Police ask public to become 'counter-terrorism citizens' to help stop attacks

Senior officers say more than a fifth of reports in 2017 resulted in vital intelligence as 14 plots foiled

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 20 March 2018 15:49
ACT counter terrorism campaign video encourages public to report suspicious behaviour

The new head of UK counter-terror policing has called on members of the public to become “counter-terrorism citizens” by passing on information that could help thwart attacks.

Speaking almost a year after the Westminster attack, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said more than a fifth of the 31,000 reports received last year resulted in useful intelligence.

“People are nervous about police overreacting or about wasting our time, but it’s never a waste of our time,” he told The Independent.

“They think the security machine and counter-terrorism policing is where it all happens but the statistics prove that in this country, public support is vital and it is working.”

People are being asked to look out for suspicious behaviour, including possessing weapons, chemicals, fertilisers or gas cylinders for no obvious reason, carrying out surveillance, having unusual items delivered, expressing extremist ideas or searching for terrorist material online.

Critics argued that the call for public help was “paving the way to the worst kinds of profiling, vigilantism and paranoia” amid ongoing controversy around the Government's counter-extremism Prevent programme.

But Mr Basu said all reports were assessed by specialist officers who decide what is valuable and are “not going to overreact to a single piece of intelligence”.

“The point is you don’t have to make that judgement, you just have to feel nervous, and if you feel nervous, you shouldn’t sit on it - you should report it,” he added.

“Some people say ‘isn’t that a bit obvious’ or ‘it’s normal behaviour’ and that’s absolutely true but you’ve got to take that with people’s judgement.

Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said all reports would be triaged (Getty Images)

“I think people have good instincts about what feels odd in their workplace, in their community and even in their family.”

Of almost 31,000 public reports to British counter-terror police in 2017, more than 6,600 (21 per cent) resulted in information used in live investigations or intelligence building.

Research suggests that while more than 80 per cent of people are motivated to report suspicious activity or behaviour, many are unclear exactly what they should be looking for.

Mr Basu said the five terror attacks that struck the UK last year, as well as 10 foiled Islamist plots and four planned attacks by the extreme right, involved similar methods.

“Lone actors on the extreme right are copycatting some of methodology that has been used by Islamist jihadists around the world,” he said, citing the attack using a van to ram people near a Finsbury Park mosque as one example.

“We’re asking the public to give us a small piece of information and we will join it together.”

Asked about incidents where police had received information but failed to prevent attacks, following warnings over the Manchester, London Bridge and Parsons Green attackers, he said forces were taking responsibility for improvements.

“Over the course of the last five years 23 plots have been disrupted, all of which saved lives,” Mr Basu added. “We are good at this but we can always be better.”

The call to action came after 36 victims were killed in the Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park terror attacks over four months of bloodshed in the UK.

A review by David Anderson QC, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, found that security service missed opportunities to intercept the bombing at Manchester Arena and London Bridge attack and had the culprits on their radar.

Police and MI5 vowed to learn lessons from the atrocities, ahead of a revamped counter-terrorism strategy being announced by the Government this year.

Officials have warned of the pace of attack plots increasing, as the speed of radicalisation continues to fall partly thanks to the spread of online propaganda from Isis and other groups.

Some of the material has contained detailed advice on how to launch massacres quickly with readily available tools, with little prior planning, and evade detection by authorities.

The threat from both Islamists and the extreme right has been increasing as analysts document both groups feeding off each other in a process known as “reciprocal radicalisation”.

Arrests for terror offences are currently at a record level, with 412 made in 2017 and the number of white suspects rocketing by 61 per cent.

The UK has been leading global efforts to make Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other internet firms prevent material being uploaded and shared using its Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit.

Ben Wallace, the security minister, said the threat Britain faced “requires a response from all areas of society”.

“I commend the public for their diligence in helping the police - taking action can help save lives,” he added.

“The public should remain alert, but not alarmed, and I urge anyone who is worried about suspicious behaviour and activity to follow this advice and report their concerns to the police.”

Members of the public are asked to report suspicious activity to the police by confidentially by calling 0800 789 321 or visiting the secure ACT website.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in