Sir Charles Farr
Tuesday, April 14th, 2020
MuslimView was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Sir Charles Farr in February last year. One of the most senior individuals working in British counter-terrorism, his passing was mentioned through a notice of the Cabinet Office and yet it is an indication of his contribution that he was made a Knight by the Queen just before he passed. His contribution to British counter-terrorism and the security of the United Kingdom is without parallel.
To understand the contribution of Sir Charles Farr, we must go back to the time after the July 7 bombings. The UK government was still reeling from the disastrous decision to support the US invasion of Iraq and terrorist attacks in London had brought home the danger that many in the security services had warned against. Personnel in the security services around this time and from 2001 onwards tended to be Northern Ireland specialists and there were very few senior officers working in counter-terrorism who understood the new threat from Muslim terrorists let alone knowing how to structure a governmental response to it. Sir Charles Farr was one of those very few individuals who knew his way around the various Islamic groupings. He therefore understood the problem and how to deal with it.
This became clear to those Muslims who would meet him and walk away impressed not only with his knowledge of the issues but also his openness to debate. He was an intelligent, confident and open man. This made a difference from previous candidates who struggled to understand the difference between Hizb ut Tehrir and Tablighi Jamat. Truth be told, the British government – for whatever reason – came late to this debate.
Sir Charles Farr’s ascension to the top of British counter-terrorism came with the formation of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office in 2007. This was after the Home Secretary at the time – John Reid – decried the Home Office as not fit for purpose. Farr was made the Director-General of the OSCT after he was brought in from ‘the Foreign Office’ having worked in South Africa and Jordan in the past. Prevent was managed from here. At around this time, there was considerable engagement with key parts of the British Muslim community and prevent was not ‘toxic’ in the way it is regarded today. It is difficult to tell from the outside, but Farr seems to have taken an important lead in making British counter-terrorism fit for purpose.
This was upended with the ideological turn that David Cameron initiated in 2011 with his speech in Munich in which he called for a muscular liberalism to be a key plank of the prevent strategy. Farr was always more practical – seeking to focus on deradicalization of extremists – than ideological. By 2015 he was moved from his position as Director General of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism to be the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee which overseas intelligence assessments from across government, MI6, MI5, GCHQ and defence intelligence.
There is no doubt in our mind that the knowledge and expertise that Sir Charles Farr brought to the debate on counter-terrorism made the United Kingdom a safer place. It our earnest hope that there are individuals within British counter-terrorism who can adequately replace him to ensure that the highest standards of safety and security are maintained.
There are many people who disagreed with aspects of his approach including his request for increasing levels of surveillance which became known as the Snooper’s Charter. This was ultimately not passed. Amnesty International and Liberty amongst others also legally challenged GCHQ’s attempts to monitor personal communications such as those on Facebook, Twitter and Google. However, his contribution through his knowledge and understanding remains unrivalled.
Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill said “His rigorous judgement, penetrating analysis and natural authority will truly be missed. He dedicated his entire career to keeping our citizens safe and the country secure, and the nation owes him a huge debt. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this sad time.”
Former Prime Minister Theresa May, for whom Farr worked at the Home Office, said he was “an outstanding public servant who dedicated his life to national security. As home secretary and prime minister, I valued his commitment, expertise and advice enormously.”
David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister stated on Twitter: “Very sad to hear that Charles Farr has passed away. A kind and thoughtful man and a pleasure to work with, he was a loyal civil servant, providing invaluable service and expertise to government and was committed to keeping our country safe and secure”.
Tony McNulty, who was the Labour security minister at the time of Farr’s appointment stated: “This is so sad. I was the security minister when Charles joined the Home Office as the head of the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) and he was an excellent civil servant, with real vision and depth and a pleasure to work with.”
The think tank on security affairs, the Royal United Services Institute, stated on its website: “Sir Charles was not only a gifted and dedicated senior civil servant, but also exceptional in his determination to engage the broader expertise of the academic and think-tank community in the task of analysing and interpreting intelligence information. All those who had the privilege of working with him would attest to his determination and razor-sharp attention to detail, but also to his ability to take seriously counter-arguments to the prevailing views of the intelligence community. Sir Charles was acutely aware of the danger of ‘group-think’.”
Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, stated “Sir Charles was fearless, forensic and single-minded; he asked the best questions and was never satisfied with anything less than a compelling answer. I never worked with anyone who better embodied Civil Service values: honest, impartial, objective and defined by his integrity.”
Thomas Drew, the High Commissioner to Pakistan, stated: “One of the most brilliant people I have had the privilege of working for and with.” Simon Manley, the British Ambassador to Spain, stated “Brilliant, committed, genuinely inspirational: an honour to have worked with him on counter terrorism.”
Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, said: “So very sad to hear about Charles Farr. Since 2005 I have seen his extraordinary work keeping the Olympics and our country safe. Decent, hardworking, impartial and brilliant. The loss of his knowledge and commitment is awful”. Neil Basu, Senior National Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism Policing, wrote: “The entire Counter Terrorism Policing network is saddened to hear of the death of Charles Farr. He played a significant role in helping us build a strong and effective counter terrorism capability across the UK. It was an honour to have worked with him.”