needs to include families and communities, teachers and clinicians, business leaders and particularly, and this is my main concluding point, the corporations who control the online platforms which we all rely on to communicate and connect with each other.
The tech companies and social media platforms have become much better at working alongside law enforcement and governments to help protect people against a huge range of online threats and I pay tribute to them for that. But there is still more they can and must do.
They have the power and the resources to make a real difference. But they are not doing enough to help protect people against the harm that takes place on their platforms. Police colleagues here in the UK have spoken at length about the issue of end-to-end encryption becoming ubiquitous across the world’s most popular social media platforms. But this is just one example of how this wonderful capability that we all have to communicate in different ways is also, not only damaging to society, but preventing law enforcement agencies the world over from protecting their citizens. How are we supposed to protect children from online sexual exploitation, or defend ourselves against the next terrorist threat if we don’t even have the power to obtain evidence held on servers outside our jurisdiction?
If the tech industry ignores its responsibility for public protection then governments must come together to do something about it. How we react to challenges posed by supranational organisations will be pivotal to tackling the terrorist threat, and whether that means new regulations and regulatory bodies, or greater collaboration from those who have the power to change things, we cannot allow the status quo to continue.
Like many of your own governments, the UK is trying to grapple with how we can make the internet and our use of technology safer for everyone, through our Online Harms Bill. But like everything else we do, we are much stronger together. If you take nothing else away from this speech, I want you to think about how we can work more closely together to engage tech companies as a collective, and how we can build an international framework which gives our law enforcement agencies the powers we need to protect our people.
Twenty years ago we collectively rose to the challenges posed by a new CT threat. Today that threat is even greater. It is more complex and evolving more rapidly than ever before. It preys on our most vulnerable and it is expedited by the flow of extremist content on the internet. We need an expanded and global societal coalition to face that challenge – built upon the strong foundation we have laid over the last 20 years.
Thank you very much.