Twelve years on from the 7/7 atrocities, the terror threat has evolved. Have our defences?

Posted: July 18, 2017 in Telegraph
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Late to post this, as it was published over a week ago in the Telegraph on the anniversary of the July 7 bombings.

Twelve years on from the 7/7 atrocities, the terror threat has evolved. Have our defences?

We are always fighting the last war. As we reach the twelve year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 attacks it is worth taking stock of how much the threat picture from terrorism we face has changed, and ask whether our response has kept pace. From a terrorist threat that was directed by al-Qaeda using radicalised British nationals trained at camps in Pakistan, we are facing a threat of lone individuals launching confusing attacks with household weapons. It is not yet clear that our response has caught up.

Prior to 7/7 it was hard to conceptualize the fact that British nationals would commit suicide bombings at home. But once it happened, it became the norm, with security services spending much of the next decade countering similar plots. In doing so, they began to understand how the networks worked, what the processes and communications methods were, and how al-Qaeda saw British nationals as useful tools to strike against the West. Having understood the threat, they were able to develop measures to counter it, and find ways of getting into networks. What was once a source of strength, was steadily uncovered as a source of weakness, and security services adapted their practice to disrupt such networked plots.

But having closed one door, another opened. Still determined to launch attacks, terrorist groups have adapted and individuals now are instigated, inspired or directed remotely. The plots they are advancing are low tech and require little training. This shrinks the plotters footprint, making it much harder for security agencies to catch them in their nets. A link abroad still exists – and in some cases, like Salman Abedi in Manchester, a strong link – but the majority of cases appear to be more isolated with trace links abroad or to a broader radical milieu.

To counter this evolving menace a new posture needs to be taken. In the first instance, it is clear that more capacity is needed. This is something that has been clear for some time, and security agencies are growing – but this takes time to mature into useful capacity.

Second, we need to find a way of re-focusing and sharpening the way that residual or peripheral cases are managed. As we have seen in all three of the recent violent Islamist attacks in the UK, the individuals involved were people who had featured in previous investigations, but were never the main targets. Over time, the pool of individuals who fit into this category will only grow. While undoubtedly the Security Service will have to keep some attention on them, a new agency or cross-departmental team could be formed to instead focus on each case in a more intense fashion and to make sure they are getting off a path towards radicalisation. A methodical and refreshed look at them by a non-secret agency in light of the current threat picture might be useful and clear time for security agencies to focus on other priority cases.

Third, we need to get ahead of ideologies and methodologies. There are two parts to this: first, greater attention needs to be paid to the extreme right wing. It has a capacity to shock, cause misery and greater tensions that in turn exacerbate the violent Islamist threat. At the moment our focus is on violent Islamists, and yet we can see on the right wing a consistent pattern of threat and hints towards coordination and competence. Second, we need to explore new ways of mining and managing the data that is collected. The security agencies are clearly tracking new technologies that can support counter-terrorism analysis, but using AI may help throw up leads which are currently being missed among the mass of information. While this will never be completely accurate, given the disparate nature of the threat that is faced, and the manner in which it has recently kept popping out of the woodwork, it is worth considering whether something like this might help pick up some hidden leads.

Fourth, we need to have a more mature public conversation about the nature and reality of the threat that is faced and how safe we are from it. Statistically, there are innumerably more things that are threats to your health than terrorism. We are also not facing an existential threat. And we are unlikely to eradicate it in the near term future. All of these realities need to be discussed in a way that steers clear of the polemical side of the conversation that tends to crowd the public forum. Most organized human societies have faced terrorism in their histories – and in most cases they have survived. The few that have been changed have usually done so because of the overwhelming nature of the failures of governance by the power that was overthrown.

Finally, we need to make sure we do not make obvious missteps and exacerbate the very threat we are trying to counter. This means not cutting off (or threatening to) intelligence sharing with crucial allies in Europe. Not talking in the same clash of civilization terms that the extremists do. Not politicising counter-terrorism work in a way that means its effectiveness becomes stunted. And not standing idle while terrorist groups gather abroad. As we have repeatedly seen, they will come back and strike us in due course. None of these measures will likely eradicate terrorism in the medium term future, but they will set us on a course that will go in that direction and keep us even safer than we already are from terrorist attacks.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI

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