Thursday, February 28, 2008
Farewell to Britain's Top Terror Cop

Peter Clarke (left) has been the face of British counterterrorism for almost six years. After his boss, Met Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, he's probably the best known copper in Britain. No surprise really, since his period running the Anti-Terrorist Branch (which became Counter Terrorism Command in 2006) coincided with the arrival in Britain of Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism.

The Met increasingly came to realise that Clarke was their number one media asset and increasingly lent on him to be the public face of their investigations. He cut a highly reassuring figure, even in the teeth of an operation just hours old. His style has a polished, lack-of-polish about it; basic tenets of detective work - "we'll go where the evidence takes us" - are delivered with unaffected, no-nonsense aplomb. There are also stock answers delivered with the straightest of bats. Ask Peter Clarke whether he's happy with the relationship with authorities in Pakistan and you'll get the following reply: "We work closely with our counterparts in Pakistan and we'll continue to work closely with our counterparts in Pakistan." Delivered deadpan, with what Paddington Bear used to call the "hard stare."

Speaking to reporters on his final day at New Scotland Yard, Clarke reflected on his six years in the job. A key turning point, he said, was the raid on the Finsbury Park Mosque, in early 2003. That operation, he said, showed the coterie around Abu Hamza, who ran the mosque, as well as their fellow-travellers in Britain and abroad, for the first time, that the UK was not a safe haven to raise funds, to recruit and to plot.

He also spoke about public scepticism towards counterterrorism. It's clear he believes that the intelligence failures in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and the corresponding collapse in trust in Government utterances on foreign policy, bled over into public attitudes towards what the police were saying about the terrorist threat. Put crudely, there was a significant body of people who thought the whole terror thing was concocted to boost support for the Iraq war, or, worse, as a deliberate attempt to discredit Muslims. Things were so bad by Spring 2004, Clarke suggested, that had Operation Crevice (the fertiliser plot) ended in failure - if the plotters had been released due to lack of evidence - it could have compromised his unit's ability to operate successfully in the future. Its legitimacy, among key sectors of the community, could have been seriously eroded.

The intervening period, of course, has witnessed three plots get through; only one of them, fortunately, resulting in loss of life. But on top of those attacks, Clarke cites something else as having helped turn public opinion around, especially in the Muslim communities. And that's the huge upswing in the numbers pleading guilty to terrorism offences. Rewind just a couple of years ago and almost all those facing terror charges would choose to go to trial; now, over half the number of successful prosecutions end with the defendants 'fessing up. That, Clarke reckons, is having a major impact on those who were previously denying the terror threat really existed.


Two men will effectively follow Peter Clarke at the head of British counterterrorism policing. One is Deputy Assistant Commissioner John McDowall, (above left), the new head of CTC; the other is Bob Quick (above right) who is the incoming Assistant Commissioner, Specialist Operations, and McDowall's immediate superior. Even together, they have a tough act to follow.

By Andrew Carey
News and observations on the threats to international security and the challenges posed by terrorism to societies around the world. From breaking news to background stories, from serious analysis to casual asides, if we think it's interesting we'll post it here.
• February 2008
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