Counter-terrorism awareness campaigns: It’s Probably Nothing, But… Public participation and Counter-terrorism?

Dr. Lee Jarvis and Dr. Michael Lister asks what the launch a national counter terrorism awareness campaign says about the nature of security in the UK.

This week sees the launch of a national counter-terrorism awareness campaign within the United Kingdom. According to media reports this will involve counter-terror officers spending the week, ‘briefing more than 6,000 people at 80 venues including schools, universities, airports, shopping centres, cinemas and farms, in a bid to raise awareness of terrorism’. With a recent increase in the terrorism threat level from substantial to severe, and continuing concerns about the capacities of police force to deal with terrorism plots, public vigilance is being seen as a way to plug potentially significant gaps in the UK’s national security architecture.

Two things are important to note about this development. The first is that appeals for public participation in the provision of security are neither new nor unique to the British experience. Neighbourhood watch schemes and the like have a history going back over sixty years, with their targets including crime and anti-social behaviour. Initiatives focused on counter-terrorism more specifically were particularly widespread after 9/11, amongst the most controversial of which was the US-based Operation TIPS. This scheme – which was subsequently withdrawn under the 2002 Homeland Security and Defence Act – sought to use citizens with access to the lives and homes of their fellow nationals (postal workers, utility workers and the like), to collect information on the suspicious behaviours of their fellow nationals. Perhaps less controversial initiatives in the UK and abroad include the widespread use of terrorism warning posters, anti-terrorism hotlines and websites, as well as more targeted requests that mothers contact the authorities with any concerns they may have about their children’s intentions to fight in Iraq and Syria. As the widely-used strapline by British police forces puts it: ‘If you Suspect It: Report It’.

The second point to note is that these invocations involve potentially significant changes to the experience of citizenship within the United Kingdom. Publics, imagined in this way, are not simply voters to be fought for by politicians. They are active stakeholders in the national security enterprise, expected to contribute to the security of themselves and those around them by reporting and responding to potentially risky behaviour. This introduces an important ambiguity into the condition of citizenship such that we are all now – simultaneously – the subject, the object and the mechanism of counter-terrorism policy. Or, put more simply, we are all now the threatened, the threat, and the response to terrorism. How we are seen in practice, of course, will depend on intervening factors including how others perceive our ethnic, religious and related identities. Muslim citizens, many have argued, are at especial risk of suspicion here. The desirability of this state/citizen relationship will depend, ultimately, on one’s own political commitments and view of the purposes of government. At the same time, however, recent research shows that there exist very  real – and understandable – limits to the willingness to contribute to such initiatives amongst those individuals or communities who feel targeted by their existence. This, in turn, raises significant questions about the effectiveness as well as the legitimacy of such initiatives.

Lee Jarvis is a Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of East Anglia. Michael Lister is a Reader in Politics at Oxford Brookes University. Their most recent collaborative books are Anti-Terrorism, Citizenship and Security (Manchester University Press, 2015) and Critical Perspectives on Counter-terrorism (Routledge 2015).

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