Hartley’s heroes, hangin’ tough
Ranald Mackenzie (1840-89) was a general in the United States Army. His name is little known outside military history circles, unlike his contemporary, the hapless and incompetent General Custer. Despite losing his life and those of the troops under his command in a campaign against the Sioux Indians, Custer achieved immortality of sorts via the full Hollywood treatment. In contrast, Mackenzie has attracted much less attention. He was sent to deal with the Comanche, the most formidable of Plains Indian tribes, who at one stage managed to drive back the advance of European settlement by a hundred miles. Mackenzie succeeded in his mission not so much with the glamorous horse soldiers of Custer’s command but by using black infantry, the so-called Buffalo Soldiers. Even nomads need time to rest and find food. Mackenzie denied them the opportunity. He and his soldiers harried the Comanche relentlessly until ground down and exhausted they surrendered. Mackenzie provided an early example of how remorseless pursuit of an enemy deep into its own territory can achieve success.
Roy Mason (1924-2015) was a coal miner from Barnsley who lived the latter part of his life under permanent police protection. He was elected a Labour MP in 1953 and subsequently rose to become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in James Callaghan’s administration. Imagine: an ex sailor appointing a former coal miner to his cabinet, how the Labour Party has changed. Mason didn’t accept that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter. As a socialist, Mason viewed the IRA as fascistic. He was also a strong believer in the rule of law. Mason was Northern Ireland secretary between 1976 and 1979 during the height of the Troubles. He stood up to the IRA (and indeed the Loyalists) believing that capitulation to the Irish brand of republicanism wasn’t inevitable.
Being a terrorist is a stressful business. Terrorists need a safe place to hide and rest. Mason was determined to prevent this and turned the RUC and Army loose to search, pursue and harass. As one IRA commander conceded: ‘with resolution, attrition and good intelligence we were almost beaten by Mason’. The ultimate accolade was paid by the late Martin McGuinness no less. Roy Mason, he said, ‘kicked the shit out of us’.
Relentless pursuit of an enemy into his own territory is a versatile tactic although the principles remain much the same and good leadership is essential. In 2005, a Merseyside police officer named Andy Cooke (now the chief constable) set out to tackle Liverpool’s gun crime. He did this with a body called the Matrix team. These were officers sent out to disrupt this type of behaviour by knocking on the doors of individuals whom intelligence suggested were involved in gun crime. Operating, as one officer put it, ‘at the limits of legality’, the Matrix team succeeded in reducing gun crime from 124 incidents in that year to 83 in 2006. Essentially what the team did was to visit the homes of suspects, ostensibly to check on their ‘welfare’ and to offer support and advice; or to put it another way, to let them know that the police were aware of their involvement and would be back again and again. Clearly it must have been difficult to relax when there was the possibility of a knock on the door at any time. The Matrix team continues in operation and has been an influence on policing in other parts of the world.
The number of Islamist ‘extremists’ in Britain is said to run into thousands. Estimates vary, with one source putting the figure as high as 23,000. Whatever the number there are people out there that harbour hostility towards this country. Presumably this ranges from the passive sympathiser who accesses certain websites and may go no further than discussing the contents with kindred spirits, through to those actively planning terror. As we have seen recently in London sophisticated explosive devices aren’t necessary in order to cause death and injury. The security services monitoring such individuals have an unenviable task. At some point presumably, an official has to carry out a risk assessment and make a judgment call attempting to distinguish between individuals who merely talk about terror and those who intend to get actively involved. Get it wrong and the media is likely to be talking about security ‘failures’. Hiring a van or acquiring knives are unlikely to be sufficient evidence of ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’ leading to an arrest and a successful prosecution.
Only after yet another terrorist outrage does police activity intensify and involve raids on the homes of sympathisers. Then things die down again as if the only justification for doing so can be dead and injured from the latest incident. The need to preserve what is called community cohesion once again becomes paramount. Just as a terrorist needs a safe place, so does a terrorist sympathiser and that individual may be in the process of deciding whether or not to become active. If they have a safe place in the ‘community’ then they can continue to talk and to plan with impunity. They may feel comfortable in doing this if they are aware that police will usually intervene only on the back of evidence sufficient to bring about a successful prosecution.
We already know from the Rochdale child sex abuse cases and similar crimes, how reluctant the authorities are to intervene and endanger what they view as community cohesion. On the other hand, allowing terrorist sympathisers the opportunity to feel comfortable may raise the possibility that their vocal radicalism with be transformed into something much worse. After an atrocity we hear the usual comments about how the community will not be defeated by such people. Perhaps not but it will continue to take casualties. The duty of government is to protect people and maintaining the chimera of community cohesion when one section of the community willingly or otherwise provides a safe place is not achieving this.
The examples cited above show that a proactive approach can achieve success in widely differing circumstances. As that IRA commander admitted, resolution and attrition can work. Even if they are offering no more than passive support, people should learn that there is a price to be paid. Getting a knock on the door and being made aware that that the authorities know what they’re doing is a start. Or we could continue to hold vigils until they give up.
BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service. He writes from Yorkshire