The chilling effect of a brutally simple style of terror

Posted: June 5, 2017 in Financial Times
Tags: , , , ,

Another short piece from this weekend in the wake of the atrocity in London Bridge this time for the Financial Times. Will catch up on other posting as soon as possible, though things at the moment are quite busy.

The Chilling Effect of a Brutally Simple Style

London attack comes as Isis is losing territory, making life harder for security forces

Back in May 2013 two radicalised young Britons ran a car into an off-duty soldier outside his London barracks, leapt out and butchered Lee Rigby as he lay in the street. Brutal in its simplicity and effectiveness, this has become a style terrorist groups champion as they seek to bring horror to our streets. It was used in Saturday’s London attack, in which at least seven were murdered — and has made security agencies’ lives markedly harder.

As low-tech attacks have proliferated, the terror threat facing the UK has escalated. Since Khalid Masood staged his car and knife offensive on Westminster in late March, there have been two successful attacks and five failed ones.

The Manchester suicide bomb last month and the London attack appear to have been produced by conspiracy rather than lone individuals. This is a worrying development given that until recently the analysis of the threat picture suggested the latter were the greatest concern. The use of a sophisticated device in Manchester suggests Salman Abedi had contact with others before killing himself and 22 others at an Ariana Grande concert. The London atrocity involved at least three people — the suspected attackers killed by police.

Looking abroad, terrorist groups have been pushing people to launch attacks whenever and however they can — particularly in this holy month of Ramadan. Isis pumps out a stream of messages, exhorting the use of knives, cars or other tools to kill “crusaders”. In a recent post, the group told people to wear fake suicide vests to confuse authorities — just as the London attackers are reported to have done.

Two weeks ago Hamza bin Laden — the son of Osama bin Laden, who is trying to reinvent himself as the leader of al-Qaeda — issued his own advice for “martyrdom seekers” in the west. They need not use “a military tool. If you are able to pick a firearm, well and good; if not, the options are many”.

All this comes as Isis is losing territory and it is becoming harder for prospective jihadis to travel to such battlefields. This denies terrorist groups space to plan but also creates two new categories of concern: returnees who have fought on these battlefields and blocked travellers who retain the radical impulse. These categories are added to the long list of individuals already of concern to security agencies. In the UK there are 500 under investigation, according to Ben Wallace, security minister, and 3,000 of active interest. There are a further 20,000 in a wider ring including people on the fringes of investigations going back years. In other words, security agencies are managing a roster of dangerous extremists from which it is almost impossible ever to remove names. Individuals such as Masood, investigated a decade ago on the edge of plots, may return to strike years later so agencies must stay alert to them.

A successful attack is by definition a failure by security agencies. In the case of London and Manchester, it is not yet clear whether we are looking at a lack of analysis, intelligence or capacity — or whether the threat has suddenly grown more acute and overwhelming. Whatever the answer, the question will become central to political debate, particularly given the proximity of the attacks to the general election.

Prime Minister Theresa May has pointed to the need to deal with ideology and “safe space” — online and offline. There will also be ever-louder questions about whether the security agencies have the resources to manage an engorged threat — as well as how they manage sometimes fraught relations with allies in Washington and Europe.

But it is clear that the current strategy — seeking to deal with the threats through a four-pillar approach of “prevent, pursue, protect and prepare” — is merely managing a problem that appears to be getting worse.

The writer is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute and author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life’
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