Britain’s Changing Security Perceptions

The United Kingdom’s national security challenges are amplifying by the day.

Existing security measures and strategies are incapable of combating the hydra of extremism, foreign espionage, international terrorism, and serious organized crime. Drug trafficking, immigration, and containerized illegal trade, and their detrimental impact on industry and the market economy create further complexities for policymakers and law enforcement agencies.

Exacerbating domestic tensions between communities and the security apparatus has transpired through a range of strategies aimed at countering and reassessing national security threats. CONTEST and other counterterrorism laws have failed to tackle the core issue. This year, the government passed the 2019 Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, providing police officers with authorization to stop, question, search, and detain individuals entering the country from abroad. However, a wide range of human trafficking networks both within and outside the U.K. continue to pose significant challenges for British law enforcement agencies.

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Britain has been subjected to a series of terrorist attacks for over 18 years. In 2005 and 2009, homegrown extremist groups targeted both government installations and public places in London. In 2013, attacks on mosques in Birmingham generated significant consternation, and in 2014, the Woolwich attack on a British army soldier cast doubt on the government’s credibility and its law enforcement mechanisms. The three attacks of 2017 increased the public’s lack of confidence in the authorities for a variety of reasons; police failed to disrupt terrorist plots, as the law and order situation deteriorated, as the media criticized the government’s lack of a strategic approach to security threats. 

Civil wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq—along with the British military’s involvement in those conflicts—contributed to the deterioration of domestic stability. The threat of extremism and terrorism expanded as radicalized elements who had joined the conflicts in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia, returned to the U.K. with new ideas and ways of thinking. Until 2018, there were more than 25,000 registered extremist and radicalized elements representing a range of sectarian groups in British in towns and cities. However, by any reasonable barometer, the level of security of the United Kingdom in 2017 was inauspicious. That year, terrorists carried out three attacks in which several civilians were killed. 

British police and intelligence agencies are undoubtedly well-trained and competent, but their ranks have dwindled.1 Over the past two decades, police have been a less visible presence in the streets, relying on technology to provide them with visibility in towns and cities. Since 2005, intelligence collection has been mostly dependent on CCTV, mobile phones, and surveillance technology to deal with threats like foreign espionage and international terrorism. Conversely, in a majority of EU member states, human intelligence accompanied by a technical approach to national security challenges was of great importance. In the U.K.,  changes were proposed to improve the professionalism and competence of police intelligence (National Intelligence Model, Ballistic Intelligence, Special Branch, CID, cyber forces) and counter-espionage programs, but political and bureaucratic stakeholders resisted every reform package.2

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is the only oversight institution designed to improve the competence of the police force, but its efforts went unacknowledged. The commission was established in 2004 to investigate the conduct of police forces.3 On January 8, 2018, the Independent Police Complains Commission was renamed as the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).4  The Policing and Crime Act 2019 also introduced some changes in the system, but these changes were not implemented.5  The Home Office and the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) remain imperfect with limited capacity for maintaining and conducting oversight over a powerful intelligence infrastructure. Recent reforms notwithstanding, the ISC remains a weak body over which the Prime Minister and government exercise their influence. The editors of The U.K.’s Changing Democracy  noted some aspects of security sector reforms as they pertain to the ISC and surveillance operations: 

“Choreographed evidence sessions between the committee and the service heads suggest an over-cooperative, too close relationship. So too does the past willingness of the committee to very promptly exonerate the GCHQ petabytes the Snowden revelations and the charges of data collection and surveillance exceeding the agency’s remit—a clearance that occurred while the revelations were still emerging. Although the ISC criticized the lack of privacy safeguards in the Investigatory Power Bill, it did not secure major changes in the final act. Security Sector Reforms (SSR) is a complex process. Narrowly defined, it can encompass institutions and organizations established to deal with external and internal threats to the security of the state and its citizens. At a minimum, therefore, the security sector includes military and paramilitary forces, the intelligence services, national and local police services, border, customs, and coast guards. However, it is increasingly understood that SSR is broader than these institutions.”6 

British intelligence agencies supported the U.S.-led War on Terror, arresting civilians and handing them over to the CIA and U.S. military for interrogation. There was some degree of public condemnation over this partnership, but neither Parliament nor political parties were in any position to criticize the security services. On 28 June 2018, the UK Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee’s torture and rendition report was sharply criticized by human right NGOs: “The report is bound to contain some revelations and criticism about the U.K.’s agencies, but even more worrying is what it won’t contain,” said Bellah Sankey, Deputy Director of Reprieve. “The committee only saw what the government allowed it to see, being denied access to individual intelligence agents and could only question senior officers who were not directly involved in alleged torture and rendition,” Sankey continued.7

On 03 June 2018, the Guardian reported: “Britain’s spies stand accused of continuing to share intelligence obtained under torture, in breach of official guidance. However, the Daily Mail reported Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakraborti’s anger: “The commissioner’s most recent report reveals a doubling of cases considered under the Consolidated Guidance, compared with the last three years, and an unprecedented number of acknowledged failures to apply the Guidance.”8 MPs found that British spies had seen detainees being mistreated at least 13 times and were told by prisoners on 25 other occasions that they were being mistreated. On another 128 occasions, they were told of mistreatment by foreign agencies.9 But despite having knowledge of malpractice, British intelligence agencies continued to supply questions for interrogations. The U.K. maintains a robust surveillance apparatus supporting police and security agencies in maintaining law and order.10 GCHQ—the British signals intelligence agency—operates TEMPORA, a surveillance system designed to identify foreign threats and a competent tool for combating domestic terrorism and radicalization.11

The role of the Interception Communications Commissioner (IoCC) is widely discussed throughout intellectual forums in the U.K. The IoCC’s role, and oversight mandate was seen as controversial and serving to alienate citizens from the state and government. The commissioner claimed that, under Part-1, Chapter-1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act 2000, its role was to provide independent statutory oversight over the lawful interception of communication, and also asserted that it also investigates complaints.12 Civil society and intellectual groups don’t agree with this assessment. The functions of the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC) are not so different from that of Intelligence Surveillance Commissioner (ISC). The OSC use human intelligence sources under the Police Act of 1997, as well as under Part-11 and Part-111 of the Regulations of Investigatory Power Act of 2000 (RIPA). These institutions help the state to maintain security and stability as well as provide important information to intelligence agencies. Further expanding the functions of the Intelligence Surveillance Commissioner was the Justice and Security Act of 2013.13

The introduction of mass surveillance programs by British and European intelligence services prompted a nationwide debate on the rights of civilians to be protected from illegitimate or warrantless collection, and analysis of their data and metadata.14 British newspapers and human rights forums published numerous reports, in which experts expressed concerns about the diminishing privacy of citizens. However, the growing concern of citizens about the right of their privacy has also been reported in print and electronic media, but their voice was never heard.

Google, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook continue to violate the rights of their users. They operate like intelligence agencies, collecting and noting every aspect of a user’s interactions and conversations.15 “Don’t Spy on US,” a coalition of organizations released a policy paper in September 2014 highlighting surveillance and intelligence operations and their impact on the privacy of citizens in the EU and U.K.: “In summer 2013 it was revealed that GCHQ was routinely intercepting submarine fiber-optic cables containing private communication of millions of British residents (the ‘TEMPORA’ program). The reported scale of the interception is staggering: each day, GCHQ accesses some 21 petabytes of data—the equivalent of downloading the entire British Library 192 times.”16

TEMPORA17 is a surveillance tool used by Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). TEMPORA intercepts communications—collecting information from fiber-optic cables.18 The system is able to access the data of large amounts of internet users, including personal data, regardless of individual suspicion or targeting. Edward Snowden noted in 2016 that TEMPORA maintains two principal components: Mastering the Internet (MTI) and Global Telecoms Exploitation (GTE).19

Some intelligence experts argue that GCHQ is more effective at mass-surveillance than the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) because TEMPORA has access to all telephone and internet communications—including Facebook and email—across Europe.20 TEMPORA is comprised of different components codenamed POKERFACE and the XKEYSCORE. In a 2016 television interview, Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA and GCHQ were using a new surveillance system called MUSCULAR, one of at least four other similar programs that rely on a trusted second party. The programs together are known as WINDSTOP. According to newspaper reports, over a 30-day period from December 2012 to January 2013, MUSCULAR collected 181 million records, while INCENSER, another WINDSTOP program, collected over 14 billion records over the same period. MUSCULAR can collect information without needing warrants, and also supports the NSA’s PINWALE data collection system.21

On July 1, 2015, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which investigates complaints of unlawful contact by the UK intelligence agencies, notified Amnesty International that the British government agencies had spied on the organization by intercepting, accessing and storing its communications.22 The IPT previously identified one of two NGOs which it found had been subjected to unlawful surveillance by the U.K. government as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) when it should have been identified as Amnesty International.23 The other NGO which was spied on was the Legal Resources Center in South Africa.24 The Investigatory Powers Tribunal said that until December 2014, GCHQ failed to provide clear enough details of how it shared data collected from mass internet surveillance. It was the IPT’s first ruling against an intelligence agency in its fifteen-year history.25

The inquiry was prompted by the revelations from information leaked by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden.26 The committee concluded that there was no bulk surveillance and gave a lengthy defense on it: “We have established that bulk interception cannot be used to search for and examine the communications of an individual in the U.K. unless GCHQ first obtain a specific authorization naming that individual, signed by a secretary of state.”27 At the time, the government was attempting to restore control orders,28 but the very concept of control orders had already failed.29 Unless extremist returnees are de-radicalized at the community level, no control order can prevent them from joining the ISIS terrorist network. 

Moreover, Britain faces the threat of cyber terrorism.30 While GCHQ is a top-notch intelligence agency, the U.K. is unable to counter the threat of Chinese or Russian cyber attacks unless it increases the recruitment of young information warriors.31 Russia maintains strong cyber forces that make use of technology the U.K. doesn’t have. The U.K. Cyber Security Strategy (2011) noted cyber threats were coming from other states that seek to conduct espionage to spy on or compromise the British government, military, industrial, and economic assets, as well as monitoring opponents of their own regimes.32 Moreover, cyber-attacks that cause environmental and financial damage will carry a 14-year prison sentence.33 Ironically, U.K. authorities have failed to arrest a single cyber-terrorist thus far, while professional hackers continue to establish their networks in the U.K. and target state institutions with impunity.34 The U.K. faces a new form of intelligence war in which its institutions are attacked from a safe distance.

Notes and references

[1] Intelligence in Vex: The EU and UK intelligence agencies are in a state of fret. Musa Khan Jalalzai. Vij Publishing, India, 2018

[2] Ibid

[3] The Independent Police Complaints Commission,

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit, edited by: Patrick Dunleavy, Alice Park, and Ros Taylor. LSE Press, 2018

[7] On 28 June 2018, the UK Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee released the torture and rendition report.

[8] Daily Mail, 03 June 2018,

[9] The Independent, 28 June 2018,

[10] Intelligence in Vex: The EU and UK intelligence agencies are in a state of fret. Musa Khan Jalalzai. Vij Publishing, India, 2018

[11] Ibid

[12] Interception of communication Code of Practice Pursuant to section 71 of the ROPA Act 2000, Interception of Communications Code of Practice Pursuant to section 71 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 February 2015

[13] Ibid

[14] Intelligence in Vex: The EU and UK intelligence agencies are in a state of fret. Musa Khan Jalalzai. Vij Publishing, India, 2018

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Reforming Surveillance in the UK, The Don’t Spy on US campaign of various organizations that defend privacy report, September 2014,

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid; NSA Report: Liberty and Security in a Changing World, The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, Richard A. Clarke, Michael J. Morell, Geoffrey R. Stone, Cass R. Sunstein, Peter Swire, Princeton University Press, 31 Mar 2014

[20] Intelligence in Vex: The EU and UK intelligence agencies are in a state of fret. Musa Khan Jalalzai. Vij Publishing, India, 2018

[21] Ibid

[22] Press release of Privacy International: UK intelligence agencies admits unlawfully spying on Privacy International, 25 September 2018,

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Fact Sheet: Investigatory Power, HO News Team 17 June 2019, Securing the Insecure States in Britain and Europe. Musa Khan Jalalzai, Algora new York, 2017

[27] Ibid

[28] On February 16, 2015, The Guardian reported that a man from Liverpool had been charged with attempting to obtain a chemical weapon.

[29] Daily Times, 12 September 2014

[30] Ibid, Policy Paper, 04 December 2013

[31] Amnesty International, 03 July 2015 

[32] BBC, 06 February, 2015

[33] The inquiry was prompted by the revelations from documents leaked by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, The Guardian, 12 March 2015

[34] Ibid

Musa Khan Jalalzai

Musa Khan Jalalzai is a research scholar and a member of the Research Institute for European and American Studies. With over fifteen years of experience in political research and analysis, he specializes in the affairs of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban, ISIS, nuclear and biological terrorism, and intelligence analysis. He holds a Master's in English Literature and a Diploma in Geospatial Intelligence from the University of Maryland, a certificate in Surveillance Law from Stanford University, and a Diploma in Counterterrorism from Pennsylvania State University.

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