Terrorism: Home Secretary's CONTEST speech

This speech was delivered by the Home Secretary on Tuesday 12 July 2011. This version of the speech is as written.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Theresa May MP


Thank you Jonathan for that introduction.

The first duty of any government is to protect the British public.

And it is my privilege, as Home Secretary, to work every day with people like Jonathan who have dedicated their lives to discharging that duty.

Last week, I attended the memorial for the victims of the 7th July London bombings.

There is no more powerful reminder of the gravity of the threat we face as a country.

Today, we publish a new counter-terrorism strategy that is our response to that continuing and evolving threat.

Strategic Context

2011 has been a momentous year in counter-terrorism.

We have witnessed dramatic events - events that are, as we speak, changing the nature of the threat we face.

Change in North Africa and the Middle East

The “Arab Spring” has shown that the desire for dignity, democracy, and a decent standard of living are universal. They cannot be held back.

The exposure of that simple fact is an enormous threat to Al Qa’ida. It exposes its ideology as a sham.

Al Qa’ida’s ideology has long held that the only way to overturn the existing governments in the Arab and Muslim majority world was through indiscriminate violence.

The Arab Spring has shown how wrong that is.

As people struggle for their rights in countries across the region, they have recognised a simple truth - they will not achieve the freedom and prosperity they want by murdering civilians. Al Qa’ida has been utterly irrelevant.

The governments of Tunisia and Egypt were not overturned by violence or by terrorism, but by popular protest, by the public rising up and saying “no more”.

In other, more modern and more moderate states we are seeing governments starting to adapt to the wishes of their people. They are now engaged in a process of constructive change.

But in some countries like Syria, Libya and Yemen we are seeing more prolonged struggle. Their regimes are too entrenched to make concessions, their methods too brutal, and their rulers too despotic and too militant for them to even consider change. But the will of the people is clear.

There remains a long way to go in this story, and we must remember that change for the better is not inevitable. In fact, change presents a risk as well as an opportunity. There is a chance that the Arab Spring does not bloom; that new repressive regimes replace old ones; that they give way to new and more dangerous regimes; or that terrorists gain the space and power that they lacked under the autocratic regimes of the past.

In Libyan airspace, British forces are in action, alongside our allies, fighting to make sure this does not happen.

But we know that the instability in Libya has enabled Al Qa’ida’s North African affiliate, Al Qa’ida in the Maghreb, to seize weapons from military sources.

In other countries where the state fails, like Yemen, there may also be new opportunities for terrorist groups.

Al Qa’ida’s regional affiliate, Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, already has something of a safe-haven within areas of southern Yemen.

Now, the breakdown of law and order in parts of the country, and the departure to Saudi Arabia of President Saleh on 4 June this year, has enabled AQ-AP to seize further territory, weapons and material from the Yemeni armed forces.

So the Arab Spring brings with it huge opportunity - for us and for the people of the region - but it also carries risks.

It has significantly damaged Al Qa’ida’s ideology of violence as the only solution.

And in the long-run, political and economic development may well mean fewer angry and dispossessed young men turning to terrorism.

But in the meantime, the further breakdown in law and order might be exploited by terrorists.

Death of Bin Laden

Six months after the start of the Tunisian uprising, the results of the Arab Spring are still not certain.

And two months after the death of Osama Bin Laden, the full impact of his demise is, also, still not entirely clear.

For many years now, coordinated international action has been weakening Al Qa’ida.

The leadership group of Al Qai’da, based primarily in Pakistan, is now weaker than at any time since 9/11.

Their ability to conduct terrorist attacks has been reduced severely by American military and security operations - specifically drone strikes - as well as by the operations of the Pakistani military and security agencies, and our coalition allies in Afghanistan.

Many have been killed, captured, or dispersed.

Communications, training and operational planning has been significantly disrupted.

They have been forced to rely on other terrorist groups in the region for support and for basic supplies.

Intelligence tells us that Bin Laden’s death has only added to this disruption.

Al Qa’ida’s operations and decision making have been further damaged. Bin Laden was a more central figure and more pivotal leader than we knew. A gap has been left which might never be filled.

As we expected, Ayman al-Zawahiri has been named as Bin Laden’s successor. But the length of time taken to formally appoint al-Zawahiri - who was for many years Al Qa’ida’s number two - suggests that he is a somewhat divisive and mistrusted figure.

Though it has proved resilient in the past, Al Qa’ida as a centralised command and control organisation may not survive the fall of Bin Laden and the rise of democracy in the Arab and Muslim majority world.

But, increasingly, the threat to Britain comes not just from Al Qa’ida’s core leadership itself, but from these so called Al Qa’ida’s affiliates - in places like Yemen and North Africa, that I have already mentioned - and from associated groups like Al Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

That is why yesterday’s change to the domestic threat level does not mean the overall threat we face has fallen.

The domestic threat level from Al Qa’ida inspired terrorism is now judged to be substantial, meaning an attack is a strong possibility and could occur without further warning.

But the threat level we face from other countries is higher. A key principle of CONTEST is that we must tackle that threat at source, rather than waiting for it to come to our shores.

And we must also remember that the threat level to Great Britain from Northern Irish Related Terrorism remains substantial.

We already know, from the attempted bombing over Detroit in Christmas 2009 and the cargo bomb plot which was stopped at East Midlands airport last October, that the threat to the UK from Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula - based in Yemen - is very real.

We know that people from Britain are travelling to Yemen and Somalia to engage in terrorist related activity.

And we know from recent convictions that AQ-AP is also active within the UK itself.

These groups may use the Al Qa’ida name but they often appear to operate without reference to the Al Qa’ida leadership.

Therefore, the loss of Bin Laden may not significantly affect their operational capability - they will continue to seek to strike within Yemen, the wider region and against the West.


So it is clear that we are at a moment of significant change. That change brings opportunities and it brings threats. At the same time as we seek to seize the opportunities, we must also guard against the threats.

That is why our new counter-terrorism strategy is so important.

It is both comprehensive and wide-ranging. It deals with grand strategic issues and detailed technological points.

The new CONTEST remains based on the familiar four Ps of Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare, but there will be significant changes within the strategy.

It shows we will continue to work hard, including with our international partners, to maintain our intelligence coverage of the threats we face.

It sets out how we will seek to prosecute more of those we know are engaged in terrorist related activity.

It gives us a better targeted and more effective Prevent programme; it learns the lessons from 7/7, Mumbai and other attacks; and it prepares us for the Olympics.

Identifying and Prosecuting Terrorists

The intelligence reports I receive every day make clear the seriousness of the threat we face.

There has been progress over the last few years.

Collaboration between the police and the security and intelligence agencies has continued to get better.

And at a local level the Police Counter Terrorism Network gives a strong interaction with local police forces, local Government and, crucially, local communities.

But technological change and the diversification of the threat, is making maintaining proper intelligence coverage increasingly difficult.

And the police and the security service continue to identify far more people engaged in terrorist related activity in this country than we have been able to successfully prosecute and convict.
These are real concerns.

And that is why our new strategy places improving intelligence coverage and prosecuting terrorists at the heart of our approach.


Between January 2009 and December 2010 over 600 people were arrested for terrorist related offences in the UK.  That is more than in any other European country.

But not all of those arrested can be prosecuted. And not all of those identified covertly can even be arrested.

In many cases, there is plenty of intelligence but not much hard evidence that we can put before a jury.

The difficulty is deciding how to deal with those people who we know from intelligence are extremely dangerous, but who we do not have enough evidence to prosecute and convict.

If they are foreign nationals, we will try to deport them. But if they face the real risk of torture on their return then, given our human rights obligations, we cannot remove them.

Even when they do not face, in our judgement, a serious risk of mistreatment on return, then Court interpretations of the European Convention of Human Rights have sometimes prevented us from returning dangerous terrorists to their countries of origin.

And if they are born and bred in Britain, then obviously we can’t just send them away.

What to do with people in these circumstances has been a matter of great controversy in our politics for some time.

Our approach will combine tough, targeted restrictions under the new Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures with significantly increased resources for covert surveillance and investigation, new measures to support prosecutions, and a renewed effort to get assurances from foreign governments to allow us to deport foreign terrorist suspects.

The TPIMs package gives us the public protection measures we need, combined with increased resources for the police and Security Service, which are aimed at producing more evidence for use in possible prosecutions.

Added to this will be a new effort to gain public and verifiable assurances from foreign governments that suspects will not be mistreated. This will allow the return of more foreign terrorist suspects to their home countries. We will use existing assurance arrangements; agree new assurance arrangements with more countries; and, where appropriate, seek assurances for individual cases, rather than relying solely on over-arching agreements, which can be difficult to negotiate.

We must also do more with foreign governments to help them prosecute terrorists. In those countries where Al Qa’ida is most active, prosecution of terrorists is almost non-existent. We can help them to do better.

At the same time, we will support prosecution at home by making use of measures such as post-charge questioning.

This means police and prosecutors will be able to build a more robust case against terrorist suspects where further substantial evidence emerges after charges have been brought. We will make amendments to the Codes of Practice under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to allow this.

And we have asked the Privy Council Group to look again at finding a practical way to place intercepted communications material - such as telephone calls and emails - in front of a jury. This will not be easy, but it is something we must consider.

The combined effect of these new measures will be a major new focus on prosecution and conviction. That’s because I believe the right place for a terrorist is a prison cell.

Intelligence Coverage

As we seek to prosecute terrorists, we must also seek to maintain the intelligence coverage which leads us to their activity in the first place.

This is a real challenge. There is nothing automatic about it.

The continued diversification of the terrorist threat, which I have already discussed, means we must work more closely with our partners overseas.

And advances in technology mean our response must improve to keep pace.

Terrorists are increasingly using online technology, including Google Earth and Street View for attack planning.

Ahead of its attempted aviation attacks, AQ-AP used commercial systems to allow air mail to be tracked in real time - we can speculate that this was to detonate a device over a particular city, to maximise casualties, or perhaps over a particular country, to maximise the political fallout.

The marauding attacks in Mumbai in 2008 were directed by people using off-the-shelf secure communications technology to stay in contact with each other.

Software to encrypt mobile phone voice and text functions is widely available and improving.

Peer-to-peer networks can be used to distribute files and information rapidly and securely.

Cloud computing offers new means for storing, sharing and distributing material on-line. It can be encrypted and configured to work with mobile devices, leaving little or no trace of the data behind. 

And while radicalisation continues primarily to be a social process, terrorists are making more and more use of new technologies to communicate their propaganda.

Estimates of the number of terrorism-related websites, made by experts in the field, range from several hundred to several thousand. It is clear that a few dozen are highly influential and frequented by active terrorists.

To tackle these new and emerging threats our own technology must constantly evolve and adapt. That’s why we are investing in new systems and new capabilities.

Our Communications Capabilities Development Programme will ensure that our investigative capabilities are maintained in the face of rapid changes in digital technology.

Legislation will be brought forward to put in place the necessary regulations and safeguards to ensure that the response to this technological challenge is both proportionate and appropriate.

But I am absolutely clear: this investment is vital to our national security.


As well as doing more to identify, prosecute and convict suspected terrorists, we also need to do more to stop people being drawn into terrorist related activity in the first place.

That will require a new approach, across government, to integrating our divided communities, as the Prime Minister set out in Munich in February.

And in counter-terrorism, it will require a more effective and better targeted programme to tackle radicalisation in this country and overseas. Al Qa’ida’s ideology may be discredited, but it can still be used to radicalise.

That’s why last year I launched a review of the existing counter-radicalisation strategy - known as Prevent. Last month, I announced the conclusions of that review and outlined our new approach.

The new Prevent strategy has a broader scope than the programme we inherited.

That means, for the first time, tackling the non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit.

We will do that through executive action, for example by excluding from this country those who seek to spread division and hatred.

We will do it through civic action, like challenging extremist views.

And we will do it by isolating extremists, placing them at the fringes of society - where they belong.

If organisations do not support the fundamental values of democracy, human rights, equality before the law, participation in society - if they do not accept these fundamental and universal values - then we will not work with them and we will not fund them.

At the same time, the strategy also has a tighter focus.  It is complementary to, but distinct from, work on integration led by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Of course, a successful integration strategy makes it less likely that individuals will want to attack this country.

No one who is happy and comfortable with living here would seek to attack their fellow citizens.  But integration alone will not meet our counter-terrorism objectives. And our integration programme should go much wider than just security and counter terrorism.

So our new Prevent strategy will have three objectives.

First, Prevent will respond to the ideological challenge and the threat from those who promote it.

That will mean working with people and organisations to make sure moderate voices are heard.

It will mean robustly defending our institutions and our way of life.

And, where propagandists for terrorism break the law in encouraging or approving terrorism, it will mean arrest and prosecution.

Second, the new Prevent will stop individuals from being drawn into terrorism and will ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support.

We will do this by building on the successful multi-agency ‘Channel’ programme, which identifies and provides support for people at risk of radicalisation. But we want to be more rigorous in our choice of partner organisations, more systematic in assessing their performance, and more meticulous in the analysis of outcomes.

Third, we will work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation and where there are opportunities for counter-radicalisation projects.

That includes education and healthcare providers, universities, faith groups, charities, prisons and the wider criminal justice system.

We will also work much harder to tackle the particular challenge of radicalisation on the internet.

Learning the Lessons of 7/7, Mumbai and Other Attacks

I believe our new Prevent strategy and a much greater emphasis on the identification and prosecution of terrorist suspects at home and overseas, will be effective.

But we can never assume that it will be 100% effective. A terrorist attack will always be a possibility, whatever measures we take to prevent it.

So we must properly prepare for an attack.

A key part of that must be learning the lessons from previous attacks, as well as putting in place plans to deal with whatever new and sinister methods the terrorists may employ.

Everyone in the country remembers where they were on the 7th July 2005. What happened that day is seared into our national consciousness. The victims will never be forgotten.

The inquests into the deaths of the 52 innocent people who died that day have been invaluable in helping us to learn the lessons that we must.

I have now sent the Government’s formal response to the Coroner’s report to Lady Justice Hallett.

For legal reasons, I am constrained in what I can say about it before publication, but I intend it to be a positive response and I believe it will be recognised as a positive response. I have made clear to the Security Service and to my officials that we should respond in full, learning every lesson.

As well as fulfilling our legal duty to respond to the Coroner’s specific “Rule 43” recommendations, we will also respond to the Coroner’s comments and concerns where she did not attach formal recommendations. 

And CONTEST sets out new work to go further to resolve issues around what is known as “interoperability” between the emergency services - that is, improving how they work together and communicate with each other.

It is clear that on July 7th, and in several counter-terrorism exercises since, interoperability has not been good enough.

Under the last government and under this government, improvements have been made, and must continue to be made.

I am determined we learn every possible lesson from 7/7. No whitewash. No sweeping anything under the rug. Just a better response in future.

We cannot assume that any future terrorist attack will be like the last. Terrorists are nothing if not resourceful.

From truck bombs in 1998, to aeroplanes with suicide pilots in 2001, to rucksack bombs in 2005, liquid bombs in 2006 and printer bombs in 2010, their capacity to devise novel attack methodologies is one of their defining characteristics.

But we must learn lessons from attacks that have happened elsewhere and prepare for the possibility that they could be replicated here. So our new strategy is open about our work to prepare for a Mumbai style attack in the UK.

Police firearms officers now have access to higher calibre weaponry, and enhanced tactics and training to deal with this kind of assault.

For the first time, we have given British Transport Police officers access to firearms.

There is now permanent additional police firearms capacity in major cities and improved procedures to provide rapid back-up from neighbouring areas.

And the military can now respond more quickly and with new capabilities to help the police.

These new capabilities were tested in a major national counter-terrorism exercise in February 2011 which looked at our overall response to such a ‘marauding’ terrorist firearms attack.

That exercise identified important lessons, including better procedures for identifying this type of attack, mobilising resources and managing risks at the scene. CONTEST spells out some of those improvements; some, by necessity, must be kept secret.

Learning from other plots, the strategy also sets out steps to properly secure our borders.

Fulfilling a key pledge in the Coalition Agreement, I have already announced the creation of a National Crime Agency, with a Border Policing Command to coordinate the activity of all the agencies operating in and around the border.

We will also respond to recent threats to aviation security with new scanning technology, new watchlisting, new non-fly procedures and a new push, which I am leading within Europe, to use Passenger Name Records to track terrorist travel.

And we are implementing the recommendations of the comprehensive review of cargo security which I ordered after the attempted attack on cargo aircraft last October.


Finally, the London 2012 Olympics will be the largest peacetime security operation in Britain’s history. 

It will take place over more than 30 venues, involving nearly 15,000 athletes, 10,000 officials and 20,000 journalists.

There will be over 10 million tickets available for the Olympics and Paralympics - though I know those who entered the ballot may not believe it!

The Olympic Park will receive some 350,000 visitors per day - that’s the population of a city the size of Cardiff descending on a small area of East London every day for some 45 days.

And all of this will be watched by billions around the world.

The challenge is unprecedented.

That is why we have protected the Olympic security budget. In fact, we protected the overall counter-terrorism policing budget.

All our thoughts and all our efforts over the next year will be dedicated to making sure the games pass off without incident.

We start from a strong base. The UK has a long history of hosting major events safely and securely - from 3000 league football matches a year, to major events ranging from the Notting Hill Carnival, to state visits and world summits.

Our track record is one of the reasons we won the bid.

But we know the Olympics are likely to be an attractive target for terrorists. They are an iconic event, and they therefore represent an iconic target.

The eyes of the world will be on London. And we know that terrorists crave publicity more than anything else.

That is why our security operation is so important.

When we entered government, we carried out an audit and review of Games security planning.
That review concluded that appropriate arrangements have been and are being put in place and that security planning is on track.

Our approach to securing the Olympics is consistent with and dependent on CONTEST.

It will draw on the capabilities and expertise that the police and the security and intelligence agencies have developed over many years.

What will be key over the next few months is to thoroughly test our plans. We are carrying out a minimum of ten counter-terrorism exercises - maybe more if needed. They will include “live play” exercises, with the police, the military and the emergency services carrying out real operations to test how they would deal with a crisis.

Learning the lessons from these exercises - including through independent scrutiny - will ensure that we leave nothing to chance.


The message from the last year is stark - Al Qa’ida is failing.

Its weakened and beleaguered leadership is becoming more and more irrelevant.

We have an opportunity to exploit; and a continued challenge to guard against. 

Al Qa’ida’s ideology is discredited; but it endures.

Its leaders are dying; but the threat remains. We know it is diversifying and continues to be dangerous.

That is why our new counter-terrorism strategy is so important.

It’s why we need a new focus on identifying, prosecuting and convicting terrorist suspects.

It’s why we need a new more targeted and more effective Prevent programme.

It’s why we need to learn the lessons from 7/7, Mumbai and other attacks.

And it’s why we need to prepare for the challenge of the Olympics.

We face a continuing threat, but we have an unprecedented opportunity. This strategy will help us to exploit it.

Thank you.


Published 12 July 2011