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CONTEST is the United Kingdom's counter-terrorism strategy,[1] first developed by Sir David Omand and the Home Office in early 2003 as the immediate response to 9/11,[2] and a revised version was made public in 2006. Further revisions were published on 24 March 2009,[3] 11 July 2011 and June 2018.[4] An Annual Report on the implementation of CONTEST was released in March 2010 and in April 2014. The aim of the strategy is "to reduce the risk to the UK and its interests overseas from terrorism so that people can go about their lives freely and with confidence."[5][6] The success of this strategy is not linked to total elimination of the terrorist threat, but to reducing the threat sufficiently to allow the citizens a normal life free from fear.

The definition of 'Terrorism' is set out within the Terrorism Act 2000.[7]

CONTEST is composed of the "four Ps" – prevent, pursue, protect, and prepare – which aim to reduce terrorism at all levels through: Preventing more people from being radicalised; Pursuing suspects operationally and legally; Protecting the public through security measures, and Preparing to manage the response to mitigate the impact of an inevitable attack.


CONTEST has thus far survived to its seventh Prime Minister largely due to its risk equation,[further explanation needed] that: risk = likelihood × vulnerability × impact.[8][full citation needed]

Likelihood encompasses the Pursue and Prevent arms, and is understood to prevail when terrorists are imprisoned and so unable to radicalise the next generation.

Vulnerability covers Protecting the critical infrastructure and public of the UK, for example ensuring steel lockable cockpit doors on all civilian airliners to prevent hijackers from taking control of aircraft.

Finally, impact includes the Prepare arm. In order to manage the initial response and minimise periods of disruption all emergency services are specifically trained in terrorist response and special technology has been developed, such as decontamination trucks and increasingly resilient communication lines.

The four Ps[edit]


Prevent referrals each year
Year Prevent Referrals Channel referrals Channel cases
2022/2023[9] 6817 1113 645
2021/2022[10] 6406 1486 804
2020/2021[11] 4915 1333 688
2019/2020[12] 6287 1424 697
2018/2019[13] 5738 1320 561
2017/2018[14] 7318 1314 564
2016/2017[15] 6093 1146 332
2015/2016[16] 7631 1072 381

The purpose of Prevent is to stop people from becoming terrorists or terrorist sympathisers. Prevent includes countering terrorist ideology and challenging those who promote it, supporting individuals who are especially vulnerable to becoming radicalised, and working with sectors and institutions where the risk of radicalisation is assessed to be high.[17] The deradicalisation programme is known as Channel. It is led by the police and liberal Muslim mentors.[18] The UK Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 created a positive duty for those working in education or health to report those who they deem at risk of radicalization.[19]: 35 

As of February 2015, all National Health Service (NHS) staff are required to undergo basic Prevent Awareness Training.[20]

Schools are valuable in providing the educational dimension of the Prevent duty through the Citizenship lessons on the National Curriculum.[21] Since July 2015, schools also have a legal responsibility to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism" under the Prevent duty and Child Protection and Safeguarding guidelines.[22][23]

In 2020, 6,287 people were referred to Prevent. Of these, 1,424 were referred to Channel and 697 were taken on as cases for Channel. 43% of the cases taken on by Channel were for right wing extremism and 30% for Islamic extremism.[12] A film associated with Prevent, Reclaim Radical – Radical versus Radicalised, was released in 2017.

An independent review of Prevent was announced in August 2019 as part of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019.[24]

The leader of the 2017 London Bridge attack and his brother were involved with Prevent.[25] The perpetrator of the 2017 Parsons Green train bombing had been referred to Prevent.[26][27] The perpetrator in the 2021 murder of David Amess was referred to Prevent.[28]


The aim of Pursue is to stop terrorist attacks happening in the UK or against UK interests overseas. The main objectives of Pursue are to detect, understand, investigate, and disrupt terrorist activity.[29] There are multiple types of terrorists that are being pursued under this system, including:

Counter Terrorism Policing work with MI5 to develop intelligence, and with the Crown Prosecution Service to put compelling evidence before the courts.[34] The public can also support law enforcement to pursue potential terrorist activity through calling the anti-terrorist hotline.[29] Action Counters Terrorism (ACT) encourages individuals to report suspicious activity which could be related to terrorism through online reporting, or by contacting the police in confidence on their dedicated phone number.[35]

Government departments and agencies work collaboratively to disrupt terrorist activity. Counter-terrorism policing, MI5, and wider intelligence work together closely to investigate, detect, and disrupt terrorism, alongside the Criminal Justice System.[29] The Ministry of Defence is a key contributor to CONTEST strategy. It particularly supports Pursue through its military capability to disrupt overseas terrorist groups and its support of overseas law enforcement and security agencies. Its support for conflict prevention work has also contributed to the CONTEST objectives.[29] Work overseas is crucial to Pursue, as previous UK attack plots have had support from terrorists overseas, as well as UK individuals being radicalised while overseas. Working with international partners therefore attempts to disrupt the threat before it manifests itself in the UK.[29]

An important element of Pursue is the independent oversight regime, which scrutinises the significant powers and tools used to stop potential terrorist attacks, ensuring they are used proportionately and appropriately.[29][36]

Proportionality (law) must be considered when using broader powers for terrorism investigations. The Secretary of State must be satisfied that the information obtained could not reasonably have been obtained by any other means. The intelligence gain must be sufficiently great to justify an intrusion, as well as any unavoidable collateral intrusion against individuals other than the target.[37] The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 ensures that investigatory techniques are used in a way that is compatible with the Article 8 right to respect for private and family life, as in the European Convention on Human Rights.[38][39][40]

Pursue is becoming increasingly complex as the threat of terrorism continues to diversify. Between 1 January and 31 December 2022, 169 persons were arrested for terrorism related activity, with 232 persons held in custody for terrorism-connected offences.[29] From 2017 to July 2023, MI5 and the police have disrupted 39 late stage attack plots.[29]

Within Pursue there are different elements of strategy involved: detection, prosecution, punishment, control, and disruption.

Detection involves gaining specific reliable information and evidence. This may require the use of various surveillance methods such as hacking for digital information, or human surveillance through undercover policing. There are specific powers which can be utilised for these purposes, such as the specific power of arrest on suspicion of a terrorist, under section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000.[7] Additionally those within the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, such as targeted interception, which involves requesting a warrant from the Secretary of State to intercept transmission of communications.[41]

There is information related to security and intelligence, and special investigation powers which is protected by the Official Secrets Act 1989.[42] This provides legal protection against unauthorised disclosure of information and espionage, and protest certain tactics of information gathering.[43]

Under section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000 a suspect can be detained for a maximum of 14 day before being charged, compared to the maximum of four days under standard arrest powers.[7][44] This allows more time for police to investigate and gather evidence in relation to the potential terrorism offences. Additional powers allow a senior police officer to delay a suspect's access to a solicitor and/or contact with a named person.[45] This is authorised if they believe that exercising this right may result in any of the consequences listed in section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000, for example sending out a dangerous message which may instigate an act of terrorism.[46]

There are a number of extremist groups which are banned under UK law, as part of the counter-terrorist legislation. Section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allows the Home Secretary to proscribe an organisation if they are concerned in terrorism.[7] This means the organisation commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for terrorism, promotes, or encourages terrorism.[7]

Proscription must be proportionate, which means the following factors must be taken into account when deciding whether to proscribe an organisation:

  • The nature and scale of the organisation's activities
  • The specific threat posed to the UK
  • The specific threat posed to British nationals overseas
  • The extent of the organisation's presence in the UK
  • The need to support other members of the international community in the global fight against terrorism.[47]

Between 2018 and 2023 there have been six terrorist groups proscribed, including extreme right-wing groups such as Atomwaffen Division and The Base (hate group).[29]

The Terrorism Act 2006 introduced further established terrorist offences including the encouragement of terrorism, preparation of terrorist acts and terrorist training, and offences involving radioactive devices and materials and nuclear facilities and sites.[48] An example of this is 19-year-old Matthew King who pleaded guilty to the preparation of terrorist acts, and has now been sentenced to life imprisonment.[49][50]

In 2021 Shabazz Suleman was arrested and charged with terror offences under the Terrorism Act 2000.[7][51] He has since pleaded guilty to preparing acts of terrorism by travelling to Turkey to join IS in Syria, as well as being charged with being a member of the proscribed group, IS, and receiving training in the use of firearms.[51]

Although there are specific terrorist offences which are criminalised in the UK, the prosecution process remains the same, and prosecutors are tried fairly through the mainstream criminal justice system.[52] The Crown Prosecution Service has a Special Crime and Counter Terrorism Division (SCCTD) to deal with the prosecution of terrorism cases.[53] In 2021 Greer emphasised why this process is significant stating that it "... offers the best prospects of securing the legitimacy of counterterrorist law enforcement and of maintaining public confidence in it."[54]

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 contains more powers to aid the UK's response to the threat of terrorism; in relation to Pursue it enhances the ability of operational agencies to monitor and control actions of those posing a threat.[55][56]

The Counter-Extremism Strategy was published by the UK Government in 2015 and focuses on disrupting extremism, as well as extremists' rehabilitation and reintegration into society.[57] This is an example of the punishment and control elements of Pursue.


The purpose of Protect is to strengthen protection against terrorist attacks in the UK or its interests overseas and thus reduce vulnerability. The main areas of focus include borders and aviation, other transport systems, Critical National Infrastructure, crowded public places and access to sensitive state information.

The process works by first recognising the threats and then identifying the measures to reduce risks.[17] An example of 'Protect' are the large bollards places strategically around busy city centres, and especially on bridges, to prevent the rise of vehicle-based attacks such as the 2017 London Bridge attack.

The main objectives of Protect are to:

  • reduce physical risk to people as they go about their lives
  • reduce the vulnerability of public venues, transport, and out Critical National Infrastructure
  • reduce the ability of terrorists to access and use materials and technology of concern
  • identify and manage individuals and goods of terrorist concern through the migration and border system.[29]

Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 permits examination officers to stop, question, search, and detain anyone transiting through ports, airports, and international rail stations, with the purpose of determining whether those concerned have been involved in the commission, preparation, or instigation of acts of terrorism.[7]

The Authority to Carry Scheme 2023 prevents certain individuals travelling to or from the UK when it is necessary in the public interest, in order to prevent or disrupt those who pose a terrorism-related threat.[58]


The purpose of Prepare is to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack in an event whereby that attack cannot be stopped. Prepare includes bringing a terrorist attack to an end quickly, preventing its spread, and increasing the UK's resilience to enable rapid recovery in its aftermath.[17]

The main objectives of Prepare are to:

  • build proportionate responses to a range of attack methodologies, wherever they might occur
  • in response to an attack, deploy a systemised, effective and co-ordinated multi agency response, using specialist and non-specialist capabilities to save lives, mitigate harm, and prevent further attacks
  • enable recovery, including long-term care of victims and survivors and the mitigation of any ongoing hazard
  • adapt and improve by identifying and sharing learning from research, training, testing, exercising and previous incidents.[29]

The public should follow Prepare advice on the nature of terrorist threats overseas, which is communicated through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office travel advice and advice on how to safely respond in the event of a terrorist incident.[29]

One example of Prepare is the improved protection implemented for UK tourists in Tunisia following the 2015 Sousse attacks.[29][59]


Channel is a programme that seeks to reduce radicalisation by referring reported individuals to other services. People working in health or education are required by law to report individuals that meet certain criteria.[60] A channel referral is a referral to the police,[60]: p21  who continually use information obtained in order to assess risk,[60]: 117  and may make a referral to a channel panel who suggest and prioritise referrals to other services.[60]: p21  Involvement is voluntary and referred individuals can refuse to participate.[60]: 76  If an individual refuses to participate and a risk is identified the police will be informed,[60]: 122  and assessments can be made by a channel panel whether an individual chooses to participate or not.[61]


The August 2018 strategy reportedly puts more focus on ways of prevention and how to best alert the public to terrorist threats.[62] In an article written for The Observer, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated that the strategy is "recognised by our allies to be world-leading in its wide-ranging nature, [and] leaves us better prepared and strengthened in our ability to ensure all peace-loving people of this country can live normally, with confidence and free from fear."[63]


The 'Prevent' strategy was criticised in 2009 by Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, as a domestic spying programme collecting intelligence about the beliefs of British Muslims not involved in criminal activity.[64] The Communities and Local Government Committee were also critical of the Prevent programme in 2010, stating that it stigmatised and alienated the Muslims the government wanted to work with.[65]

Prevent has been criticised as legitimising and reinforcing Islamophobia and restricting freedom of expression for Muslims in the UK.[66][67]

At the National Union of Teachers' 2016 conference in Brighton, the union members voted overwhelmingly against the Prevent strategy. They supported its abolition, citing concerns over the implementation of the strategy and causing "suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staff room."[68]

In June 2016, the MPs Lucy Allan and Norman Lamb introduced a private member's bill to repeal provisions in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 where it requires staff to report possible signs of extremism or radicalization between primary and nursery school-aged children, following several high-profile cases where the provision was inappropriately used about the Prevent strategy. The Bill did not become law.[69]

In 2017, two brothers, aged seven and five, were paid damages after they were reported to the Prevent programme after telling a teacher they had been given toy guns. The children had been kept from parents for two hours. After a legal challenge, the Central Bedfordshire Council admitted the children's human rights were breached and they had been racially discriminated against.[70]

Prevent has also been accused of reducing academic freedom. In November 2018, the University of Reading highlighted the article Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution by Professor Norman Geras as potentially harmful. Students were instructed not to download the article on personal devices and not to leave the article where it could be visible "inadvertently or otherwise, by those who are not prepared to view it".[71] In March 2019, the Court of Appeal found that the Prevent guidance on inviting controversial speakers at universities was unlawfully unbalanced and must be rewritten.[72]

In January 2020, The Guardian reported that Extinction Rebellion, the climate emergency campaign group promoted by Greta Thunberg, had been wrongly included on an official list of extremist organisations whose members should be reported to the authorities. The South East Counter Terrorism Unit later said that after review, the document was being withdrawn.[73] Amnesty International were highly critical of the error, and Extinction Rebellion said they were considering legal action.[74]

In 2024, Amnesty International began a campaign for Prevent to be scrapped.[75]


There is growing concern over the link of the COVID-19 pandemic and a greater risk of radicalisation. Due to social isolation and increased reliance on the internet, there are concerns over the potential grooming, and later radicalisation, of vulnerable young people. As a result of face-to-face teaching being suspended and most schools and statutory agencies closing throughout the nationwide lockdown, there has been a marked decreased in the number of people referred to the Prevent programme since restrictions were put in place. Whilst the full effect of COVID restrictions are yet to be seen, the police are encouraging schools to place an emphasis on safeguarding those most vulnerable and provide the resources necessary to help combat radicalisation grooming.[76]

In other contexts[edit]

At the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact chaired by Emmanuel Macron in Paris on 22–23 June 2023, CONTEST was presented by Fiona Hill, former chief of staff to Theresa May as home secretary and prime minister, as an exemplar for interdepartmental cooperation for tackling major threats, and a paradigm for how governments should tackle international development and climate change.[77] Hill was speaking at an official summit side event convened by Community Jameel and the Islamic Development Bank at the headquarters of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.[78]


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External links[edit]