Counter Terrorism: transitioning from binary to holistic thinking

June 4, 2024


counter terrorism

Guy Neale, defence and security expert and Andy Brown, national security expert at PA Consulting explain how moving from binary to holistic thinking can transform counter terrorism.

The UK’s Head of Counter Terrorism, Matt Jukes, recently spoke of seeing a sharp rise in counter terrorism threats projected into the UK by hostile state actors.

Meanwhile, the latest data from the Home Office shows that the number of young people arrested for terrorism offences hit a record high in 2023.  

This terrain is undoubtedly difficult to navigate.

For counter terrorism, as with many areas within the defence and security domain, resource and funding pressures make prioritisation unavoidable.

But with so much at stake, how can counter terrorism professionals make these all-important decisions and balance seemingly contradictory choices?  

From binary challenge to holistic opportunity  

PA Consulting’s Secure Futures report draws on the views of over 70 defence and security experts to explore how leaders can rethink perplexing paradoxes.

The research – validated by senior leaders at the Ministry of Defence, Royal Air Force, Home Office, Cabinet Office, and more – pinpoints five paradoxes that, at first glance, seem contradictory: 

  • Paradox one – Focused + Broad: Counter terrorism covers an ever-growing remit, broadening from the traditionally focused scope of terrorism, while responding to emerging threats from anarchists, single-issue terrorists and extreme right- and left-wing groups.  
  • Paradox two – Strategic + Tactical: Counter terror organisations are expected to react quickly and tactically to threats, drawing attention away from robust strategic plans that prevent and limit the impact of terrorism, radicalisation, and extremism.  
  • Paradox three – Global + Local: Shifting global dynamics fundamentally influence terrorism threats. Where do leaders best invest resource – overseas, or in the UK? Some of the most serious threats originate overseas, but challenges are also home-grown.  
  • Paradox four – Technology + People: The world is increasingly digital, transformed by AI and quantum. Yet counter terror organisations are traditionally people-focused, relying on human insight.  
  • Paradox five – Autonomy + Protection: Automation and ubiquitous data complicates the difficult balance between citizens’ privacy and safety.  

However, these paradoxes are not unreconcilable.

When considered with a holistic and collaborative mindset, they actually uncover opportunities to revolutionise the sector.  

Take Focused + Broad: a joined-up, systems-thinking approach encompasses both, as shown by Sweden’s Total Defence approach, which empowers its broad range of citizens to strengthen security by linking societal values to defence.

Strategic + Tactical are similarly aligned, as deliberate tactical choices fuel the success of long-term strategy.  

Likewise, Global + Local can’t be viewed in isolation; no matter where threats originate, today’s connectivity enables terrorists to wreak havoc wherever they choose.

Terrorism isn’t bound by borders, so counter terrorism can’t be either – truly collaborative leaders can make resources go further through international, interlinked counter terrorism.  

Then there’s the paradox between People + Technology.

In today’s increasingly digital world, counter terror organisations need to upskill teams, expand tech talent, and rethink security requirements to match and even outmanoeuvre agile adversaries.

Similarly, Autonomy + Protection are two sides of the same coin, and so to maintain public trust, counter terrorism must be transparent, explaining how data is gathered and how it informs decisions. 

Five solution areas to transform counter terrorism 

Immense opportunities come from reconciling these paradoxes – but counter terrorism remains preoccupied by the tug-of-war between priorities.

How can counter terror leaders take a holistic mindset and turn it towards practical action?

Investing in five key solution areas now can transform approaches and strengthen the security ecosystem over the next ten-year timeframe.  

  1. Take an integrated world view  

The top priority for leaders is to put collaboration first, taking an integrated, global view of the counter terrorism landscape and working with government, international, and non-traditional partners to tackle threats together.

This is because a joined-up culture, with clear priorities and governance aligned to a common strategy, shares the workload and skills needed to meet growing remits, move quickly, and plan for the future.  

Leveraging individual organisation’s specialisms and expertise in mutually beneficial ways sparks whole-system change, creating a cross-organisation portfolio for transformation.

To get started, organisations can develop integrated approaches for specific elements – such as terrorist travel and borders – then scale out.  

  1. Communicate purpose, make it personal  

Counter terrorism plays a crucial role in keeping society safe, but does the everyday person understand the work they do and the impact it has?

Counter terror organisations can reconnect with citizens, build trust, and bring them along as national security partners through clear messages about collective ownership in the response to terrorism, galvanising the public to help make the UK safe.

But people need to know how to engage – for example, through community groups, local councils, or specific programmes.   

Prevent, part of the UK government’s CONTEST counter terrorism strategy, aims to tackle the ideological causes of terrorism, intervene early and rehabilitate those who have already engaged in terrorism.

There’s still work to do to improve public knowledge and awareness about radicalisation, its causes, and how to stop it.

The earlier this happens the less likely radicalisation is to take root.  

  1. Unlock insight through the power of data  

Rich data equals rich insights – but only with the right data and tools in the right hands. Counter terror organisations can empower their people to benefit from data-driven insights through:  

  • Ensuring the right data fundamentals are in place, underpinning analysis with high-quality, trusted data. 
  • Simplifying and accelerating cloud adoption, emphasising senior-level programme delivery to reduce delays, while prioritising elements that enable wider engagement and skills development. 
  • Increasing the use of AI and cloud in non-core platforms, migrating to cloud infrastructure and AI tooling where feasible and impactful – building skills and frameworks to ease core system adoption. 
  • Partnering with academia and private companies to access tools and techniques, including data fusion, pattern recognition, and predictive analytics, building resilience while boosting sector-wide trust and engagement.  
  1. Reimagine critical infrastructure  

Counter terror organisations operate in increasingly online environments, with terrorist groups using digital platforms to radicalise new recruits. The increased use of encrypted communication complicates the picture.  

It’s therefore important for organisations to recognise that the online space is part of each nation’s critical national infrastructure, transcending physical borders.

A joined-up approach is vital – for example, WeProtect Global Alliance brings together governments, private entities, charities, and intergovernmental organisations to create policies and solutions that protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse online, merging international skills and resources.  

  1. Optimise the talent opportunity  

Counter terror organisations can also maximise talent availability and transferability by offering digital training courses, supported by mentoring to embed skills.

They can draw on talent from industry and non-traditional partners, such as ‘analysis as a service’ and open-source research from citizen-led groups like Bellingcat.

Leveraging talent in this way revolutionises resourcing, enabling organisations to use the most sensitive tools and techniques against the sharpest threats. 

Creating a resilient, future-ready workforce means demystifying tools and maximising take-up – not everyone has to be a bona fide expert.

This initial baseline provides a launchpad for understanding and familiarity across wider areas.

From here, organisations can cultivate centres of excellence, attract more diverse talent, and pioneer new approaches through human and machine teaming.  

Perceived paradoxes can, in fact, act as drivers of progress and investing in these five solution areas can help counter terror leaders bolster the security ecosystem.

As threats evolve, so too do the strategies to mitigate and even stop them in the first place.

Taking a truly collaborative approach, leaders can share learnings across defence and security – building resilience, driving co-development, and creating a more secure future.  

This article was originally published in the June Edition of Security Journal UK. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.

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