Britain’s al-Awlaki moment, sortof

Yesterday David Cameron played a political blinder: “We’re here to talk about refugees, but enough of criticising my terrible response on that, I had a British citizen killed two weeks ago.” Understandably, this blindsided most, and the fact that the UK government has committed to sheltering a paltry 4000 Syrian refugees per year, as opposed to larger numbers in Germany and elsewhere has fallen quickly off the front pages. These numbers are an abdication of moral responsibility towards refugees. Nonetheless, the use of a targeted killing against a UK citizen (by the UK government, not our American friends after we revoke their passport) is the topic du jour. Understandably, this has been called our ‘Anwar al-Awlaki moment’ – the first time the government crosses the proverbial rubicon of intentionally and openly killing a citizen that has run off to a foreign country to (supposedly) organise terrorist campaigns against their home state. The UK, of course, has much more recent experience of the moral and legal quandaries of using force against our own citizens due to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Over at Lawfare, Robert Chesney pointed out that this is actually a test of a particular scenario and legal interpretation – the American interpretation of the concept of self defence as it applies to terrorists that has developed since 9/11.

The legal justification, as presented was that this was an act of self defence, broadly in line with American interpretations of self defence versus individuals and terrorist organisations:

As part of this counter-terrorism strategy, as I have said before, if there is a direct threat to the British people and we are able to stop it by taking immediate action, then as Prime Minister, I will always be prepared to take that action and that’s the case whether the threat is emanating from Libya, Syria or from anywhere else….

We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens. So on this occasion we ourselves took action. Today I can inform the House that in an act of self-defence and after meticulous planning Reyaad Khan was killed in a precision air strike carried out on 21 August by an RAF remotely piloted aircraft while he was travelling in a vehicle in the area of Raqqah in Syria…

Mr Speaker, we took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots. And there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action…

First, I am clear that the action we took was entirely lawful. The Attorney General was consulted and was clear there would be a clear legal basis for action in international law. We were exercising the UK’s inherent right to self-defence. There was clear evidence of the individuals in question planning and directing armed attacks against the UK. These were part of a series of actual and foiled attempts to attack the UK and our allies.

And in the prevailing circumstances in Syria, the airstrike was the only feasible means of effectively disrupting the attacks planned and directed by this individual. So it was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK.

There are, however, significant differences between the UK and the US in both legal opinion and the jurisdiction of international courts.

  • Armed conflict: The US claims to be in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda and associated forces, the UK doesn’t. Therefore while the UK talks about IHL and military rules of engagement, this is ‘icing on the cake’ so-to-speak – we’re not at war (proverbially) or engaged in an armed conflict (legally). This aspect of Cameron’s statement is effectively saying that when UK armed forces kill outside an armed conflict, they still consider themselves constrained by the rules developed within it.
  • The extraterritorial applicability of human rights treaties: A bit of a mouthful for non-lawyers. Unlike America, the UK considers its obligations as extending beyond the territory of the UK, which means that outside armed conflict human rights law definitely applies, and furthermore UK cases have applied human rights standards to matters in the context of armed conflict (much to the chagrin of many people, but that doesn’t matter so much here).
  • The European Convention on Human Rights: Unlike the US, we have the ECHR, and we are also subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, meaning that judges beyond our immediate political system can pass judgement on the actions of the state (like, err, Article 2, protecting the right to life – expect to see arguments about 2.a. where “Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary: a. in defence of any person from unlawful violence”). This is a key difference from the al-Awlaki case as there is no international court with jurisdiction that America accepts that can pass judgement on the American state for his death.
  • No constitution: Unlike America, we don’t have a written constitution. This means that whereas the American debate on the domestic legality of killing citizens has plenty of plain text hooks and principles to work from, as well as the separation of powers, the UK debate will likely be more nebulous, involving the royal prerogative, and so on. I’d expect some British anti-monarchists to come out of the woodwork at some point to state that it’s a bit bloody odd that the Queen is technically the one in charge of all of this, and David Cameron ordered a citizen dead based on inherited authority. For American readers worried about the ‘Imperial Presidents’ of Bush and Obama, at least you have the Authorization for the Use of Military Force to complain about, as well as requirements for intelligence oversight, Presidential findings etc etc.

My last thoughts on this (for now) is that this appears to be the way things are going: that the ‘Caroline test‘ will apply to individuals and small scale groups, and that the American “unwilling/unable” test, discussed by Robert Cheney, will propagate. The use of straight up self defence as a justification for targeted killing (as opposed to self defence that leads to/in context of armed conflict) is discussed in a pretty accessible way by Kenneth Anderson in a 2009 paper here. What strikes me about Cameron’s decision is that the US has hewed towards the armed conflict model for justifying targeted killings and explaining their legal rationale, whereas the UK decision appears to be straight self defence. From everything I’ve read about targeted killings, the armed conflict model is better, as it is at least more explicit and requires political declarations of war. The US Congress can always call off its war with al-Qaeda, and hem in the President’s authority. The British political system has markedly fewer constraints on the exercise of power by the Prime Minister.


The 2015 SDSR consultation

The MoD have very kindly given the public 1500characters with which to insert their thoughts into the review process. That equates to just under 300words. I managed to underspend my contribution by 80 characters…

Do not start the report with ‘the world is an increasingly dangerous place’. It isn’t. The threat picture is just more complex and we are adapting too slowly. We face two predominant types of threat, with an overarching and underspecified element: 1) traditional military, 2) asymmetric and ‘glocalised’. The overarching element is ‘hybridity’. To think of defence and security as expressed exclusively by equipment and personnel capacity and capabilities is a mistake. Hybrid conflict requires the UK to understand influence ops, money, health, education as components of our security. It also requires us to better understand who are opponents are and what they are doing: this requires a plethora of approaches. Countering these threats requires upfront investment to meet them before they develop (spend to save). It also requires a far wider range of institutions and actors – inside and outside of government – to pull together in countering hybrid threats (a smarter, holistic approach). This mix is likely to cause some discomfort, but currently we are mismatching assets and approach to the threats we are facing.

Better match the full-spectrum positioning and rhetoric with capabilities. So, resource better to match current rhetoric or better position the UK to match resourcing restraints. Don’t try and meet the 2%GDP figure by including non-defence items. Either scrap the target, or invest the full amount.  ”


The brevity does clarify the mind.

If you wish to add your thoughts please find the page at (


Autonomous Weapons: A Thought Experiment

Human Rights Watch is one of the driving forces behind the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, who make headlines from time to time in their current quest to get “lethal autonomous weapon systems” banned under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. I have no particular beef with HRW, it’s an admirable organisation, but since the newspapers are in full-on “reprint the press release” mode after the publication of an open letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons signed by a lot of scientists, it’s probably worthwhile pointing out that HRW has choices to make. Like: choosing between a world where states can make (usually imperfect) interventions to prevent mass atrocity, and a world where they can’t. The TL;DR version of this blog post is: if you ban autonomous weapons then aircraft carriers become floating junk, next time someone starts massacring people don’t expect anyone to ride to the rescue. That’s not to say the “the West” has a particularly admirable track record in atrocity prevention, but most of the arguments that now happen usually pre-suppose that if Western political elites could be coerced or persuaded, then they would have the technical means to deliver military forces to some point on the planet where very bad things are happening to civilians.

"Reaction time is a factor in this, so please pay attention."

“Reaction time is a factor in this, so please pay attention.”

The problem with the autonomous weapons debate as it currently stands is that, for the most part, it ignores the current bits and pieces of automatic and autonomous systems that are part and parcel of everyday military life. Like the Phalanx Close-In-Weapon-System (CIWS) and other bits of gear that are designed to shoot down incoming missiles. Because shooting down missiles is something that humans are physically incapable of doing, outside of Hollywood. If one would like the capability to shoot down a missile, then you need a largely autonomous system to do the heavy lifting of identifying, tracking and targeting that missile, and the human being “in the loop” is largely reduced to something to whom a weapon system says: “Hey, meatbag, press the button so that I can save your life.”

"Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over."

“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.”

In theory, you don’t even need the human. Phalanx, and like systems, are tied to command and control systems such as AEGIS, which can be set to an automatic mode with user-defined “If… then…” routines doing the work. Like “If a missile is heading towards this ship, then please shoot it down as soon as possible.” The reason this is necessary is that one doesn’t want to entrust the ability to protect a ship to a person who is, well, liable to die when the anti-ship missiles start flying. Having a system the keeps working despite casualties is a sensible design for a military system. “But wait,” cry the detractors, “We’re not talking about missiles, we’re talking about machines that can make the decision to select and kill human beings (insert lengthy disclaimer about drones being controlled by human beings here).” That may be true, but from a machine’s point of view (and this is perhaps the core of the problem) the means of identifying an object as a missile is not too different from identifying a human being. If someone does conjure up a weapon system to run around killing human beings, then the difference is likely to be most evident in the sensors designed to detect human beings (over, say, a supersonic missile) and the code that interprets the information derived from those sensors, than in the actual process of going from detection to destruction. The difference between “automatic” and “autonomous” is merely the capability of the system to sense different objects, and what to do with them once it senses them. A system designed to identify humans and avoid them is one rule-change away from a system designed to identify humans and kill them. Program an autonomous weapon system to shoot down missiles and it’ll carry that out to the best of its technical limits, just as if you programmed it to shoot readers of young adult fiction over the age of 29, which, I think, is why the ethicists (and adult Harry Potter fans) are correct when they point out that autonomous weapon systems are disturbing. So why not ban them? The problem, returning to the Phalanx CIWS, is that they’re here to help, and in certain situations, autonomous systems are impossible to replace.

"Come with me if you want to live."

“Come with me if you want to live.”

The problem with aircraft carriers is that they are quite expensive, relatively rare, and vulnerable to missiles designed to kill them. America has ten Nimitz class aircraft carriers. They are the cornerstone of American power projection worldwide. By way of comparison, Russia has one, and China has one. I’ll leave it to my colleagues in KCL’s Naval History Mafia (err, “Laughton Naval History Unit“)  to debate how good any of these actually are. America’s carriers are so expensive that it takes over half a billion dollars to de-commission one. Of course the alternate route to decommissioning an aircraft carrier is to hit one with enough missiles to sink it. Logically enough, this is China’s approach to America’s 10:1 advantage in aircraft carriers. For this reason, anyone seeking to deter America needs some kind of long range anti-ship missile capability. For America (or anyone else using an aircraft carrier) you need defensive capabilities mounted on your aircraft carrier and support ships that stand a chance of shooting down said missiles, otherwise they become a bit useless in contested areas.

Contested areas are important, partly because the kind of regimes that carry out massacres usually have powerful friends. Consider Syria. Way back when in 2013, when meaningful international intervention was still a possibility, Russia transferred advanced anti-aircraft missile systems and anti-ship missile systems to the Syrian government in order to effectively forestall said intervention. In effect, Russia escalated the likely cost of international intervention by providing Assad with an asymmetric capability. Perceived costs are important because: politics matters. To return to HRW and autonomous weapons: there is a big difference between persuading America to intervene in a situation, and persuading America to intervene in a situation which puts one of its aircraft carriers at risk.

Alternate use for a Nimitz class carrier: attempt to save Pearl Harbor.

Alternate use for a Nimitz class carrier: attempt to save Pearl Harbor.

So here’s the issue as I see it: if you want to ban the military use of autonomous weapon systems, then you’re going to need to ban the kind of autonomous systems that are currently in service, and any that are being developed to combat anti-ship missiles in future. If you ban those kind of point defence systems, then any kind of power projection becomes very, very risky and costly for the country involved, so even though America has a poor track record, don’t expect them to help in future if a brutal regime is killing its citizens. This ushers in a world where states like China and Russia can effectively prop up any regime that they like, and, given the studied neglect-to-care about human rights in either country, this reduces the capability of states that purportedly care about human rights to intervene in the world at large. This lack of capability to intervene will reduce the incentive for would-be human rights abusers to adhere to the vaguest interpretation of compliance with human rights standards. This is a legal, political and technical issue – given the makeup of the UN Security Council – but at the moment Western states still have a technical means to intervene (if not the legal authority to do so, or the political will), forcing them to abandon the autonomous systems that they use to defend their prime military assets would deprive them of that. As disturbing as autonomous weapons are, is a world where dictators can massacre their populations without fear of reprisal better or worse?

Oh, and just to muddy the waters a bit: they already figured out how to point Phalanx at small surface ships that would probably contain human beings.


Leadership Beyond Your Control

This week’s CCLKOW discussion looks at leadership. In this case, however, we remove the individual as the arbiter of its quality. Instead, our piece today argues for a perspective that takes account of external factors which define the limits of leadership. Using the contrasting narratives of two officers from the Chosin Campaign, the role of influences beyond the control of the individual emerges. Read, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


In the cold — wickedly cold, really — days at the end of November 1950, the epic drama of the Chosin Campaign played out in North Korea near the Manchurian border with China. Within the larger story, two sub narratives of triumph and disaster, redemption and destruction, life and death were also unfolding. These are the individual travails of two Lieutenant Colonels awarded the Medal of Honor in the campaign, Raymond G. Davis and Donald C. Faith. Davis led his unit to the successful completion of an overland, nighttime march to relieve Fox Co. and secure key terrain in the evacuation route south to Hagaru-ri for 5th and 7th Marines. By contrast, Faith gained at best an operational Pyrrhic victory for X Corps: his Task Force slowed the PLA advance towards the 1st Marine Division as it was defeated in its attempt to withdraw from the reservoir to Hagaru-ri.

How can we reconcile the entirely disparate outcomes of the units led by Faith and Davis at Chosin? Leadership provides a unifying theme by which to explain events, although in this case we must understand leadership to go beyond the standard definitions and transcend the individual as either agent or arbiter of quality. The differences in leadership, and hence outcomes, can be attributed only to fortune or fatal ambition if the assessment is limited to the individuals, as these details provide too little information to make sense of the full scope of events. For their actions at Chosin, each man would be reckoned a hero of the highest order, although that heroism must be described as triumphant and tragic in turn. As field grade officers with previous combat and/or command experience, at campaign’s start they would have been considered equals in anticipated capabilities. In sum, these were two officers similarly qualified as leaders to meet the challenges of command on the battlefield. And yet, not only were the outcomes different for each – success for Davis and failure for Faith – but the narrative clearly points to different qualities of leadership as well. Thus, factors well beyond the individuals, beyond their heroism or competence, determined the quality of leadership each man brought to bear in his respective battle.

The Faith/Davis narratives suggest that leadership’s manifestation in combat is determined by the individual in situ by the influence of external factors. Absent obvious incompetence or particular genius, the environment within which an officer must act will define the quality or effectiveness of his leadership, and therefore, ability to command. Taking consideration of their environments fully explains the leadership outcome for each officer, success and failure, notwithstanding the heroism displayed by either. These conclusions can be made without undue attack upon Faith, for as this analysis suggests, others determined his failed leadership. The paradox of Faith’s simultaneous heroism and failure is reconciled because, while the bulk of the former is derived from within the individual, leadership in action is largely determined from without. This point is true as well in Davis’ case, for if it is to have more than mythical importance it, too, is best understood within its proper context.

While definitions of leadership abound, their focus traditionally has been limited to the individual. From one compilation of essays on the subject of leadership we find this characterization: “Effective leaders create an environment in which people motivate themselves.” [1] In another similar compilation, published in large part for the benefit of teaching leadership to future Army officers at West Point, we find this explanation: “Leadership is the art of inspiring the spirit and the act of following. The following must be voluntary. The individual and the group of individuals must want to be guided by that person for the latter to be called a leader…. Leadership is about trust….”[2] If most discussions of leadership – and for this sake of this analysis I will stick with Kolenda’ Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, as a solid example of the literature – are limited to the narrow scope of what the individual as leader must do,  then they operate from the assumption that the individual is the arbiter or agent of leadership. The problem is that such a formulation ignores the long, arduous, and mundane process required to get the leader to the point where he can lift his head and eyes to the horizon, to function as a leader and exercise effective command. He must, in effect, be able to do nothing but think sometimes. So, yes, a young officer, according to one essay in Kolenda, needs to know what to do with the opportunity and responsibility to lead. [3] He should also learn those factors external to his control that can shape the experience. He should know that no matter how well prepared, it is very hard to run a race if your legs are broken at the start. Even if Kolenda et al. are correct and leadership is the warrior’s art, the individual can only work with what he is given; he is defined by his context, good or bad. Thus, individuals may manifest leadership, and are certainly responsible for its quality, but a multitude of other individuals and circumstances determine that quality. In battle, the individual is not in control of his own leadership. He may do everything right, or may know, especially in retrospect, what he should have done right, he may be imbued with every talent, and still his attempts at leadership can be undone by factors beyond his control. As with all other matters military, the individual is bound up in the group, the organization, and the events.

Given this situation, I propose this revised set of standards that take account of the external factors that influence: chain of command leadership (superior and subordinate), followership, and circumstances. These criteria provide the most comprehensive and comprehensible explanation for the leadership outcomes in the Chosin campaign, and may offer a perspective that is useful to contemporary considerations of leadership. To understand their role in these events, here is a very brief sketch of the contrasting external circumstances faced by each man:


What was the quality of the superior leadership shown to Faith and Davis?

The view from the top offer the first significant distinction between the two. Davis enjoyed an operational situation that saw him ensconced within the warm embrace of two levels of leadership directly above him. His regimental and divisional commanders, Colonel Litzenberg and General Smith, were close at hand, available to provide guidance, strength, and a general sense of operational security. Alternatively, neither of his two commanders was the sort to meddle overmuch, thus allowing Davis to exercise his discretion in the planning and execution of his mission. By contrast, Faith came to command at Chosin when the 31st RCT commander, Colonel MacLean, was killed in early and confusing contact with PLA forces. This meant that on the ground at Chosin Faith enjoyed no superior leadership. At further remove, the divisional and corps leadership did not seem to grasp the enormity of what was facing the task force. Appleman’s point in East of Chosin that Generals Barr (7th ID CG) and Almond (X Corps CG) could have sent General Hodes, 7th ID ADC, to take command of the task force, is ironically sustained by the extension of that criticism in other literature to General Smith, who could have spared one of his senior colonels to the cause. Finally, by comparison Davis’ direct chain of command served him better than Faith’s because Smith’s proximity to the fight gave him a clearer picture of the threat posed by the PLA’s offensive, whereas it would take the Army commanders (7th ID, X Corps) critical hours to come to understand the changed circumstances. The relevance of this distinction bears out in the movements of X Corps towards the Yalu River, where Smith had taken a relatively conservative approach to the attack which maintained the integrity of the division as a whole, in contrast with the almost head-long rush 7th ID took to get to the reservoir. Whereas the Marine division would retain its ability to act as a coherent and supporting whole when the mass of the Chinese attack opened, 7th ID was dispersed to the point that the sum of the parts were weaker than the measure of the whole.

What was the quality of the subordinate leadership shown to Faith and Davis?

Moving to the supporting network below, the disparities remain. Davis enjoyed a strong subordinate command presence. Many of his NCOs had prior service in WWII, and his junior officers were capable if untested. Furthermore, throughout the campaign he did not suffer significant losses within these ranks, thus maintaining a sound subordinate chain of command. The strength of Davis’ leadership would be transmitted through this web to the Marines. At the start of the campaign, the units that would comprise Faith’s task force did have their fair share of good subordinate leaders. However, the task force suffered throughout the battle a steady hemorrhage of these leader. Their loss would weaken the leadership web supporting Faith degraded the unit’s combat cohesion at every level and critically handicapped his ability to maintain the integrity of the withdrawal.

What was the quality of “followership” shown to Faith and Davis?

How the troops responded to their leadership would vary significantly as well. There is no greater affirmation of the Marines’ followership than the constant refrain from the overland march that the strength of Davis’ example motivated and inspired the already strong extant “Marine spirit.” [4] Alternatively, the fragility of the task force’s followership is made manifest with the rapid disintegration of unit coherence with every challenge and setback to the withdrawal. Where once Faith was able to rally the troops via threats of severe punishment, the second attempt at the same tactic reaped insignificant results, primarily because the troops could no longer sustain their “faith” in his leadership to change the circumstance. Furthermore, there is some indication that Faith’s lack of combat experience worked to the detriment of establishing good followership from the start. Contrast this with the sense of security Davis’ experience must have given his troops.

What were the circumstances facing each?

Although they diverged in degree, both men faced essentially the same situation. The Chinese offensive made their current positions untenable and necessitated withdrawal. And, as aptly framed by General Smith, this would be no administrative march to the rear, they really would be “fighting in the other direction.” [5] The grand plan of the Marine division’s attack to the south planned for the constant defense of the column in its progress, by control of flanking terrain and key feature with all units in mutual and coordinated support. [6] Necessary to secure a key junction in the route, Davis’ mission to relieve Fox Co. and reinforce the position they held atop Turkey Hill was by no means going to be a walk in the park, was not guaranteed to succeed. It demanded of the Marines two efforts not a part of the campaign or standard practice: cross-country and by night. However, as part of a larger campaign, whose objective was entirely achievable by the division, Davis was given a manageable piece of a larger plan whose rationality he could appreciate. Other intangible effects of the mission context was the difference made in the Marine mentality of the aggressive, offensive nature of the mission – rather than waiting for the enemy to bring the battle to them in the withdrawal, they were moving pro-actively to gain the upper hand against the enemy. This they would achieve, successfully making their way south to Colonel Puller’s position further south to reform the division as a whole for its continued exfiltration to the port at Hungnam. Task Force Faith, on the other hand, was destroyed as a unit and nearly in detail attempting the very same. Lacking the support to generate a plan of any consequence, as well as the subordinate officers to execute it, Faith was left to collect his men, wounded, and vehicles and hope that they could fight their way south directly. Little would be done to secure the flanks or the way ahead, and these omissions would allow the Chinese soldiers to defeat the column. Harrying the vehicles and men from the high ground surrounding the road throughout, which slowly weakened Faith’s collected force, the Chinese were also able move ahead roadblock the progress of the march at regular intervals. Blooded throughout, there were only so many obstacles the task force could overcome and regroup from before it was simply too weakened by casualties to continue as a whole. In the final hours of December 1, only 5 miles from where the march had begun, both Faith and his task force died.


Considering the terms of this leadership framework, the discussion for this week is driven by a single request:

Obviously there is little that can be done when one faces the worst of circumstances across every factor. However, singly these deficits can be mitigated, if not overcome. Looking at each of Faith’s challenges, imagine yourself as his only and capable staff officer, what would you recommend to him? How would you improve the quality of the factors or counteract the negative effect of their weakness?




[I am happy to provide a bibliography of the campaign to those interested.]



1. Military Leadership, Taylor and Rosenbach, eds., p. 2.

2.  Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, Kolenda, ed., p. xix.

3. Dardis and Brower, “Teaching Combat Leadership.”

4. I had the opportunity to meet many of those Marines, to include General Davis, at the 1/7 1999 reunion of the Chosin Marines. I will write more about them in November at the anniversary of the campaign. As well as the pathos of battle, there will be consideration of such subjects as frozen turkey bombs, life-saving Tootsie Rolls, a silver service, cooks with rifles, and a reminder of the provenance of the Rule of 4/6ths.

5. The misinterpretation of this quote is one of the greater sins of history. It was always a simple explanation of the martial terms of the withdrawal.

6. I will reissue my perennial call: Colonel Alpha Bowser’s quickly designed plan was a thing to behold, and more should be written on it.


For whom the Channel referral tolls…

It appears that things are picking up in the wonderful world of radicalisation. Following hot on the heels of David Cameron’s speech on extremism, the Evening Standard reports that a primary school has referred one of its pupils to the Government’s multi-agency Channel programme because a child that can’t be older than 11 was “deemed at risk of Islamic radicalisation.” Yes, folks, you heard that right, because “the behaviour of the child’s parents caused concern among staff” a kid is now the subject of government study. That’s because non-violent extremism leads to violent extremism, even in the case of primary school children. Except it doesn’t, or at least doesn’t work like a conveyor belt.

Here’s the resulting paradox in a nutshell: we live in a country that retains global power pretensions (even though we fudge on paying for it) and are committed to retaining a nuclear deterrent to bolster that self-image. At the same time, in a supposedly free and democratic society, we are referring under twelves to a counter-extremism programme because otherwise… bad things might happen?

Channel operates in “pre-criminal space”, which is a nice way of saying that a Channel referral doesn’t require an actual criminal offence. The Channel vulnerability assessment framework is particularly worth reading in full:

1. Engagement with a group, cause or ideology Engagement factors are sometimes referred to as “psychological hooks”. They include needs, susceptibilities, motivations and contextual influences and together map the individual pathway into terrorism. They can include:
• Feelings of grievance and injustice
• Feeling under threat
• A need for identity, meaning and belonging
• A desire for status
• A desire for excitement and adventure
• A need to dominate and control others
• Susceptibility to indoctrination
• A desire for political or moral change
• Opportunistic involvement
• Family or friends involvement in extremism
• Being at a transitional time of life
• Being influenced or controlled by a group
• Relevant mental health issues

2. Intent to cause harm Not all those who become engaged by a group, cause or ideology go on to develop an intention to cause harm, so this dimension is considered separately. Intent factors describe the mindset that is associated with a readiness to use violence and address what the individual would do and to what end. They can include:
• Over-identification with a group or ideology
• Them and Us’ thinking
• Dehumanisation of the enemy
• Attitudes that justify offending
• Harmful means to an end
• Harmful objectives

3. Capability to cause harm Not all those who have a wish to cause harm on behalf of a group, cause or ideology are capable of doing so, and plots to cause widespread damage take a high level of personal capability, resources and networking to be successful. What the individual is capable of is therefore a key consideration when assessing risk of harm to the public. Factors can include:
• Individual knowledge, skills and competencies
• Access to networks, funding or equipment
• Criminal Capability

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty sure that any 10 year old fulfils: “A need for identity, meaning and belonging/A desire for status/A desire for excitement and adventure/Susceptibility to indoctrination/Being at a transitional time of life”. Cynicism aside, the basic problem with this vulnerability assessment framework is that it contains very ambiguous criteria that effectively makes being pissed off at the current state of things a red flag for authorities. This wouldn’t matter so much except that the latest Counter-Terrorism and Security Act put it on a statutory footing. From a not-quite-half-arsed grab bag of indicators that someone might (and could) commit a terrorist offence, to a statutory duty for Councils everywhere to assess people in this way. I have no idea whether a ten year old can develop the intent to cause harm, but I somewhat doubt that they have the capability to cause harm. The question for the rest of us is how well we’d fare if put under the microscope by someone who may, or may not, have any of the training necessary to differentiate between, say, a lonely person and a lone wolf nutcase. Just remember not to express “extreme” opinions to anyone official in future, just in case, like.

Identity? Status? Dehumanisation? That’s got Kafka written all over it.


Bridging the Gap and the Art of Record Keeping

In this week’s CCLKOW blog, we welcome back our Colonel Panter-Downes with this piece on learning between the services. While few argue against the value of experience to inform contemporary wisdom, knowledge sharing across the domains and individual services is too often blocked by service culture myopias. Wisdom must necessarily be stunted, lessons foresaken, where such siloing of knowledge is imposed. The last 75 years of military history have seen a rise of institutional jointness in strategy, doctrine and operations, and capabilities have improved from the synergies that have emerged. It seems then, we find ourselves at the last frontier of resistance, where the jointness must be encouraged at the level of individual development and thought. Providing examples of the valuable lessons found within the pages of naval and air experience, Colonel Panter-Downes offers an excellent starting point to begin a discussion on past learning and future opportunities. Read his piece and join us on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


I first went to sea at the same age as my father, aged 16. The difference between us however was that while he went to sea for 18 months (and returned home to the right house to find a different family in residence, my grandparents having moved house some 12 months after he went to sea), I went to sea for only two weeks, albeit on a “Tall Ship”. Before I left however, my mentor at school (a decorated RAF Bomber Command veteran) gave me two things, a camera and a journal to record my experiences. While I remain an indifferent photographer, the habit of keeping a (professional) journal has remained.

It seems apposite that an RAF veteran started me on the path of journal keeping. I have been very lucky in my service in that parts have been with the Royal Navy (including sea time) and in an Air Component HQ. The chance to serve so closely with (as opposed to alongside) sister services is relatively rare in both the UK and the US. My experiences with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have highlighted both mutual and exclusive strengths and weaknesses in much the same way that my current exchange to the US Army has. And yet, when it comes to inter-service learning, it seems to me we all tend to focus on our relative strengths and pay considerably less attention to learning from each other than we do to disparaging each other (and in this regard I have seen no difference in ethos between the US and UK armies). Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the realm of leadership practice. In the British Army we proudly extol that we “equip the man” (to fight) while the other Services “Man the equipment”. There is an element of truth in this but also a gross oversimplification as all Services are a system of systems and it also gives to those of us ‘in green’ a perhaps arrogant sense of moral superiority. It is in this vein of wisdom sharing and learning across Services that I want to look at the art of journal keeping.

At the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst officer cadets are also required to keep a journal, with a prize awarded for the best journal overall. I enjoyed keeping my journal at Sandhurst but what I do not recollect is any clear direction on what should be contained in the journal. Recently, while reading an autobiographical account of a midshipman in World War 2, I came across the following guide:

Journal for the use of Midshipmen

1. The journal is to be kept during the whole of a midshipman’ sea time. A second volume may be issued if required.

2. The Officer detailed to supervise instruction of Midshipmen will see that the Journals are kept in accordance with the instructions here under. He will initial the Journals at least once a month, and will see that they are written up from time to time during the month, not only immediately before they are called for inspection.

3. The Captain will have the Journals produced for his inspection from time to time and on a Midshipman leaving the ship, and will initial them at each inspection.

4. The following remarks indicate the main lines to be followed in keeping the Journal:-

(i) The objects of keeping the Journal are to train Midshipmen in

(a) The power of observation.

(b) The power of expression.

(c) The habit of orderliness.

(ii) Midshipmen are to record in their own language their observations about all matters of interest or importance in the work that is carried on, on their stations, in their Fleet, or in their Ship.

(iii) They may insert descriptions of places visited and of the people with whom they come into contact, and of harbours, anchorages and fortifications.

(iv) They may write notes on fuelling facilities, landing places, abnormal weather, prevailing winds and currents, salvage operations, foreign ships encountered and the manner in which foreign fleets are handled, gunnery and other practices, action in manoeuvres, remarks on tactical exercises. On the ship making a passage of sufficient interest they should note weather and noon positions.

(v) Separate entries need not necessarily be made for each day, full accounts should be given of any event of interest.

(vi) The letterpress should be illustrated with plans and sketches pasted into the pages of the Journal.

5. The Journal is to be produced at the examination in Seamanship for the rank of Lieutenant, when marks to a maximum of 50 will be awarded for it. [1]

Despite even this faltering initiation, the British Army officer corps seems pretty antipathetic to keeping journals which is cause for regret and concern. Journals are both an effective tool for professional development, but also a rich source for analysts and historians of the future. I never made my subalterns keep journals when I was in command, and with hindsight I wish I had. Time in command is short but fiercely formative, none more so than perhaps one’s first tour of command. Maintaining a record of time in command that includes professional analysis and acts as a vehicle for mentoring seems to me to be useful tool for both leaders and subordinates and one best learnt early. It is a lesson that the Royal Navy learnt but that the British Army appears to have remembered but dimly.

Looking broader afield there are also lessons aplenty to be had by looking at the experiences of other Services, and reading outside of one’s Service or component domain is inevitably rewarding.

One of the best books that I have read on organisational culture and (Mission) Command is “Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command”, an incisive critique on how to (mis)prepare an organisation in peacetime for war and the tensions inherent between what is needed in peacetime and what is needed in war. if you want to understand the development of systems and integration of new technology can be decisive then Stephen Bungay’s “The Most Dangerous Enemy” is a must read. Bungay’s book clearly illustrates how the development of an effective system can trump isolated flashes of superiority (whether technical or tactical) and how the development of such a system requires not just vision, but humility as well as technical competence. Neither of these two books are about the land domain, but they are profoundly illuminating to the common military endeavour and I gained many pertinent insights into how the army does, could and should operate from them.

So from rediscovering the art of journal keeping from the Royal Navy, to realising that for all our differences we share more similarities than we often acknowledge with our Sister Services, the challenge for #CCLKOW is (apart from keeping a journal) to identify what good practice in terms of ethos, training or leadership that you can take from a sister service.

I wish you all “A willing Foe and Sea-Room”. (Or, for the Americans, Fair Winds and Following Seas.)



1 “A Home On The Rolling Main” by AGF Ditchman


It AINT COIN, but this is

#CCLKOW this week turns to the matter of confronting insurgency. Seemingly beaten to death, I would submit that the subject is in fact in need of some rigorous thought, especially as there are clearly two defined schools of strategic approach, broadly characterized by their different focuses. Where one is concerned to fight the insurgency as manifest, the other seeks to undermine the terms of its strength to vastly reduce the intensity of the conflict, or anti-insurgency and counter-insurgencyUnderstanding the difference between the terms and consequences of different strategic approaches is important given that with the geo-strategic landscape and the role of rapid communications we may find ourselves in a time when might, as expressed in destruction, no longer sufficiently or reliably translates to right. Rather, might applied to the resolution of root causes is an alternative path to right that deserves better and more serious attention against the changing landscape of conflict. So, read the piece and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.   


The subject of confronting an insurgency being less in favor these days seems to me to present the best opportunity to examine it with a bit more dispassion, and hence more rigor. In particular, here I would like to consider how we use COIN. As it stands, COIN is used broadly to describe all approaches to warfare against an insurgency. However, I find this unsatisfying as there is significant divergence in what people mean by this term. To rectify this problem, I propose new terminology to distinguish  between strategies which make the use of force against the rebellion the primary effort versus those that seek to undermine and eliminate the sources of support to the rebellion first thus reducing the scope of direct confrontation. Both envision scenarios which seek attrition, it is simply the means in each which differ. However, I believe there is an importance to this difference, and I think terminology which recognizes it is thus necessary. To describe these distinct approaches I use anti-insurgency and counter-insurgency accordingly, or AINT and COIN.

For clarification, a few points of terminology must be settled. (1) To begin, when I speak of insurgency, I mean a conflict within governed space against the standing order. Those in opposition are characterized by a committed cadre at center, are generally weaker than the forces of the prevailing order, and often resort to asymmetry and other alternative and low cost/low training means. While they may enjoy popular support, it is enough that the population simply be neutral to apathetic. With respect to the pivotal terms of this essay, I will offer that my understanding of this distinction between anti- and counter- goes back to an old lecture on terrorism in my early academic days that has stuck with me for its clarity and utility. In brief, it sorted the approaches to dealing with terrorism into the two categories depending on the focus of effort, whether at dealing with acts and actors directly by fighting terrorists in the act and seeking them when not, or at undermining their ability to organize and act to reduce frequency, efficacy and numbers of attacks.

If you were wondering about the title, this is where the odd construction becomes relevant. The “it” and “this” refer to two pieces written by others which illustrate the two models. They are important here because the first, on AINT, inspired the conceptualization, and the second motivated the writing in this moment. Very interestingly, they are both by British authors, representing two ends of the security spectrum and long traditions of service. The AINT article is a theoretical description of the model by William F. Owen, formerly of the British Army and currently active in the field of military affairs. (2) The second is a blog piece on neighborhood policing by an anonymous but currently serving British police officer of significant experience, Nathan Constable. (3) While it may seem unorthodox to use a policing example to describe a strategic approach insurgent conflict, the principle, parties and activities are similar enough for these purposes. Where the absolute scale of force and violence may differ, I believe that plotted relatively they are sufficiently comparable. Thus, as a good enough comparative, I will go further to add that in this case the conceptual box is safely, and I hope fruitfully, exceeded.

Turning to the first piece, in Owen’s “Seek and Destroy,” the AINT model is clearly explicated. As a counter-insurgency strategy, I cannot disagree with it more. However, under the AINT construct, while I may not agree with its utility, I must similarly recommend that it is an entirely correct construction. The opening sentence is unambiguous: “The purpose of this article is to argue that the destruction of the enemy’s forces lies at the heart of countering both terrorism and insurgency.” (p. 12) If the end is compliance with the status quo, this will be achieved by attrition, and more specifically by fighting the insurgent force in order to kill or capture its members. Elimination of the rebellion in arms will eliminate the rebellion. That is iconic AINT.

For COIN, the Nathan Constable blog on neighborhood policing includes a vignette fully describing the contours of the countering model. His piece deserves to be read in its entirety, but for our purposes here a brief synopsis of the relevant portion will suffice. The circumstances of the case were a local police force dealing with significant and recurrent problems of anti-social behavior (the “insurgency”) that demanded police resources without improving by their interventions. Watching this approach fail to do more than “stick a plaster on” the ritual disturbances (the “insurgent activity”), he shifted course.

This adaptation meant considering the problem in other terms. Using intelligence gathering to understand the nature of the disorder and its causes, who might be the ringleaders, and what motivated the presence of the larger numbers of participants, the author describes how he and his police force changed their approach to the problem. Learning that many of the participants in the trouble were at a loss for anything better to do on a Friday evening, the police reached out other agencies and organizations to create sport and other entertainments for local youth so that they had safe spaces to spend an evening. As well, to reduce the influence and draw of alcohol, they worked with local businesses to eliminate or reduce sales to those under 21. Although the cadre of troublemakers remained (the “committed cadre” who drive the insurgency), without the broader participation of other youths (the rank and file who give the movement its force) these numbers were more easily dealt with by traditional policing methods. More importantly, the broader results of this combined effort away from the point of conflict was a reduction in the number of calls to police for that area and an overall improvement in the quality of life for the community as previously unpleasant to unsafe spaces were reclaimed and the youth had positive attractions for their energies. That is, by countering the problem rather than continuing to fight the obvious manifestation it was more enduringly solved.

It should be clear these two approaches vary significantly in principle and in practice. As played out at the level of conflict and war when considering insurgencies these differences are important and manifest at every level, from political to tactical. While it is certainly not necessary in practical strategic terms to choose one at the complete absence of aspects of the other, representing as they do very different philosophical perspectives on the conflict and its proper resolution, the likelihood is that one or the other will dominate. That is, if presented with the same situation, Owen and Nathan Constable would, according to their models, design very different strategies to achieve the ends of peace and order. These differences matter in costs and consequences, and must be considered in detail in deciding which should be chosen, because despite Owen’s claim, the efficacy of one over the other, is not an “obvious and enduring fact.” Where force of arms has come to dominate Western conceptualizations of warfare, this preference is not necessary in war.

Given this, the question for this week’s discussion is broad, intended to drive consideration of the terms of each approach and debate their relative merits against historical or hypothetical cases. Simply, it is:


When and where is each the more practicable approach and why?


Add your thoughts on Twitter at #CCLKOW.





(1) These are the product of a wide reading across history and military affairs. They are attributable to many and none. I can offer no real credit, but neither is there anyone else to blame. These are, simply put, my definitions.

(2) Owen’s piece was published in Infinity Journal, Issue 2, Spring 2011, “Seek and Destroy: The Forgotten Strategy for Countering Armed Rebellion,” pp 12-15. It is freely available to those willing to sign up with the journal.

(3) Due to my unorthodox interpretation and application of the case, I chatted with Nathan Constable regarding my use of the blog. He was curious to see the alternative application, and forwarded supporting public documentation of the events — news articles which provide detail on the circumstances and the steps taken by local police and naming the officers involved. I have no need or intention to identify him, but for the purposes of this essay the verification of the events only added weight to my thinking on it.


Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau

Tikrit: An Iraqi Saratoga?


In this week’s #CCLKOW piece I tread warily into analogy to offer a framework to consider policy and strategy of intervention. There is no wisdom in asserting Situation A is just like Historical Event B. Analogies in policy are impossibly tricky, and the most we can do is to understand well the terms of the past as we consider what may be possible in the present or the future. In this case, “the Saratoga turning point” and the subsequent French participation in the American War for Independence offer some insights into an effective intervention. Why Saratoga enabled a shift in French policy to full diplomatic support of the Colonies in Rebellion and how the assistance was managed were key factors in the objective to assist the American cause. Keeping these in mind as the western nations contemplate whether and how best to assist Iraq against IS offers a compelling alternative perspective to the narrative of intervention which has framed much of American military policy and doctrine since the end of WWII. Read the piece, give a thought to the questions at the end, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW. Enjoy!


Last July IS opened its overt campaign within Iraq. In rapid fashion they took and held key points which they added to their holdings in Syria to form their Franken-state. Contemplating the gains from Jihadi Blitzkrieg, many did not give the remaining territory or the political entity of the republic much of a chance to survive. As a military historian of the American tradition, I have come to view with scepticism the decisiveness of opening campaigns, so I did not count the contest as over. And in the face of the dominant theme of imminent collapse, through summer’s end and into fall and winter the Iraqi state managed a remarkable political and strategic makeover and turnaround. The clear manifestation of the local will in this fight was the recent ejection of IS from Tikrit. Site of one of IS forces’ more irredeemably abominable acts at Camp Speicher, this victory demonstrated the Iraqi state’s ability to fight and win for themselves.

In much the same way victory at Saratoga manifested American devotion to their cause in the fight for Independence – and the feasibility of their efforts – sufficient to gain allied support from France, retaking Tikrit offers a potential moment and basis to act in the current conflict. As well, this example offers a framework to better understand how to act effectively in the wars of others. War is political, but the terms of those politics are decided by where one sits in the conflict. Thus, from the perspective of a party considering intervention, Saratoga and the French intervention offer some useful markers. There is first the utterly necessary manifested political will of the party seeking assistance, as well as their ability to lobby support for their cause effectively. Second, the policy and strategy of intervention must serve own needs, but is best written in the client state’s terms. Whether the Iraqis are the Americans in Rebellion, the thornier, less considered question may we be whether US could ever match the French policy and strategy.

First, to deal with the initial resistance to this comparison. It is not my intention to directly relate the two conflicts or the parties, but rather to utilize the key diplomatic and policy and strategy issues arising from the outcome of that battle to consider alternative terms of assistance to the Iraqis in this fight. Furthermore, it is to remind that significant though this battle was in the course of the American War for Independence, this advance did not preclude a future rocky course nor the constant refrain of tactical and seeming strategic setbacks. To argue that Tikrit might portend a significant political shift is not negated by critical weaknesses in the ISF or battlefield setbacks. Ando, even as the naysayers have been shouting “But Ramadi!” since the start of this piece, it is worth remembering that after Saratoga the Americans went on to struggle through Valley Forge and a trail of defeats on its way to winning the war. And while I certainly do not need to, I want to make it abundantly clear that IS is not Great Britain, nor do its forces offer anything like the clear superiority of the British Army or Royal Navy facing the Americans. As well, to be fair to France, the United States and the west have more capabilities than Louis’ 18th century France. Finally, it should never be forgotten that France had clear political interests to serve in assisting the Americans. Very often lately this is seen as some bit of seemy double dealing, but it would be best not to be naïve about why states aid others – there must always be some benefit to sustain the intervention. Thus, while I maintain caution as to the analogy, it is necessarily adequate to the current context, especially as it offers a different perspective on policy and strategy options.

Turning to the critical political outcome of the battle, French participation in the war. In the military terms of the alliance, from my perspective, the very compelling aspect of the French intervention was its strategy. Most fundamental to this, France did not assume it was their war. Important points of their participation in the American cause must be remembered. That the needs of the Americans and their military strategy were not France’s primary concern. In alliance they agreed to provide the support the Americans requested as they could. Second, they brought a significant augmentation to the naval war, which degraded British dominance and culminated at the Battle of Chesapeake. Increasing the cost and difficulty of British transport and logistics in the war would reverberate across the entire effort through to Yorktown. When it came to the French Army’s direct participation the style was distinctive. In sum, they subordinated their activity to American needs, their commands to American leadership. Rochambeau’s Army arrived with political and military respect for their allies, and the French commander in chief put himself and his forces at Washington’s discretion. Deficient though the American military forces may have been in comparison to European armies, the role of French advisors was relatively minimal with respect to their total effort. It should also be noted that the French deployed to the American colonies as friends and were hosted warmly by the locals of Newport in their first winter.

The obvious problem here is that the US is not in the habit of subordinating itself politically or militarily. Whether other western powers would be willing to do so may be irrelevant given that American resources would likely dominate any significant intervention. Thus, while the politics in Iraq have a clear chance, how the US and the west respond will determine whether their action aids the cause.

And so, for discussion I would like to consider the issues which confront and confound the strategic latitude the French enjoyed in their intervention:


Can the US military ever effectively work as the subordinate force? Is the refusal to a weakness of the American system? What is the view of other western forces on this issue? Do you even agree that it is necessary or wise in this case or ever? 

Does the west have the patience to weather a campaign of difficulties and setbacks on the way to the eventual defeat of IS in Iraq? 

French officers served in American forces. Should western militaries allow professional sabbaticals so that their own might serve abroad in certain causes?


Brexit and The City: A Security Question?

The 2017 referendum concerning the UK’s membership of the EU will turn on many factors, even if most sage observers think that the vote to remain will be won. Those factors splay across nationality and identity politics, the Scottish question, the cohesion of the Conservative and Labour parties, contested economic analyses and the various mystery x-factors such as the far more likely ‘Grexit’.

So, despite the received wisdom being that the vote to remain will be won (and Open Europe declared on the 5th June – with its methodological workings – that the chance of Brexit sits currently at 19% and the chance of the vote being lost as 28%) the City of London has begun to speak with a louder voice about why it sees its core interests being best served with a UK that sits in the EU. That the City feels moved to speak is both interesting and important: it is interesting because it implies that they feel that there is a chance of Brexit beyond that which they can reasonably sit back and ignore. It is important because 1) there are political and economic impacts to be endured by The City (and thus the wider economy) in a time of political uncertainty prior to December 2017, and thus potentially after that date too and 2) because there are other important sub-questions around Brexit too that deal with the type of economy the UK will continue to enjoy, and to whose benefit these sorts of political issues are settled.

The economic impacts to be endured are most likely to be felt as investment decisions. Uncertainty is the enemy of investment: the UK will already be being priced with a risk premium, and this will only get worse as we get nearer to 2017. As the pre-eminent financial centre in the EU (for mostly historical reasons initially, but now in terms of sheer weight of activity), the City carries great sway over the conduct of financial services in the Union. The proposed banking union (which the City and the UK government opposes) might be developed as a rival bloc to the City which would impact upon the UK’s global competitiveness, whilst the move to encourage EU level business activity away from bank-led finance to alternative forms of financial instrument would likely be led by the UK – who is the largest player in this field currently and who has the best developed understanding of the regulatory frameworks required for it in the post-2008 climate. Simple politics would dictate that European rivals will be quick to question why the UK should have an influential say over this area if it looks to be disengaging from the European project altogether.

The City and financial services amount to 9% of the UK’s GDP. Damage to this area of activity (particularly to a host of investment decisions) has a whole-economy impact. My question – as a security studies academic – is does the potential impact, and thus the roll out across the entire economy, amount to a security impact? Strapping on various different lenses – that of economic performance and the money to invest in key attributes to maintaining fighting fitness (and not necessarily military fitness) is one holistic way to assess an economic impact. Such an analysis fits closely to the far reaches of ‘hybrid warfare’, and looks at the maintenance of education and health as elements of holistic effect. The other is to look at the maintenance of the integrity of social fabric. We can draw simplistic correlations around a time of economic contraction and the emergence of complex threats generated by the disaffected.

In terms of ‘the business dimension’ to Brexit. The City wants to remain in. Small businesses, who are doing less and less trade with continental Europe, might reasonably want to leave. Large manufacturing concerns have welcomed the prospect of having more flexible regulatory conditions outside of the EU – and so divide reasonably equally. Looking at the question from a UK Plc perspective, where is our influence best felt? Where do we exercise most ‘power’? In an era that has seen and will continue to see us effectively winding down our military power (SDSR 2015 will need to do something radical to stop this rot), activities that we do that our globally important should be retained. Even in the context of the disaster of 2008, the City remains a vastly overpaid wealth generator for the nation, and a lever of power on the international stage. Looking from the outside the UK, if one was to do an assessment of what to try and undermine in the UK as part of a hybrid war, the City would be a large target. Where are the successor sources of wealth generation outside of The City?

The fate of the City in the question around Brexit is fundamental to whether the UK remains a mid-range power, or a small power with an expansive history. More particularly, it is a security question.


@BritishPolice: Research, Policy and Community on the Frontiers of Social Media

On Sunday I had the opportunity to chat, via direct message on Twitter, with a Chief Inspector from West Midlands Police. He had tweeted pictures and comments from his course on Public Order Policing, and I had some follow up questions for him. Over several exchanges he happily discussed with me official tactics and approaches, as well as a bit of his experience. For a variety of reasons I value this sort of first hand, practitioner based material in my research. This was not the first time I have used Twitter to further my understanding or sustain my interpretations, but the fact that I can do so speaks to something much more important.

Policing in the United Kingdom is in the midst of a quiet but revolutionary experiment to make itself proactively available to the public by way of social media, and particularly Twitter, in unprecedented numbers and across the chain of command, to include senior leadership. The prospects for this, for its influence on society and policing, are momentous. While its ramifications cannot yet be known, there are three areas in which this phenomenon highlight important opportunities across research, policy and community relations: the human element which emerges, the self-narrative or portrait of the institution and its character, and the engagement philosophy.

First, to the human element. Many of the police accounts, corporate and informal, are associated with an individual. Not just a role, but a particular character and human emerges from the communications. I am a memoir, experiential based military historian by training, and within that as well I value the quotidian and the little things that are said and done for the wisdom it conveys. Happiness, Limeade on Guadalcanal… was written in earnest, as it must be accepted that while seemingly irrelevant on the surface, from these details of the personal experience often emerge profound insights. [1] And the material in public and on social media is just the tip of the iceberg. The human element has a practical story to tell about the work, in general and in detail, and deserves more attention in the course of police research.

Turning to a more meta perspective, taken together this messaging creates the self-image of British policing. From both its personal and corporate accounts, in words and images, the characters of the forces and their constituent parts, as well as the broader national service, are created. Assessing this, in its grand vista and detail deserves attention as well for its influence in policy, practice or communications. At the practical level, for example, to understand that how the police conceive themselves in a particular situation or issue differs from how they are viewed by the public will help to identify areas for redress.

Finally, the matter of engagement and Police-Community Relations (PCR) has particular resonance in this discussion. Timely to do so, as BBC’s “The Met” has people talking. Having seen it, I would say the work is very interesting, definitely worth a watch. [2] Throughout, the participants confronted a host of hard issues about community relations, particularly those relating to race and policing. And they are discussing it today. Many of the individuals mentioned above are on Twitter answering questions and comments regarding the documentary. And as individuals it is clear that many of them are compassionately engaged with their work. On a purely social media front, thinking back to the disorders, it is a long way since the Met was overwhelmed by mass BBM’s, and one wonders how the police would use their new presence in similar circumstances today. More importantly, the documentary identifies the clear rift still to mend. Improving identification between police and disaffected members of the community will require effort across many fronts and over time. Nevertheless, what the Twitter activity of policing suggests, both online and in the metropolis (and the UK at large), is that the police themselves are open to, if not actively interested in, expanding and improving their conversation with the public they serve. It will be interesting to track how this philosophy of engagement will be taken up in and by the challenged communities.

Perhaps the recourse to social media is natural. Gregarious by nature, the British Bobby has simply taken up a new beat. What has changed is that this activity is now visible to a greater percentage and cross section of society. Subtly, 140 characters at a time, over the course of thousands of tweets, this will affect the shape of policing and consent, as well as the understanding of both.





1 Funny to discuss that blog in this one on social media and Twitter as its title was too long to tweet in its entirety. Sigh.

2 One point I would make, as it focused on the Duggan shooting, the riots, and the influence of the Inquest verdict, it was strange not to include something on the vigil the following Saturday. Its peaceful terms deserved highlighting.