Whitehall releases 2003 Counter Terrorism Strategy

Whitehall has for the first time released a confidential Cabinet Office paper outlining the "Contest" counter-terrorism strategy developed in early 2003 as part of the UK's response to 9/11. The strategy was eventually made public in 2006 after further development. The newly-released document sheds fresh light on the UK Government's thinking at a crucial point in the evolution of the "war on terror."

The 9-page document was released, with some material redacted, in response to a freedom of information request. It was originally classified as "confidential".

Like the current version of Contest, the 2003 strategy covered four headings - Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare.

The controversial Prevent element of Contest is sometimes described as a response to the London tube bombings of July 2005. But the document shows that Prevent was part of Contest from the outset, and had a strong focus on Muslim communities from the outset. "Current activity" was said to include "building enhanced links with Muslim Council UK and promoting community leadership."

Under the sub-heading "but we will need to do more" the document includes: "Prevent the radicalisation of Muslim youth in the UK." This prefigures the focus on schools and universities by the Special Branch Community Contact Unit set up by Tayside Police in 2005, and the similar focus in the successive Contest strategies launched publicly from 2006 onwards.

The document lists current activity under the Pursue heading as including "more effective immigration/asylum policies." Counter-terrorism operations were at that time strongly targeted on refugee communities. That included the detention without charge of refugees suspected of terrorism links,  ruled unlawful by the Law Lords in December 2004. It also included the arrests of seven Algerian refugees in Scotland. Charges against all of them were dropped in December 2003. The association of immigration and asylum with a supposed terrorism threat continues to this day to poison UK policy and public attitudes towards asylum and immigration.

The document does not provide much detail. Its 9 pages contrast with the 125 pages of the current (2011) Contest strategy. But it contains the seeds of policies that have developed over the years into a framework that threatens civil liberties and promotes prejudice.

 

The Contest 2003 Report

According to a report by the Home Affairs Committee (June 2009), Contest was developed in "early 2003" and was "an attempt to coordinate the pan-Governmental response to the emerging terrorist threat in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, in September 2001." The document below, dated 1 April 2004, was provided by the Cabinet Office in response to a request for the document referred to in the Home Affairs Committee report, and is described by the Cabinet Office as the "Contest 2003 report"

The document is classified as "confidential". This is the 3rd rung from the top of the ladder of security classifications in use in the UK in 2004. The scale ran: Unclassified, Protect, Restricted, Confidential, Secret, Top Secret. 

The document has been redacted by the Cabinet Office to remove material that Section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act exempts from disclosure, ie material that was "directly or indirectly supplied to the public authority by, or relates to" any of a list of organisations that includes the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and GCHQ. Redaction has been carried out by whiting out rather than blacking out. Unnatural spaces in the document may be an indication of redaction. Most of the suspected redactions appear to be minor, perhaps just involving the removal of a name such as "Security Service". Half of page 8, under the heading "Underpinned by Intelligence and Communications" also appears to have been redacted.

The document was released on 12 December 2016 in response to a freedom of information request made on 2 August 2016.

Contest 2003 Report for Release