Commander Richard Walton has headed the Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) at the London Metropolitan Police since June 2011. He joined the Metropolitan Police Service in 1986 and has spent the majority of his career in the field of counterterrorism, including Irish and international terrorism, and has been twice commended for preventing terrorist acts in the United Kingdom. He assisted in the coordination of the police counterterrorism response to the 2005 London bombings and headed up police counterterrorism efforts to protect the 2012 London Olympics. He undertook the review that recommended the merging of Special Branch with the Anti-Terrorist Branch, leading to the creation in 2006 of the Counter Terrorism Command (SO15), which now has more than 1,700 officers and staff in 60 specialist units.
CTC: How has the threat evolved since you took over Counter Terrorism Command in June 2011?
Walton: The threat has increased exponentially. Back in 2011, U.S. drone attacks against al-Qa`ida in the FATA [Editor’s note: Federally Administered Tribal Areas in northwest Pakistan] and other regions had created a significant breakthrough in the fight against terrorism. But the Syrian civil war has been a massive game-changer, and it’s affected pretty much every country in the world with a Muslim population. In the last two years, 2013 to 2015, we’ve seen a surge in the Syria-related threat, both at home and overseas. Syria is not like Afghanistan. It is right on our doorstep, and it has been easy for extremists to get to, including via Turkey. The threat is complex, diverse, and one we’ve not seen before. It is a challenge for many countries around the world. We’re arresting, charging, and convicting more people for terrorism offences than we ever have done before.
CTC: In the wake of the recent Paris attacks, what is the assessment of the Islamic State threat to the UK?
Walton: We’re still operating at a UK threat level of “severe,” which means an attack is highly likely. We are concerned about Daesh’s external ambitions to project their terror overseas rather than them just trying to consolidate their so-called caliphate. [Editor’s note: The UK government and police use the term Daesh to refer to the Islamic State.] And it’s deeply concerning what happened in Paris on a range of fronts. That was a complex, well-organized, arguably sophisticated attack by a significant number of individuals. For there not to have been any real indications beforehand is disturbing to those who are in the counterterrorism field. This war in Syria is not going to be resolved in the short-term, nor the threat of terrorism emanating from it.
CTC: What has been your response to the growing threat?
Walton: What we’re trying to do is get further and further upstream of the threats. Some countries have a kind of goal-line defense approach to terrorism, which is almost like reacting when they’re coming over the hill at you with their guns pointed and you react to that threat. We’re trying to interdict further up the pitch so it doesn’t reach the goal-line defense because when you’re at that goal-line, it’s amost too late, particularly with the nature of this Daesh threat.
I’m putting more officers upstream around the world to help capacity building in other countries, and we’re augmenting those already there, in some difficult places. We’ve developed, particularly over the last five years, an international network, including a strong working relationship with the FBI, the Australians, the Canadians, and our European counterparts. We have responded to terrorist incidents overseas by deploying our capabilities, including after the In Amenas gas facility attack in Algeria, the Westgate mall attack in Kenya, and the Sousse beach attack in Tunisia. We regularly deploy both reactively and proactively overseas to assist countries in building their counterterrorism capabilities, particularly in the Horn of Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle Eastern and Gulf states. We’re doing more work with our foreign counterparts than ever before.
CTC: What are the lessons learned from confronting terrorism in the UK that can be useful to other countries?
Walton: We like to think we’re the best-in-class in terms of our capability, in terms of police counterterrorism capability. The British CT model is unique in several ways. Firstly, because of its history, how long we’ve been doing it—over 130 years.
The second unique aspect is there are no silos in our approach. Because different agencies have had to work together for so long in the fight against terrorism, particularly during the Irish era and more recently now with the international, Daesh-related threat, we have developed joint protocols, systems, and policies and procedures. I speak to MI5 [Editor’s note: the UK’s domestic security service] every day. I’ve got MI5 intelligence officers in my buildings, and I’ve got my officers over in their buildings. It’s a completely united endeavor, and it’s totally unique. I challenge anyone to find a model like that anywhere in the world that is so joined up. And that was a deliberate decision, particularly post the 2005 London bombings, but also pre-dating that. Several other countries are struggling with this concept because they have intelligence services doing one aspect of counterterrorism and they have police services doing another, and they’re not joined up. And this can be the Achilles heel of a country’s CT machine.
The third difference between our model and some other countries is our engagement policing model—policing by consent. We place particular priority in investing in relationships with our communities, including our Muslim communities, to understand them and to engage with them. This is the central tenet of our “Prevent” program, which we’ve had in place for about a decade.[a] I couldn’t do all my arrests, searches, and convictions without the support of Muslim communities. It’s critical to what I do. Some countries are struggling with this and are realizing they are in need of a “Prevent” program like ours.
CTC: What are the most important tools you have in thwarting terrorist plots?
Walton: We have this phrase, “Communities defeat terrorism.” Terrorism traditionally has been defeated by good covert intelligence, and that’s what we’ve relied upon over the years, whether it’s the interception of communications by intelligence agencies or human intelligence sources. And those do still play a big part. But with the nature of this particular Daesh threat, it’s becoming more important to have connectivity with the wider community, with social services, with health, with education because that’s where you can prevent radicalization from germinating.
Some of this radicalization is happening in bedrooms via social media, so it’s not going to be intercepted by phone calls across satellites. It’s not going to be intercepted necessarily by good intelligence coverage in Syria. But it might be intercepted by a schoolteacher actually spotting a young lad who’s got beheading videos on his phone. So increasingly, we’re seeing our leads coming from that space. It’s still obviously important to have covert intelligence, but we’re seeing an increase in reporting on people who are of concern from schoolteachers, health services, psychiatrists, and so on. When we get that information, we can interdict and we can prevent terrorism.
CTC: And that’s because Muslim communities in the UK itself have become increasingly aware of and alarmed about the threat that the Islamic State poses?
Walton: Yes. And increasingly they’re stepping up, increasingly they’re realizing that they need to step up, that they need to engage with us. So we’ve got good relationships. There are over a billion Muslims in the world. We are monitoring a tiny fraction of those, and we have the support of the vast majority of the Muslim communities in London. We are confident of this because they contact our anti-terrorism hotline. They ring us, talk to us, and refer people to us. They’re even referring, sometimes, their own sons and daughters, even though they know that there is a risk that they may get arrested. They’d rather have them arrested on the way to Syria than actually becoming a jihadi or a jihadi bride when they get there. We’re confident we’ve got their support because we’ve always engaged with communities and we’re particularly engaged with the Muslim communities at the moment. It is a critical part of our CT machine, and it’s something that a lot of countries don’t have.
CTC: And that close relationship between the police and the local communities provides the possibility of off-ramps?
Walton: We would always rather prevent than arrest, prosecute, and convict. But the model is a rule-of-law model. We fight terrorism through the rule-of-law, but if we can interdict before, in the vulnerability space, when the young people are vulnerable before they get into the criminality that’s attached with terrorism, then it’s much better to do that. So a lot of our work is interdicting with vulnerable people, and that’s moving up the pitch, including into that space where you’ve got youth issues and mental health issues.
CTC: In the wake of the Paris attacks what is the concern that the Islamic State will dispatch more European recruits home to launch attacks against the UK and other countries conducting air strikes against it?
Walton: We are concerned about that. It’s clear that Daesh are targeting the countries involved in the coalition against it. But, remember, there are over 64 nation-states now in the America-led coalition. There are many nation-states now providing some element of military resource or capability, so it’s not just UK and France or America who are potentially in the crosshairs.
CTC: Are you seeing evidence of a greater external operations emphasis within the Islamic State?
Walton: The statistics of Daesh-related terrorism over the past year support this belief and obviously the Paris attack is the most horrific example of that. It was not a spontaneous act of terror. It was a very well-planned mass-casualty attack. It would have taken a long time to train those operatives. They were well-trained. They used high-caliber weaponry and suicide vests. And of course they had to get across a number of countries from Syria into Paris. So that is operational planning.
It looks like they’ve made a conscious decision to project their terror externally in the way that al-Qa`ida also did. And the range of attacks we’ve seen from Daesh, the range of methodologies, the sending of trained individuals back to different countries or across different countries, all of that points to a great deal more external activity. In the early days, their focus was perhaps more on building their so-called utopian Islamic state according to their rules. But I think we’ve seen a different posture in the last 12 months.
CTC: This external plotting is being directed by the senior leadership?
Walton: You have to assume that.
CTC: Are you seeing evidence of the Islamic State starting to provide specially tailored training for terrorism attacks back in the West?
Walton: Yes. With the Paris attack, the evidence was there for all of us to see.
CTC: The Paris attackers were able to obtain Kalashnikovs. What is the concern that Islamist terrorists aiming to launch attacks in the UK could get hold of these kind of weapons?
Walton: There is no room for complacency, but it’s clear there’s an availability of firearms on the European mainland that is just not replicated here in the UK. And we’ve got some sea around us, so it’s much more difficult to get guns into the UK. This is a critical difference in the UK, even compared to our counterparts in Europe, in terms of the threat from Daesh and marauding terrorist attacks.
The obvious conclusion is one of our biggest vulnerabilities has got to be our own border with Europe. We, like every country in Europe, are looking at tightening our borders because everyone is asking the same question: How did they get that level of weaponry?
CTC: How would you quantify the difference between the UK and other countries on access to firearms?
Walton: I think the statistics are irrefutable in terms of the availability of arms and the numbers of firearms-related incidents. Take London as the capital city of perhaps 10 million people; I don’t know how many times we the police actually use a firearm on the streets of London, but it’s usually around about ten times a year. There are cities in the world where that’s every hour, that sort of discharge. We still have a predominantly unarmed police force. We know that our criminals can’t get a hold of arms very readily. We know that and we’re doing everything we can to suppress the availability of firearms. I should also note we have no intention of routinely arming our police.
CTC: In mainland Europe, there is this nexus between petty criminality, terrorism, and radicalization. Presumably in the UK there is a similar nexus but the key difference appears to be people in these circles in the UK generally don’t have guns.
Walton: We see those touchpoints between crime and violent extremism, and one of the places where we see that most in evidence is, of course, in prisons where criminals are mixing with extremists. And that’s not a good mix. We’re doing a lot of work in prisons to try to prevent our convicted criminals from becoming radicalized in prison.
CTC: The official British figure is that 800 extremists have traveled to Syria and Iraq from the UK and about 400 have returned. Is this just an estimate? Or is it a hard number in which you can identify every single one of those people?
Walton: It’s more the latter than the former. It’s not an exact science knowing who’s come back and who hasn’t come back. Some of that is partial intelligence, but it is not purely an estimate. It’s a hard number based on actual assessment.
CTC: European officials have told us that it is sometimes difficult to obtain enough evidence to charge those who have returned from Syria with crimes because it’s difficult to prove they linked up with terrorist groups in Syria and difficult to prove they even entered Syria from Turkey. Is obtaining the evidence to prove travel to Syria a challenge you’re also running into in the UK?
Walton: Yes, it is. It’s a dilemma we face all the time. In terms of returnees, you’ve got the whole spectrum. You’ve got your charity worker at one end of the spectrum and trained terrorists returning from Daesh training camps at the other end. And you’ve got all shades in between. The important thing is to get the assessment right—what are you dealing with? We can use Prevent strategies on those that are on the cusp of extremism but did not go to fight. But if there is intelligence suggesting individuals have trained in Daesh training camps, of course we are going to put more attention on them, including running substantial covert operations. You’re often in the territory of not knowing whether they’re disenfranchised and unhappy with Daesh or whether they are a sleeper for Daesh. So we will do a range of disruptive interventions on these individuals, some quite soft interventions, some much harder.
CTC: Are you seeing a drop-off in the number of foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq from the UK?
Walton: Not really—and if there has been one, it is only marginal. We’re still seeing people travel and families travel, too. The Turkish border has become less porous. So there’s less opportunity there. But there’s lots of different routes into Syria. We’re seeing some quite convoluted routes, which they’ve been using. Flying to Belgium or Holland, and then going to Germany by land, and then driving across Europe. Initially, many simply flew to Istanbul then crossed the Turkish-Syria border.
CTC: How good is cooperation now with Turkey on tracking foreign fighters?
Walton: We’ve got very good relations with the Turkish National Police. I’ve got officers over there working with them in Turkey, several officers. We’ve had good cooperation, particularly in the last 12 months. We’ve asked them for interventions in the cases of young families that have tried to get to the so-called caliphate, and they’ve done that and sent them back. The Turkish border is less porous than it was because of the actions the Turks themselves have taken, which is helping.
CTC: SO15 has been heavily involved in the investigation into the attack that killed 30 British tourists on a beach in Sousse, Tunisia, in June. Prime Minister Cameron has spoken about a link to the Islamic State in the attack. Are you seeing evidence of the Islamic State command and control in the Sousse beach attack?
Walton: That was clearly a well-organized attack by a trained individual as part of a group. It was not spontaneous. It was clearly Daesh-inspired or -directed.
CTC: The director of the FBI, James Comey, and others have spoken about the “going dark” phenomenon—encrypted communications, which allow terrorists to communicate in more secure ways. Can you describe to me how that is posing challenges here in the UK specifically?
Walton: In a recent terrorism case we knew during a quite lengthy covert operation into them that they were using covert, encrypted iCloud-based apps. And we knew we couldn’t see what they were communicating because of the encryption.
So you can imagine the dilemmas we had in that case. You’re running a covert operation; you know there’s a risk to public safety here. But yet you can’t see what’s being said and sent between the suspects who are plotting. It was only after we had made the arrests and interdicted that we got from their phones some of those conversations retrospectively.
It’s a good example of the FBI director’s point about “going dark” because previously in operations of these kind you would have been able to intercept their communications. But while we got hold of bits, we couldn’t rely on getting hold of it all. This speaks to the point that in terrorism investigations these days you might even know the suspects are communicating with these apps but you can’t see it. And that’s quite a difficult position to be in if you’re running the operation. And it means we’re going to have to interdict earlier. And that means our evidence might be less substantial. Once knives were purchased in that case we couldn’t afford to wait any longer, even with surveillance coverage.
CTC: When you get the phones on which suspects were using these apps, then can you extract the messages?
Walton: Not always, but sometimes.
CTC: Because sometimes you can get the phones and it’s completely gone because of these “self-destruct” features. It’s not even possible to get the data out of the phones?
Walton: It depends on the technology of the app and the capability of your own people to analyze it. I’ve got some phenomenal experts who can extract data off phones and off digital media more generally. But it’s changing all the time. New apps, new encryption.
CTC: Are you calling here in the UK, like the FBI and others, for some of these manufacturers, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, who are developing these apps to provide law enforcement with ways they can have a lawful warrant to access that kind of data?
Walton: That’s our Investigatory Powers Bill, which is just about to go through our House of Commons. It’s the second time we’ve tried to legislate on this issue. The legislation was not passed in the previous parliament. And obviously we’re hoping other countries will follow, not least America. But even with the bill, there are some limitations because you’ve got service providers in different countries that operate outside of international law.
CTC: What’s the biggest change in the operating environment that you’ve seen since taking over as head of SO15?
Walton: We’ve got now this huge volume change in the threat that’s so challenging for us in the complexity and the diversity of it. It’s not just young men traveling overseas that are now of concern. Whole families are going. We didn’t think we would be in the position of having to safeguard children from being taken to a war zone controlled by a terrorist group.
CTC: How do you confront radicalization?
Walton: We’ve got to get to the point where counter-extremism is mainstreamed in our society. It’s just seen as just another ill, like drugs, like all the other ills that we teach our children about when they go through school. I’m afraid we’re in the space where we need to inoculate our children against extremism, and the earlier the better, the way that we do it in the drugs field. It’s taken us a while to get to this understanding. How do you prevent this stuff from happening? Because at this command—SO15—we can make the arrests, we can get the convictions, we can put people in prison, but that’s suppressing the problem. It’s not dealing with what’s driving the problem. We’ve got to do something more. And that’s why I am so supportive of our Prime Minister’s drive to create an effective national counter-extremism strategy, which has made clear that the “Prevent Duty” is not just a police duty but a community-wide responsibility, including schools, universities and prisons.[b] It’s early days but there has to be a counter-extremism strategy in order to deal with the underlying causes of this particular brand of extremism.
We’re getting about 600 referrals a month in this country from our Prevent initiative from our community. That’s a lot. They come in to various agencies from all parts of the community including social workers and teachers. And often the concern is not so much radicalization but vulnerability to radicalization. Once we get the information we can refer them to different agencies for different actions. And in some cases we do pick up leads from it, for example when we are warned “this guy is planning to go to Syria.” At that point we can make an intervention. At a time when some parts of our covert operations are “going dark,” this community-intelligence is growing and is increasingly important.
Of course, when we speak of radicalization, let’s not forget that we’ve also got the very real threat from right-wing extremism that is potentially flourishing on the back of this Daesh threat. We’ve had a number of operations against extreme right-wing individuals who were planning to conduct acts of terrorism against Muslim communities.
CTC: How much is social media driving radicalization?
Walton: It’s quite clear that social media is driving a lot of the radicalization but not entirely. We’re finding that the worst form of radicalization is a combination of social media with face-to-face contact. Hence, we’re doing a lot of operations against al-Muhajiroun, who are affiliated with Daesh and are a proscribed organization. They are radicalizers and are fermenting the extremism that leads further down the track to acts of terror.
The Brusthom Ziamani case is the best example, a 19-year-old Londoner who was radicalized in a rapid time—just 12 weeks from the point of conversion to then wanting to carry out a beheading attack.[c] He was radicalized that fast not just through social media but predominately through face-to-face contact, which all the academics say is more potent. If you combine face-to-face grooming, if you like, with exposure to social media online and all the propaganda that’s being churned out by Daesh, you’ve got that potent mix.
CTC: Given the scale of the threat, do the counterterrorism services in the UK have the toolkit that they need from a resources point-of-view, given the amount of people that need to be monitored?
Walton: We have a huge capability now. Nearly 2,000 people. We have a whole range of expertise in different fields. We’ve had growth in our resources last year. We’ve asked for and been given more resources this year as part of the government’s “Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).” So we are going to grow again in resources, and we need to.
CTC: What is your prognosis for 2016?
Walton: I think this challenging environment will continue throughout 2016. As well as Syria and Iraq, we are also concerned about parts of Libya, Yemen, and the increasing ungoverned spaces around the world where there are opportunities for terrorism to flourish.
It’s not going to be resolved in the short-term. Even if a peace deal were signed in Syria tomorrow, we’re still going to be challenged on the terror threat in the intervening months. And there is no sign of a peace deal yet on the table. So regrettably, I think we’re going to be facing serious terrorist challenges into 2016 and beyond.
[a] The “Prevent” program aims to stop people being drawn into terrorist-related activity and is a key part of the UK counterterrorism program.
[b] The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 placed a duty on certain bodies in the exercise of their functions, to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.”
[c] Ziamani was convicted in 2015 of an August 2014 plot to behead a soldier and sentenced to 22 years in prison. “Soldier Beheading Plan Teenager Brusthom Ziamani jailed,” BBC, March 20, 2015.