Further catching up on posting, this time a piece from this Thursday’s Telegraph looking at the juxtaposition with the fall of Raqqa and MI5 head Andrew Parker’s menacing round of interviews about the nature of the threat that is currently faced. Additionally, spoke to the Independent around the story, the Wall Street Journal about the lack of more attacks with foreign fighters in Europe, the Arab News about the threat from peripherals on terrorist networks, the Financial Times about London’s preparations to counter terrorism, to Sky News about the UK government’s issues with social media companies and terrorism, to the Independent again about the Las Vegas shooter, and on the other side of the coin, to the Financial Times about a visit by the PLAN to the UK as part of a global tour and UK-China military relations.

It’s not Isil’s returning terrorists we should worry about. It’s those who are already here

An anti-Isil commander celebrates in the main square of Raqqa, October 17, 2017 CREDIT: BULENT KILIC/AFP/GETTY

On the same day that Raqqa fell, the head of MI5 Andrew Parker gave a set of interviews in which he talks about facing the most severe threat that he has seen in his over three decades working in the intelligence agencies. This dissonant set of messages highlights the degree to which the terrorist threat that the UK is facing has transformed.

From a terrifying but comprehensible phenomenon directed by surreptitious foreign networks, we are now facing a confusing and diffuse one whose link to terrorist organisations is ever looser.

Isil’s loss of territory has not produced the surge in terrorist plots that was expected. Since the beginning of the year, the UK has faced five successful terrorist attacks – and yet, with the possible exception of the Manchester bombing, none have involved foreign fighters. Rather than the individuals who went off to fight in Syria and Iraq, the threat comes from individuals who are still at home.

In some ways this lack of a sudden surge is not surprising. The notion of an uptick in threat from foreign fighters after the collapse of the Caliphate was predicated on the notion that Isil was somehow holding themselves back – saving the potential strikes back home until they were at their weakest point. This clearly lacks much connection with reality, where we can see that the group has been consistently shouting, directing and instigating terrorist plots in the West for the past three years.

What has changed, however, is the nature of the threat back home, where we continue to see individuals being mobilized by extreme ideologies but finding it harder to travel. Instead, a community of frustrated travellers is developing around the world, at a moment when the ideology and methodology of what constitutes a terrorist attack has become diffuse to the point that it is indistinguishable from random acts of social violence.

This helps explain the picture that we are seeing at the moment. A threat abroad appears to be decreasing (through loss of territory, capability and manpower) just as a different sort of threat is expressing itself at home. But there is still an important question to be asked about what is going to happen to those individuals who went abroad to fight. Even according to Andrew Parker’s latest figures, at least a few hundred are still out on the loose somewhere.

What these individuals will do is going to be determined in large part by their reasons for going to Syria in the first place. For some, the motivation to go and fight was ideologically pure and focused abroad. They were going to fight motivated by a sense of injustice, a driving sense of religious duty or a desire to defend the Syrian people. For them, it is possible that the fight in Syria and Iraq is just the first stage in a long life of constant struggle. Among the first foreign fighters to the battlefield in Syria were fighters who had toppled Libyan leader Gaddafi.

For others, the motivation was more selfish – seeking to flee a chequered past back home and gain redemption on the battlefield. Still others were drawn by friends, family, a sense of adventure or some other reason which now leaves them stranded in a conflict zone. Some will possibly change sides to continue fighting in Syria; some will settle down in some ungoverned space; others will die, and yet others will move on to further zones of conflict. Few went out in the first instance to come back home and be terrorists. Most were driven by a desire to do something abroad.

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and Iraqi army members in a series of armoured vehicles gather on the outskirts of Hawija, Iraq October 4, 2017. Thick smoke billows on the horizon in front of them
Iraqi forces and Shi’ite militia gather on the outskirts of Hawija during a campaign against IsilCREDIT: STRINGER/REUTERS

In many ways it is to the affiliates that we should most worry about the foreign fighter flow. In places like Sinai, the Philippines, Libya, parts of Central or Southeast Asia or Afghanistan, there are locations were Isil affiliates are taking root. Those that can accept these battle-hardened warriors will welcome them, enhancing a range of problems that until now have appeared deeply localised. Local governments have varying degrees of capability to manage these problems. In the fullness of time, one of these affiliates may pick up the banner of the global organization and become the new Isil core.

The threat comes from when these affiliates decide to launch attacks against the West, either in their immediate neighbourhood, or further afield. The base in Libya has already produced a number of problems in Europe – this may grow. Others may start to express themselves too. But MI5’s attention is apparently on the domestic situation, where instead the difficulty lies in the fact that they are facing a threat that is increasingly hard to predict. A community of individuals who once seemed peripheral are now becoming the main danger.

Raqqa has now fallen. Isil is not yet finished. But at the same time, terrorism has already evolved into a new form that security services are struggling to manage. Foreign fighters will undoubtedly be part of the picture, but, currently at least, they are not where the core of the problem lies.

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Late posting of a new piece for the South China Morning Post, looking at foreign fighters from Syria heading back to China.

China should beware of ‘returning radicals’ whether they come home or not

The goal of the Turkestan Islamic Party is to punish China for what has been happening in Xinjiang, and it will do so wherever it can

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 10:01pm

The threat of returnees from Syria and Iraq is the threat that has not yet barked in the way that was expected.

While thousands of radicalised individuals from around the world streamed to fight in Syria, we have not yet seen the same outflow of individuals off the battlefield with direction to launch attacks back in their home countries. There have been some incidents, but it is still unclear whether this threat will express itself in the same way as the flow the other way.

When it does, however, China is one of the countries that should be particularly concerned by what happens to this flow.

In research undertaken in 2015, prominent terrorism researcher Thomas Hegghammer showed how terrorist plots featuring returnee foreign fighters were among the most lethal. Using a data set focused mostly on foreign fighters from the West, the research highlighted how individuals who had received some form of training or experience on the battlefield, tended to be more able to launch effective terrorist plots back home.

There is a logic to this: those who are experienced on the field are more likely to have training to make bombs or use other weapons (and therefore be more effective), they will be more desensitised to violence and therefore more willing to kill, and they are more likely to have the necessary contacts with terrorist networks and leadership.

But at the same time, being a foreign fighter does not necessarily equate to becoming a terrorist at home. Many foreign fighters are motivated by idealistic goals, seeking the thrill of fighting in foreign fields to protect communities of brother Muslims. Their initial intent is not to launch terrorist attacks at home, and while some (London’s July 2005 bombers are a good example of this) are re-directed on the battlefield by senior figures to launch attacks back home, the overwhelming majority do not have this in the forefront of their minds when they travel in the first place.

This stands in contrast to what we see in those who have gone from China to fight in Syria and Iraq. Watch the videos or statements from the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) in Syria and you can see messaging that is quite clearly aimed at persuading people to come and fight in Syria to ultimately prepare to return home to China. Videos show the oppressive situation in Xinjiang and call for people to come to Syria to a better life to prepare to rectify the situation.

Islamic State messaging to Uygurs has been more limited, though we have seen the group issue direct threats to China from its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as through its Uygur warriors who have published magazines and videos threatening China.

In its first message in Uygur in March this year, IS threatened to “shed blood like rivers” in China and against Chinese interests. While on the one hand this can be dismissed to some degree as fairly standard threatening by these groups against anyone that they see lined up against them, when looking to China in particular the threat takes a different dimension.

TIP’s goal (and Islamic State’s in some ways) is to forge an army that will be able to return to punish China for what has been happening in Xinjiang. And there is already some evidence that they have tried to do this – the attack last year against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, may have been a failure, but it showed a growing ambition by Uygur extremists to target China. And while returning home to China may prove to be too difficult, launching attacks on Chinese interests around the world may prove easier.

This is important for China to note. While in many other countries, the radical impulse that motivates people to go and become foreign fighters may have in part been addressed by the experience in Syria and Iraq, for those who have come from China, it appears as though the experience was merely preparation for what is to come later. And while this is not to reduce the potential threat that foreign fighters pose around the world, the overarching dynamic of the community is likely to be different for those coming from China versus other places.

For most Uygur fighters, they are going away to train and prepare to ultimately return and punish China for years of perceived oppression. Given the numbers and training they will have received, this is something which is going to trouble Chinese security officials for some time to come.

On the one hand, there is a clear need to find a way to address the causes of grievance that can be found in Xinjiang. The current hard line approach needs some moderating to try to assuage people’s concerns rather than exacerbate anger. But at the same time, Beijing needs to think about the growing impact of this group of radicalised and battle-hardened individuals around the world.

As China has increasingly gone out into the world, its human footprint has increased, producing numerous potential targets. If its warriors off the battlefield in Syria and Iraq are unable to return home, they are likely to find ways of striking China elsewhere.

This is likely to produce a network and threat that China will be addressing for years to come. Beijing needs to both solve its problems at home, as well as find a way of protecting itself abroad.

Another short comment piece for London’s Evening Standard in the wake of the Parsons Green incident, and a brief discussion with Sky News.

Low-level plots like Parsons Green need even more vigilance


Armed police patrol in Westminster Underground station following the attack last week Getty Images

London has now faced its fourth terrorist attack this year. As details emerge, new peculiarities are uncovered. The brutal reality, though, is that low-level terror plots like that at Parsons Green are becoming the norm.

This is not a tacit admission of defeat, but rather a warning that we are facing an increasingly diffuse threat. This means we all have to be alert, while the authorities need to maintain and even step up the tempo of their effort to stay ahead of the threat.

There are some novel peculiarities around the Parsons Green attack. A bomb left on an Underground train with a timer is something that had not been seen for some time. Most recent bombers seemed to have had suicidal intent.

While most recent plots have been conducted by UK-born individuals, the potential presence of refugees in this attack is not entirely new.  IS’s pro-forma claim to be behind the attack lacks evidence of prior knowledge, but it is perfectly possible those responsible may have assimilated some of its ideology.

This is the larger context that the authorities are contending with: a threat made up of disparate individuals launching attacks using rudimentary and home-made means. The time it takes for them to be galvanised into action continues to shrink, and terrorist groups are emitting an ever more basic message to encourage sympathisers to launch attacks.

Given the easy access and diffuse nature of the ideology and attack methods it becomes very difficult to maintain complete cover. On top of this, the authorities are seeing more individuals who were previously under suspicion moving back into current investigations, and a continuing inflow of people from troubled areas — a limited number of whom may arrive with lethal intent.

The good news is that all terrorists are finding it increasingly difficult to launch large-scale coordinated plots.

The greater danger appears to be among the broader community from whom terrorists come. More work needs to be done tying together the many different information streams that authorities have access to and more thought given to how to prioritise them. And the pressure needs to be kept up in keeping known figures under adequate surveillance.

But there is a role for the public too. There is an onus on us Londoners to keep our eyes open.

As a child in London, I recall constant public campaigns about potential IRA devices on public transport. Tubes were held up by abandoned bags, but many attacks were prevented. There needs to be a return to this approach. We all need to keep our eyes open to protect the society in which we live.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

A short piece for the Telegraph in the wake of yesterday’s incident at Parsons Green underground station in London. Spoke to the BBC, Washington Post and Sun in its wake. Am sure there will be more on this plot in due course, still not clear exactly what took place.

After the Parsons Green tube bombing, what can we do to protect our public transport network?

Public transport by its nature has to be open. This makes it user-friendly to the audience for which it is intended: commuters, travelers, and ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, it also leaves it exposed to people eager to do us harm.

The latest attack on London’s transport system, on a Tube train at Parson’s Green station, is a reminder of this, and it raises uneasy questions about what can be done to protect us all as we go about our business. It also raises further questions about the nature of threat that we face and how we have to adapt to this seemingly low spattering of terrorist incidents which have now become the depressing norm.

It is still too early to understand the motivations of the bomber. With no indication of any ideological goal, nor any claim of responsibility, it is impossible to know at this stage. But it is possible to look back across the recent past and see an increasingly diffuse and confusing threat picture. This year alone, we have four successful attacks – three Islamist and one inspired by the far Right. They are bracketed by seemingly damaged Damon Smith, who left a bomb on the Jubilee line in October 2016 and an aspirant violent Islamist who drove to Buckingham Palace with a samurai sword last month.

Outside the Manchester bombing, the devices and weapons have been rudimentary, using household items to launch random attacks. The individuals are often known to authorities, but in some cases come from nowhere. But they are consistent in their intent to strike fear into the public.

Public transport is an obvious target for this. They are arteries of our cities; they get us all where we want to go. To strike at them is to hit the hearts of our cities and societies and damage the economy that underpins everything.

And this very fluidity is what makes it so hard to protect them. To erect airport-style security at every railway station would not only increase costs and times substantially, but would become a physical impediment at their height of the rush hour, which would create large crowds of people outside stations. Those crowds would in themselves become tempting targets for any bomber or shooter.

In addition there is the perennial question of where one would draw the boundaries of this security bubble. The public transport system of London alone is hugely complex and sprawling. If if we follow the logic of the threat picture becoming more diffuse and scattered, we also raise the issue of which public transport system around the country should not be subject to the same sorts of security blanket. A long-distance service from Euston to Glasgow or a tram on the Manchester metro is just as vulnerable in principle as the Tube.

The answer, as ever, lies in a response that reflects the threat picture. There are numerous public awareness campaigns active aimed at getting the public to be watchful to the potential threats, and these appear to be delivering some success. Damon Smith’s device was picked up by alert passengers. This message needs to continue to be driven home.

Beyond this, the authorities need to continue to play their role in disrupting networks, staying on top of a confusing threat picture and responding as quickly as possible to events that take place. The situation nowadays is such that it is almost impossible to guarantee complete security, but by maintaining a tight lid on the threat we are fortunately only seeing relatively limited impact events getting through. This, atop a public awareness of what is going, on is the likely medium term answer to the severe threat Britain now faces.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the defence think tank Rusi

The culmination of a more extended piece of work I have been doing around my usual obligations with the BBC (for the programme Inside Out) looking at the phenomenon of online instigation and direction by ISIS in seeking to launch attacks in the UK. Acting as frontman for the piece, the real work was done by Zack, Claire, Dippy and some undercover reporters. We shot it around London using material from online conversations by undercover reports with Junaid Hussain and other ISIS plotters. Zack wrote the piece up for the BBC, and the piece got picked up by Associated Press/Guardian, Daily Mail, Metro, Times, and Mirror. For those of you in the UK, you can see the show on the BBC iPlayer for the next month (and maybe more as it is going to be screened on the BBC News Channel as well), in addition for those of you internationally, it is going to be screened on the BBC World News at these times. Finally, Zack and myself published the below piece with the Telegraph.

Beyond this, since the last update, spoke to the Independent about the terror threat to the UK, to Sky about assessment of the difference between the threats at home and from foreign fighters returning, to Newsweek and The National about the Barcelona attack, to National Public Radio about the broader threats to Europe, and to the Daily Mail about the possibility of chemical attacks in the UK. Finally, spoke to the Financial Times about geopolitical security clashes with China in the seas.

How Isil’s shadowy ‘online manipulators’ lure Britons into committing terrorist attacks

The man on the other end of the line was called Junaid Hussain. He was speaking to an undercover reporter through an encrypted chat application; it was the middle of 2015. “Do something over there in the heart of the crusader army,” he told the reporter. He meant London.

Birmingham-born Junaid had been in Syria for two years at that point. Soon afterwards, he would die in an American drone strike. But he had enough time to make his mark in the world of jihadist terrorism as one of the most active and earliest “online manipulators” – steering people into terrorist attacks in the West solely on the basis of commands they receive through social media and encrypted applications.

Earlier this year, the UK was indeed struck by a series of terrorist attacks. The full detail of what went on in each case is still unclear. But, as Ben Wallace, Minister of State for Security told us during our investigation into this phenomenon, the use of encrypted communications “is common throughout every single one of these incidents.”

In much the same way that the rest of us have increasingly come to rely on communications applications to maintain our social relationships, terrorists have also moved into this space. In one sense, this is merely a reflection of the fact that terrorists come from the same societies as those they target. But what Isil has become particularly adept at doing is manipulating these relationships from great distances to push people to launch terrorist attacks.

The way in which this happens is surprisingly elementary. Our investigators would in the first instance make contact with the online Isil activists through their public social media profiles. People like Junaid were very active online using Twitter and Facebook and in essence used these profiles as honeypots to draw people to themselves. Once the contact had been established, the conversation would often move into an encrypted channel through WhatsApp, Telegram, Kik or Surespot.

Here, a more intense conversation would take place, with the radical asking the recruit to prove their bona fides, and direct them to parts of the dark web where they could find guides about how to make bombs, plan lone actor terrorist attacks or mask their activity. Throughout this conversation, the recruiter would be constantly exhorting the target to launch an attack, talking about potential targets, highlighting other successful incidents and pushing our investigators to undertake their own attack.

Junaid was just one of a number of online instigators our investigators spoke to. Others suggested the idea of attacking Westminster or London Bridge, and directed them to material on the dark web that showed how to use vehicles as weapons, where to stab people for maximum effect, and how to create a fake suicide vest. They suggested this was useful as it would stop police from attacking you, giving you more time to attack. Junaid was even more ambitious, suggesting that “we can train you [in] how to make bombs.”

This is the beating heart of the online terror threat. Clearly radical material disseminated online will fan the flames of ideas, and mean that groups like Isil will be able to maintain their notoriety and draw people to themselves. But it is the online manipulation that is turning these long-distance online relationships into terrorist attacks, and individuals like Junaid are able to manipulate people into launching attacks that are difficult to prevent in western capitals.

The answer to this is complicated. There is possibly more that companies could do in terms of the speed of their response. But the reality is that they are as unable to get into these applications as the rest of the world. End-to-end encryption is designed to keep everyone – even its creators – out. And while government can spend more money on staff and surveillance, when the style of attack is so individual, basic and diffuse, it becomes very difficult to maintain complete control.

Online manipulation is one of the most menacing current expressions of terrorism. Until the groups are gone, and we have cracked the code of stopping people from being drawn towards terrorist ideologies, this form of threat will be with us.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at Rusi, and this article was co-authored by Zack Adesina, a senior producer at the BBC. Their film ‘Terror by Text’ airs on Inside Out on BBC1 at 19:30 on Monday September 4.

Catching up posting as ever, this another piece for South China Morning Post looking at China’s problems along the Belt and Road with reference to current tensions with India potentially being an indicator of what could happen more substantially.

China must get along with regional powers to make its New Silk Road plan work

Raffaello Pantucci writes that Beijing is seeking to increase its presence in regions where it is going to need more friends than enemies, including India

Geopolitics matters. As we move deeper into a multipolar world, the importance of grand strategy will only grow. Relations between states at a strategic, economic and even emotional level will all intertwine to create a complicated web that will require sophisticated diplomacy to navigate. For China this is a particularly important lesson to learn, given its keynote “Belt and Road Initiative” that requires an acquiescent and peaceful world to deliver on its promise of building a web of trade and economic corridors emanating from China and tying the Middle Kingdom to the world. China’s current stand-off with India highlights exactly how geopolitics can disrupt Xi Jinping’s foreign policy legacy initiative.

The details of the specific transgression within this context are not entirely important. China is asserting itself in its border regions and changing facts on the ground to solidify claims. Indian push-back is based on strategic relations with Bhutan that go back a long way and a concern about how this changes Indian capabilities on the ground.

It comes at a time when relations between China and India are particularly low, with suspicion on both sides. Most analysts do not seem to think we are going to end up with conflict, but it is not clear at the moment what the off-ramp looks like. But whatever this exit looks like, we are undoubtedly going to see China finding it tougher to advance its Belt and Road Initiative through India’s perceived or real spheres of influence in South Asia.

This is something which is already visible in the broader tensions between China and India over Pakistan. China has focused on the country as a major ally that it is supporting to develop its domestic economy and improve its strategic capacity for a variety of reasons. Yet this approach directly undermines Pakistan’s perennial adversary India’s current approach of isolating Islamabad on the international stage as punishment for cross-border terrorism.

Further, the CPEC route’s cutting through disputed territories in Kashmir provides a further spur to Indian concerns. At a more tactical level, China’s refusal to allow Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar to be included on the list of proscribed terrorists, and its blockage of Indian entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, all point to a relationship with which Beijing is clearly playing an aggressive hand. India has also shown itself to be a hardball player in this regard, making public shows of proximity to the Dalai Lama, a source of major concern to China.

Of course, such a posture is either capital’s prerogative. Past relations between China and India have been fraught. The two countries have fought wars against each other. Yet at the same time, the overall tenor between the two is often in a different direction: both are proud members of the BRICS grouping (arguably the two leaders of it), and both have embraced the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. India is keen to gain a slice of the outbound Chinese investment, while China is keen to access India’s markets. Both see the opportunities and recognise that as Asian giants they have an upward trajectory over the next few decades. Together they will undoubtedly be stronger than alone.

But this positive message is thoroughly buried under the negative news around the border spat in Bhutan. Rather than being able to build a productive relationship, the two countries now find themselves at loggerheads. This is a problem for both, but has an important lesson within it for China as it seeks to advance its Belt and Road Initiative globally.

To be able to credibly realise the Belt and Road Initiative, China is going to need to have positive relations with partners on the ground, in particular major regional powers. With plans to build infrastructure, expand investments and grow physical footprints on the ground, Beijing is seeking to substantially increase its presence in regions where it is going to need more friends than enemies. When looking across South Asia, this means having a productive relationship with India. Without this, Delhi will find ways of complicating China’s approach or, more bluntly, obstructing it. Given the importance of some of the South Asian routes to the development of some of China’s poorest regions, it is important for Beijing to make sure that these corridors related to the Belt and Road plan live up to their promise.

And this lesson is one that will be relevant outside a South Asian context. For Beijing to be able to deliver on the promise of the Belt and Road Initiative, it is going to need to watch the geopolitics. Similar problems may eventually materialise with Russia, or on the seas as Beijing seeks to turn the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road into a reality.

Without friends along these routes, China is going to find it very difficult to make these visions work no matter how much money they try to throw at the problem. With nationals, companies and interests broadening and deepening, China needs an acquiescent environment and countries that are eager to work with it. Geopolitics is a chess game of many different levels, and as power becomes more diffuse on our planet, Beijing is going to have to learn how to play these games if it wants to deliver on the promise of its grand visions.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: It’ll be tough going without friends on the New Silk Road

A final piece after a busy week, this time in a first time for London’s Evening Standard. A somewhat downbeat piece, part of a series like this over the week that try to take a longer view on the current threat picture. Undoubtedly, there will be more on this topic to come.

Spoke to a few media outlets over the past few weeks. To Politico about al Muhajiroun after the London Bridge attack, to the National about the disrupted Sydney airplane plot, to Newsweek about Israel’s views on the war in Syria, and to ABC, ITV, New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian and the Globe and Mail about the Barcelona attacks.

Using vehicles in crowded streets is a desperate tactic by fanatics struggling to make a lasting impact

High alert: Spanish police patrol the streets of Barcelona the morning after the vehicle attack which killed 13 people
High alert: Spanish police patrol the streets of Barcelona the morning after the vehicle attack which killed 13 people Getty Images

A balmy summer’s evening once again disrupted by terrorism. Tourists mowed down as they enjoy their well-deserved holidays. The incidents in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, and later in the seaside resort of Cambrils — and the wider network that is being uncovered around it — reminds us once again of the threat from international terrorism that European cities face. It is only two months since London faced its last attack. It is unlikely that this will be the last.

Given that launching an “IS-style” attack is as easy as getting a knife or car and attacking random citizens, suddenly the group has sanctioned a vast range of potential activities. For the perpetrators this model is deeply appealing as it will elevate them from being individuals simply stabbing or driving people down to a holy warrior advancing a global cause. This is a classic win-win, with the organisation and individual benefiting from the atrocity without any particular demonstration of connection beyond the individual having possibly read the group’s material online at some point.

But in this case, the other incidents that authorities have confirmed, including the deaths of five men in Cambrils who were reportedly wearing fake suicide vests and a number of other arrests, suggest something more substantial. This could be IS, which has claimed responsibility, though it could also be al Qaeda or some other network — Barcelona, it is worth remembering, was the focus of a plot in January 2008 when a cell connected to the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was believed to be planning a suicide bomb attack on the city’s metro using perpetrators sent from Pakistan.

Yet it is not clear that it really matters any more who is responsible for such acts. Jihadist groups may have some sectarian and leadership differences but seen from the victims’ perspective they are all the same. The point is that terrorist groups are substantial and consistent in their desire to launch attacks against us. There is no actual dichotomy within IS or any terrorist group about launching either small-scale or large-scale attacks. These groups are dedicated to their cause and will do whatever they can deliver their brutal message to us. For them, launching small-scale attacks does not mean stopping attempting larger ones. From the security perspective, the appearance of more lower level-style attacks suggests a degree of success by security agencies as it suggests it has become too difficult to get bigger plots through.

Second attack: Armed police in Cambrils following a second attack in Spain (EPA)

Understanding attribution when it comes to the so-called Islamic State is not as easy as it sounds. The group has made an art out of spreading its extremist ideas and very basic attack methodologies as widely as possible. This means there are often terrorist attacks where individuals will launch an attack model emulating what is widely perceived as “IS-style”, without demonstrating any particular link to the group, and yet at the same time the group will claim them.

Al Qaeda first advocated the notion of using a car in mowing down the public in the October 2010 edition of its magazine Inspire. This methodology was in fact considered too much for the al Qaeda leadership, with Osama bin Laden reportedly reading the magazine in disgust and telling other acolytes that he did not consider this “proper terrorism”. Yet the methodology stuck in its simplicity, and while we saw a number of attempted or semi-attempted attacks deploying it, it was in Nice last year that its success was crystalised. The extremists leapt on this idea and issued repeated declarations in advance of this style of attack.

The difficulty for terrorist groups, however, is that as we see this patter of small-scale attacks become more regular, they will lose impact among the public. Clearly, individuals who have suffered directly in such incidents will never be the same after seeing such an incident close up. The sheer brutality of watching random fellow citizens mown down by a truck or stabbed in front of you will leave unspeakable psychological damage.

Armed police officers patrol a deserted street in Las Ramblas, in Barcelona, on Friday morning. (AP)

But while the individual may suffer, society overall will move on. And over time, lose interest in such atrocities. This is not a reflection of a lack of humanity but rather of the fact that for terrorism to be effective it must be shocking so the low-level campaign being waged now will lose its impact, something that will make individuals question whether they are willing to sacrifice themselves for this cause. Undoubtedly some still will, but increasingly this will be confused and damaged individuals whose ideological purity will be limited, and therefore will prove to be poor carriers of the extremist message that groups such as al Qaeda or IS are seeking to deliver.

This suggests that there is an end in sight for this style of attack. While it is doubtful that it will ever completely disappear (its simplicity suggests it will always prove to be a last resort for desperate individuals), it is also likely that we will see groups pushing towards more targeted or sophisticated efforts to re-assert their authority and deliver their message in a coherent fashion.

None of this will, of course, change the misery wrought in Barcelona. Terrorism has been a feature of organised human society for a long time — in Spain, prior to the current wave of Islamist terrorism, the separatist group ETA murdered hundreds in a campaign that lasted decades. But it is not clear that this path is sustainable for the terrorist organisations. While it provides a useful way of distracting security services and raising a cause, with limited broader public effect it is not advancing a strategic goal.

This ultimately is what terrorist groups are seeking to do: change the world and persuade us all of their message. If they cannot do this, they will fade away as supporters lose interest in such a clearly losing cause.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute