Defence, Security & Policing Digest – May 2017

Defence, Security & Policing Digest – Introduction

This digest presents an abridged thematic assessment of key security and counter-terrorism debate in the United Kingdom in May 2017, along with key conference information and news from the UK security industry.

Digital Defence, Security and Policing Digest MAY 2017

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The shocking terrorist attack in Manchester on May 22nd dominated the news agenda in the latter part of the month. The short but highly significant elevation of the UK terrorism threat level from Severe to Critical and the invocation of Operation Temperer underscored the significant risks posed by domestic and transnational Islamist extremism.

Counter-terrorism response featured in political and public discourse as campaigning for the June 8th general election restarted after the Manchester bombing. Competing narratives on the causes of (and optimal response to) the terrorist threat were offered by the major political parties and other commentators. The ethics and efficacy of the UK’s PREVENT strategy was debated, as was the ability of the security services and counter-terrorism police to monitor terrorist suspects within the UK as well as those attempting to return from conflict zones in Libya, Iraq and Syria.

The WannaCry ransomware attack caused significant global impact with extensive outages experienced by the National Health System (NHS). This raised important questions about the protection of patient data, appropriate IT funding levels for public services and business continuity preparedness. The genesis of WannaCry was attributed to exploits developed by the US National Security Agency raising questions about the ethics and controls applied to ‘government malware’.

Key Reports and Guidance Published in May

A particularly interesting report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on support for UK victims of Libyan sponsored IRA terrorism 1 was published on May 2nd. Given the link between Libya and the Manchester Arena bomber, Salman Abedi 2 the historical Libyan context (Gaddafi’s support for the IRA, the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher 3, the attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie etc.) cannot go unnoticed.

Other key reports included:

Key Industry Events held in May

The Security and Counter Terror Expo in London Olympia was the signature event in May. Other significant cybersecurity conferences underscored the seemingly escalating risks of cyber-attacks and cyber terrorism to both private and public-sector organisations. This was particularly relevant to the National Health Service and organisations across the globe as they fell victim to WannaCry ransomware, 6 an unprecedented assault on legacy and unpatched IT systems.

Other key events included:

Looking Ahead (June 2017):

The funerals of victims of the Manchester Arena bombing will undoubtedly generate significant media interest and debate. Ariana Grande will play a ‘benefit concert’ 7 to raise funds for the victims on Sunday June 4th.

In the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing and renewed discussion about the effectiveness of PREVENT and the UK’s approach to counter-radicalisation, the forthcoming Countering Violent Extremism Conference in London on June 20th to 22nd is important. Debate concerning the efficaciousness of PREVENT and its perceptions among certain communities and demographics is highly relevant 8. Some political commentators have gone so far as to label PREVENT ‘toxic’ 9. The Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has criticised PREVENT, a position that may face increased scrutiny. 10 Interesting counterpoint was offered by Khalid Mahmood writing in the Express. 11 Mahmood, Labour candidate for Birmingham Perry Bar provides a compelling argument for greater Muslim community engagement in counter-radicalisation initiatives.

As investigations continue into the Manchester Arena bombing and other terrorism plots in the UK, there will be extensive interest in unfolding investigations and progress on criminal prosecutions. The counter-terrorism operation against an alleged network of female Jihadists in Willesden 12 is likely to re-gain media attention, as will MI5’s continuing internal investigation into intelligence, risk assessment and monitoring of Salman Abedi and his likely accomplices. 13

As Operation Temperer comes to an end there will be debate about the role of the military in domestic counter-terrorism operations and the effectiveness of military counter-terrorism techniques within this context. Public perceptions of safety, policing and the necessity of military backup will influence narratives.

Counter-terrorism response will continue to shape political debate in the run up to the general election on June 8th. There are clearly divided political opinions on both the causes of terrorism and how to effectively respond to the threat and aftermath of terrorist outrages. This was perhaps most notable in the speech given by Labour leader Jeremy Corybn on May 26th in which he outlined his views on the failures of the ‘War on Terror’. 14 The Labour leader will continue to face questions over the nature of historical ‘associations’ with groups such as Sinn Fein, the Provisional IRA and Hamas. 15

Critical debates about effective use of funding and resources and counter-terrorism powers and legal frameworks will continue, as underscored in this recent article 16 by Max Hill QC (the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation).

The alleged leaking of information to the press 17 by members of US intelligence caused significant political difficulties in May. The ‘special relationship’ was quickly re-established and impacts on intelligence sharing and co-operation seem unlikely to go beyond harsh diplomatic scolding. As President Trump returns from the Middle East, renewed focus on Russia and the US Presidential election will reignite 18, with possible ramifications for US defence and security partners.

Debates will continue about the resilience of public and private sector organisations to cyber-attack by criminals and cyber terrorists in the wake of WannaCry ransomware incidents. Risks of targeted cyber-attack during the general election campaign cannot be discounted. 19

Social media and other internet companies will face continued pressure to remove online extremist material. In the transnational context, this will continue to pose significant challenges. End-to-end encryption and messaging services such as WhatsApp are likely to continue to face pressure to provide decryption capabilities to intelligence services and law enforcement 20. Privacy versus security debates are likely to feature significantly in public discourse.

Debate will continue about the management of refugees transiting through North Africa, with a focus on the exodus of foreign Jihadists from the conflicts in the Levant. Debate over the utility of Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEOs) is relevant given an obvious lack of use to date. 21 The security situation in Egypt may deteriorate with attacks against the Coptic Christian minority 22 increasing in frequency and scale since Easter 23, characteristic of similar cycles of attacks in 2013 24.

The outcome of the general election on June 8th will be an important determinant for future defence and security policy. The security of post-BREXIT Britain will be debated in this context.

InfoSec Europe on June 6th to 8th will be a showcase event for the cyber security Industry. Expect significant trade press coverage including “Securing the Internet of Things” and innovation in cyber protection, including the increasing prevalence of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. At the end of the month, the Cyber 2017 conference at Chatham House is a key event for policy makers and cyber influencers. The annual Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) land warfare conference (June 27th to 28th) will bring together senior figures from the armed forces, along with academics and public servants to explore key trends in modern warfare.

Important industry events in June include:

Thematic Assessments

Policing & Domestic Counter-terrorism

A suicide bomb attack on the Manchester Area on Monday 22nd May left 22 concert goers dead and injured dozens, some critically. Salman Abedi a British national of Libyan descent was quickly identified as the perpetrator 2. The modus operandi of the attack indicated that Abedi had not acted alone. In a ‘race against time’, the security services and police sought to capture and disrupt Abedi’s network. The UK threat level increased from Severe to Critical 25 and as part of a well-rehearsed response, troops were deployed as part of Operation Temperer to guard key sites and critical national infrastructure. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, welcomed news of an internal investigation 13 by the security services into the handling of intelligence on Abedi. Stories emerged about the Abedi family in Libya 26 and links to the al-Qaeda affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. In the aftermath of the attack there was extensive debate about the effectiveness of the UK government’s PREVENT strategy with widely differing views and opinions expressed about the cause of and appropriate response to terrorism threats. Campaigning in the general election was suspended as a mark of respect for the victims of the attack and their families. On its recommencement, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn delivered a speech criticising the ‘War on Terror’ and UK foreign policy 14. This met with aplomb in some quarters but was dismissed as “twisted thinking” by others 27.  With significant arrests made, primarily around Greater Manchester 28, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) advised downgrading of the UK treat level from Critical to Severe. Following the spring bank holiday, this led to a recall of troops. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein representatives refused to condemn the 1996 IRA bombing of Manchester 29 intimating that this was somehow part of ‘Just War’.

Questions over internment and deportation of terrorist suspects were raised by seasoned commentators including Col. Richard Kemp 30 and (former Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner) Tarique Ghaffur. 31 Lessons learned from the use of internment in Northern Ireland in the 1970s does however suggest ‘draconian’ measures are likely to exacerbate grievances, perpetuate and potentially escalate violent conflict. Internment may be tactically beneficially, yet prove strategically disastrous.

Brendan Duddy 32 who played a central role in the Northern Ireland peace process died aged 80. He acted as a conduit for secret negotiations between the British government and the IRA for several decades. Duddy brokered meetings with former Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officer Sir Michael Oatley and leading members of the Irish republican movement, including former IRA chief, Martin McGuiness. Duddy’s contacts with republicans and the British government is well described in Jonathan Powell’s book Great Hatred, Little Room. 33 Duddy’s contribution to the peace process was undeniably extensive. Powell in his later book Talking to Terrorists, How to end Armed Conflicts 34 explores important moral and ethical questions relating to peace negotiations with terrorist groups and their political representatives.

Further details emerged about Khalid Mohamed Omar Ali, arrested in a counter-terrorism operation near Westminster on April 27th. The suspect was detained carrying knives. It was reported that Omar Ali participated in a Gaza aid convoy in 2010. 35 He claimed to have been the subject of a prior recruitment attempt by the UK security services. 36

A separate counter-terrorism operation in Willesden led to the shooting of a female suspect, who was subsequently arrested in hospital. 12 In follow up investigations, a further three female suspects were detained. 37 An unusual aspect of these linked detentions is the number of female suspects, hinting at the possibility of an exclusively female terrorist cell.

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Online

In early May, a report from the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee 5 “Hate crime: abuse, hate and extremism online” accused social media companies including Twitter and Facebook of failing to address online hate crime and terrorist propaganda. 38 The situation worsened for the internet companies, as online extremism became a central agenda item for Theresa May at the G7 summit in Sicily. 39 The British Prime Minister called on other G7 leaders to do more to combat online extremism, characterising the ‘internet as a battlefield.’ 40 Minister of State for Security, Ben Wallace pulled few punches in his criticism of the internet giants 41.

The ability of companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter to deal with the magnitude of the challenge raises important questions. Is it as some suggest 42 ‘Mission Impossible?’ With billions of users, extremely large volumes of information, definitional grey space in terms of what constitutes ‘extremist material’ and immature global governance and regulation of cyber space, is this battle simply unwinnable? Some solace may be found in re-examining the technological history of the last decade. Was it imaginable 10 years ago that Facebook and Twitter would scale to multi-billion user pan-global platforms? Vanguard users of Twitter in 2007 (experiencing regular outages) would have had significant doubts. The digital technology revolution (not least cloud computing) was a response to the challenge of developing massively scalable, massively distributed systems. Increasing maturity of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning may be the necessary response to the ‘social media moderation’ challenge. Looking 10-years ahead it certainly seems imaginable that greatly improved algorithms and automation capabilities will neutralise (or vastly minimise) the task at hand. Charles Arthur writing in the Guardian offers interesting thoughts on additional measures that could be taken, including changing the economic and social motivations of internet giants. 43 Arthur rightly highlights that blocking ‘internet services at the border’ is a blunt instrument reserved for the censorious. This is a particularly salient point in light of free-speech and internet debate in Turkey where the government blocked access to Wikipedia, citing defamatory anti-government ‘editorialisation’ of articles. 44

The question of the Dark Web and the rise of dark-social platforms must also be considered. Exploitation of the Dark Web is clearly on the agenda of Islamic State and other terrorist actors. If successful, they will effectively circumvent efforts to close down use of mainstream services. 45 Driving the threat down into the Dark Web may help protect mainstream ‘audiences’ from exposure. It will however require increased technological capabilities in law-enforcement and other security agencies to ensure it can be robustly monitored and countered.

A multi-government, multi-agency response is clearly needed and a recent Europol crackdown targeting thousands of items of online extremism 46 provides some optimism.

Cyber Security & Counter Cyber-terrorism

The global WannaCry ransomware attack raised serious concerns about legacy IT systems and underfunding of cyber security 47. The source of the WannaCry attack was debated, with theories ranging from hostile foreign governments and criminal actors in North Korea, Russia and China 48. Theft of the exploit from the US National Security Agency raises concerns 49, 50. The NHS was particularly affected although it was readily apparent that the attack was global in nature and not a targeted against the UK NHS 51. Statistics from Kryptos Logic suggested China had been hardest hit. 52 Discovery of a kill-switch in the WannaCry code assisted in its containment and damage limitation 53. WannaCry bitcoin accounts netted circa $70,000, highlighting that some ransoms were paid, but overall the financial reward to the perpetrators was paltry. 54 The true cost of the attack in lost productivity and public confidence however is extremely high. Reassurances were sought from the UK Defence Minister Sir Michael Fallon that the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet was not exposed to similar risks. 55 This raises questions about protection of critical infrastructure, including civil nuclear, from similar attack. Carian Martin from GCHQ gave a very interesting interview to Wired Magazine discussing cyber security threats from hostile foreign governments, transnational criminal and terrorist actors 56.

UK security services successfully accessed WhatsApp messages sent by Khalid Masood prior to the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge and Parliament. 57 Despite the success, delays in accessing the messages could have hampered speed of investigation, thereby increasing the risk to the public from additional outrages.

Cyber terrorist Samata Ullah was jailed for collation and distribution of Jihadist ‘self-help’ materials which he concealed in USB cufflinks. 58 Ullah, operating from a bedroom in Wales provided online terrorist training materials world-wide. His arrest demonstrates the diversity of threat actors in the cyber domain. The complexity of dealing with online threats was further illustrated by reports from Europol that extremists had begun setting up their own internet services. 59 Other innovations include the use of gift cards 51 as a means of terrorism financing.

British Airways suffered a major global IT systems failure 60. Flights were effectively grounded at Heathrow and Gatwick for several days during the spring bank holiday weekend. No evidence of a cyber-attack has been suggested. The impact of the outage highlights however the complexity, interconnectivity and fragility of modern business systems. Robust business continuity / disaster recovery capabilities and well-planned and regularly drilled disruption management processes are the necessary response.

Brexit, Domestic and European Security Implications

A central thread in political discourse in the UK and across Europe is post-BREXIT security. Former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg claimed that the UK will lose access to Schengen Information System (SIS) II systems on leaving the European Union. 61 Security experts have advised Prime Minister Theresa May of the need to ensure continued access to intelligence databases after Brexit 62. Alternative views suggest that there will be little or no impact on UK intelligence capabilities. 63 Britain’s role in transnational European policing structures and organisations such as Europol are important considerations. Czech officials have highlighted the need for ongoing security co-operation across Europe to tackle terrorist networks and organised crime 64, a sentiment shared across EU member states.

A key analysis report from the RAND Corporation, Defence and Security after Brexit: understanding the possible implication of the UK’s decision to leave the EU  is an excellent source for further critical evaluation. The report discusses a broad range of issues including counter-terrorism and organised crime, migration and border security, defence spending and research, and Scotland and the nuclear deterrent. Key findings of the report include “Defence may be less immediately affected by Brexit than areas such as labour policy or trade. Much international defence cooperation takes place through NATO or bilaterally — as will remain the case after the UK leaves the EU 65.”

Following the election of French President, Emmanuel Macron, the future of the Le Touquet agreement 66 was raised. Under this agreement, Britain operates a juxtaposed border on French soil. A resurgence of migrant activity around the French port of Calais has been reported 67 raising questions about effective (yet proportionate) border security management pre and post-Brexit.

Coverage of the 20th anniversary of the election of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair focused on the legacy of the Iraq war and its effect on international terrorism. Blair confirmed his return to front line, anti-Brexit politics 68 suggesting that the UK would want to re-join the EU 69. John Wright’s article 70 in Russia Today (RT) offered a particularly stinging assessment of Blair’s return.

References

  1. Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. 2017. https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmniaf/49/49.pdf.
  2. Evans M, Ward V, Mendick R, Farmer B, Dixon H, Boyle D. Everything we know about Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abedi. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/26/everything-know-manchester-suicide-bomber-salman-abedi/. Published May 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
  3. White S. Murdered WPc Yvonne Fletcher deserves justice, not just remembrance. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/19/murdered-wpc-yvonne-fletcher-deserves-justice-not-just-remembrance/. Published May 19, 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
  4. Home Office. CONSOLIDATED LIST OF FINANCIAL SANCTIONS TARGETS IN THE UK REGIME : Terrorism and Terrorist Financing.; 2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/611611/terrorism.pdf.
  5. Home Affairs Select Committee. Home Affairs Committee Hate crime : abuse , hate and extremism online. 2017;(May). https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmhaff/609/609.pdf.
  6. Graham C. NHS cyber attack: Everything you need to know about “biggest ransomware” offensive in history. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/13/nhs-cyber-attack-everything-need-know-biggest-ransomware-offensive/. Published May 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
  7. BBC News. Ariana Grande to play Manchester benefit concert on Sunday. BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-40086336. Published May 2017. Accessed May 31, 2017.
  8. BBC News. Reality Check: Why does the Prevent strategy divide opinion? BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-40060325. Published May 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
  9. BBC News. Caroline Lucas calls for review of “toxic” Prevent strategy. BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-40078431. Published May 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
  10. Murray D. Does Andy Burnham regret his opposition to the “Prevent” strategy? https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/05/andy-burnham-regret-opposition-prevent-strategy/. Published May 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
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  16. Hill M. “We need more resources – not laws – to deal with the terrorism threat.” The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/27/need-resources-not-laws-deal-terrorism-threat-writes-max/. Published May 27, 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
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  21. Drury I. Major powers to ban jihadis from returning to UK only used once. Mail Online. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/~/article-4550994/index.html. Published May 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
  22. Mahfouz HF. Coptic Christians describe bus attack in Egypt: “Even the little children were targets.” Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/06/01/coptic-christians-describe-bus-attack-in-egypt-even-the-little-children-were-targets/?utm_term=.c5c960487259. Published 2017. Accessed June 2, 2017.
  23. BBC News. Egypt Coptic Church cuts back Easter celebrations after attacks. BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39592881. Published April 13, 2017. Accessed June 2, 2017.
  24. Nimmons S. Christians Targeted as Chaos Spreads across Egypt. Times of Israel. http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/christians-targeted-as-chaos-spreads-across-egypt/. Published 2013. Accessed June 2, 2017.
  25. Dwyer C. U.K. Raises Threat Level To “Critical”; Attack “May Be Imminent.” NRP. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/23/529742798/pm-raises-threat-level-to-critical-in-u-k-says-attack-may-be-imminent. Published May . Accessed May 30, 2017.
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  27. Maidment J. Jeremy Corbyn condemned over “crass” and “appalling” timing of speech linking UK military action to terrorism. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/26/jeremy-corbyn-condemned-crass-appalling-timing-speech-linking/. Published May 2017. Accessed May 31, 2017.
  28. Boyle D. Manchester bombing latest: Investigation making “immense” progress as police ’get hold of “large part of terror network.” The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/26/manchester-arena-bombing-salman-abedi-latest-updates/. Published May 2017. Accessed May 31, 2017.
  29. Bell J. There’s a difference: Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd refuses to condemn IRA Manchester bombing. Belfast Telegraph. http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2017/theres-a-difference-sinn-feins-john-odowd-refuses-to-condemn-ira-manchester-bombing-35766113.html. Published 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
  30. Doherty S. Former head of Cobra calls for internment of terror suspects. Belfast Telegraph. http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/uk/former-head-of-cobra-calls-for-internment-of-terror-suspects-35750960.html. Published 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
  31. Millward D. 7/7 Met Police officer calls for internment of Islamic extremists. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/28/77-met-police-officer-calls-internment-islamic-extremists/. Published May 28, 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
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  35. Crime Correspondent SOCR| JS. Westminster knife suspect volunteered for Gaza aid convoy. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/westminster-knife-suspect-volunteered-for-gaza-aid-convoy-b6mtv7h9f. Accessed May 1, 2017.
  36. Dodd V. Westminster terrorism suspect claimed he was approached by MI5. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/apr/30/westminster-terrorism-suspect-claimed-he-was-approached-by-mi5. Published April 2017. Accessed May 1, 2017.
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  39. BBC News. Theresa May: Online extremism “must be tackled.” BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-40052471. Published May 26, 2017. Accessed June 2, 2017.
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  42. Hopkins N. Facebook struggles with “mission impossible” to stop online extremism. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/may/24/facebook-struggles-with-mission-impossible-to-stop-online-extremism. Published May 24, 2017.
  43. Arthur C. Theresa May wants to tackle online extremism. Here’s how to do it. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/26/theresa-may-online-extremisim-google-facebook-twitter-manchester. Published May 26, 2017.
  44. Robert R. The Turkish government has explained why it blocked Wikipedia. The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/turkey-blocks-wikipedia-refusal-to-delete-articles-terrorism-co-operation-erdogan-media-censorship-a7710491.html. Published April 2017. Accessed May 1, 2017.
  45. Michael T. ISIS “building its own secret social network to rival Facebook.” The Sun. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/3482174/isis-secret-social-media-platform-to-rival-facebook/. Published May 4, 2017. Accessed June 2, 2017.
  46. Press Association. Europol flags up 2,000 items in online terrorist content blitz – AOL UK. AOL. http://www.aol.co.uk/news/2017/05/02/europol-flags-up-2-000-items-in-online-terrorist-content-blitz/. Published 2017. Accessed May 3, 2017.
  47. Arthur C. The ransomware attack is all about the insufficient funding of the NHS. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/13/nhs-computer-systems-insufficient-funding. Published May 13, 2017. Accessed May 30, 2017.
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  51. Australian Associated Press. Militants using gift cards to bankroll terrorism, intelligence agency says. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/may/02/militants-using-gift-cards-to-bankroll-terrorism-intelligence-agency-says. Published May 2, 2017. Accessed May 2, 2017.
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A full copy of the May 2017 Defence, Security and Policing Digest can be downloaded.

About Steve Nimmons

Eur Ing Steve Nimmons FBCS CITP FIET CEng FRSA FLS FSA Scot MCIJ is a technology entrepreneur and writer with interests in Digital Innovation and Digital Transformation in Defence, Security and Policing.