Fifteen years on from 7/7, terrorism has changed but the jihadist threat persists

Posted: July 24, 2020 in Prospect
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Have not posted for a while. Delivered a book project which should ultimately emerge sometime next year, which kept me busy. But have been writing, including this piece for Prospect magazine in the UK on the fifteen year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 bombing which was the big lynchpin event of my earlier book.

Also have numerous projects in motion at the moment pulling me in lots of directions at the same time. Going to do a media catch up in the next post, but for the time being here is a video of a webinar with my Singaporean hosts RSIS looking at the evolution of the UK threat picture.

 

 

Fifteen years on from 7/7, terrorism has changed but the jihadist threat persists

Ideologies have fragmented and dangers become more difficult to track
by Raffaello Pantucci / July 7, 2020

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images:
Court artist sketch of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images

It often feels like we have moved into a new era of terrorist threats. Gone are the days when we faced large organised plots involving networks linking the UK to dark corners of faraway lands: now terrorist attacks are made up of random mass stabbings in public places like the attack near London Bridge in 2017. The terrorists being processed through our courts are former drug addicts with troubled pasts, like convert Safiyya Shaikh who was jailed recently for plotting to blow up St Paul’s.

At the ideological end it is equally confusing, with violent Islamists seemingly replaced by a gaggle of extreme right wingers, involuntary celibates (Incels) and individuals whose ideological leaning is so confused the Home Office brackets them together as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” Yet there is more consistency than you might expect. Terrorist threats come in ebbs and flows, sometimes receding but rarely disappearing. Instead, they tend to morph and create new problems. What is constant, however, is our inability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The most talked about threat on the rise is the extreme right wing. But it is not clear how much of a threat it actually poses. Prior to the 7th July bombings 15 years ago, the most lethal non-Irish related terrorist attack the UK had faced was David Copeland’s one-man bombing campaign targeting London’s minority communities in 1999. Leaving devices in locations targeting London’s black, South Asian and gay communities, his homemade bombs murdered three and injured 140. While Copeland seemed to plan and execute his campaign by himself, he was part of the extreme right in the UK (albeit on the fringes), and a former member of the British National Party, the National Socialist Movement and even the neo-Nazi Combat 18 group.

For years the extreme right was largely the remit of the police, but in the late 1990s it was also coming into MI5’s crosshairs. As Jonathan Evans, a former director-general of MI5, told me earlier this year: “the service worked closely with police to undertake some disruptions in the late 1990s of Combat 18 associated individuals who were consorting with people of a similar cast of mind in eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. These groups had explicitly decided that terrorism was part of the way forward in order to try to destabilise what they characterised as the Zionist Organised Government (ZOG).” The attacks were disrupted, and soon after MI5 ended up getting almost completely overwhelmed focusing on the violent Islamist terror threat that erupted so violently in 2001.

But the extreme right never went away, and in some ways went mainstream with a rise in far-right parties across Europe. At the terrorist end of the scale, throughout the 2000s police were disrupting extreme right-wing plots. While the majority were fairly shambolic, some more organised ones would occasionally emerge. The Aryan Strike Force (ASF) was a group built around a father and son core who were bent on race war, were running training camps in Cumbria and managed to make enough ricin to kill nine people. But for the most part, they were, as Evans put it to me, “zoological” curiosities who were distinguishing mostly in their oddness.

The emergence of the English Defence League (EDL) and subsequently National Action (NA) changed the picture. From being a scattered group of individuals who were as likely to be involved in child pornography as they were extreme right-wing terrorism, these two groups instead spoke to something more organised coming together. It was also confusing ideologically, with both groups quite explicitly reacting against the violent Islamist groups that dominated public attention, yet also clearly using their tactics and language. National Action speaks of launching a “white jihad” while the EDL was born in reaction to now banned Islamist group Al Muhajiroun’s presence in Luton. And while there is a clear white supremacist tone to both groups, the EDL promoted non-white members.

More explicitly, political far-right group Britain First provided another wrinkle within this fabric, espousing a white supremacist ideology using Christian iconography. There is a palpable religious overtone to their narratives which feels more reminiscent of the violent Islamist threat that brought together religion and totalitarian views about society. This mix of ideas helped give them a strong base of support in parts of eastern Europe.

This confusing ideological background has been matched by the emergence of online ideologies drawing on fears of the “Great Replacement” of white communities. This has become the backdrop against which a whole range of ideologies have developed, spinning the extreme right in numerous different directions: ideas like the Incels movement, made up of young men who feel themselves rejected sexually. The QAnon movement, which has not only appeared at Trump rallies but now also appears to have three adherents among American congressional candidates, is made up of conspiracy theorists drawing on the vast information pool now available online to concoct narratives about controlling deep states, the dangers of 5G technology and stories of powerful paedophiles. And in one of the stranger threats to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, a growth in groups fearing the increased role of the state. Groups like the Sovereign Citizen movement have become more influential as some fear the virus response is simply an excuse to expand the power of the state to ultimately oppress them.

But notwithstanding this increasingly baffling threat picture, it has still not eclipsed the violent Islamist threat in the UK. In a recent interview, the UK’s top counter-terrorism police officer Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said that the extreme right wing took up about 10 per cent of his officers’ time. While it is, as he put it, the “fastest-growing” aspect of the threat picture, and cases have managed to rise to the very top of the terrorist “matrix” that MI5 uses to prioritise its threat picture, it is not the majority yet. The biggest threats continue to come from those inspired or linked to groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS).

This is something you hear consistently from security officials. Yes, the extreme right is a growing concern, but the violent Islamist threat persists and there is little evidence that the pool of problems that created it have gone away. They point to foreign battlefields like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or parts of north, west or east Africa, where al-Qaeda- and IS-linked groups continue to thrive. These are the sorts of environments that produced the 7/7 attacks. Just last month, security officials in Germany disrupted a plot in which a group of Tajiks stand accused of being directed by IS networks in Syria and Afghanistan to launch an attack in Europe.

In the UK it has been a while since we have had a major public disruption like this. Instead, incidents like last year’s attack at Fishmongers’ Hall or the attempted stabbing in Streatham—when a recently released terrorist convict launched a one-man attack—are the norm. In these and other more recent cases still winding their way through the courts, isolated individuals, sometimes with links to violent Islamist networks, and usually with histories that have brought them to MI5’s attention at some point, launch one-man campaigns with no outside direction and weapons such as knives found in every household. A growing proportion of them have serious mental health or social problems, making them deeply volatile and unpredictable people. This makes them almost impossible to stop, but nevertheless results in a vast outpouring of noise from politicians and the public demanding that something must be done.

It is never a good idea to legislate in the immediate wake of a disaster. Objectivity will go out of the window, leading to ill-considered choices. We saw this in the wake of the 7/7 attacks—when the shock to the country led to a surge in focus and attention on the UK’s Muslim community. Politicians’ rhetoric sharpened, demanding they “do something.” A money spigot was opened which gave the security services more resources to manage the problem—including developing community profiling tools like Project Rich Picture, which aimed to develop a detailed understanding of the UK’s Muslim community, identifying them as the source of the threat. Self-appointed leaders (or “professional Muslims” as one colleague once sarcastically put it) popped up everywhere speaking for no one but themselves, but nevertheless able to garner grants from the government to bolster their so-called community work. Some did positive work. Others it was less clear.

All this did little to improve Muslim community relations and instead created a sense among many Muslims that they were being unfairly targeted. Paradoxically, it also created animosity among white communities who were angered by the austerity and economic marginalisation they were facing in contrast to this visible push in support to Muslim communities. We have not seen a similar outpouring of money or attention towards deprived white communities in the wake of the growing rise of the extreme right.

A decade and a half since July 2005, we seem not to have learned some of these lessons. Politicians appear unwilling to acknowledge that part of the problem of the resurgent extreme right is a product of the racially-tinged politics that have been stoked by mainstream voices in the past few years, while the growing presence of seriously troubled individuals at the sharp end of the terror threat as lone actors reflects years of under-investment in mental health services, probation and social services. The recently convicted Safiyya Shaikh, formerly Michelle Ramsden, in some ways fits this mould perfectly—a deeply troubled woman whose online life developed into her becoming a webmaster and coordinator for IS-supporting groups and plots across Europe.

We have gone from networks directing plots against our public transport to lone actors lashing out at people going about their daily lives. The underlying ideologies remain the same, though their expression has become more confusing. In many ways little has changed except for the volume of people affected and our security services’ capability to manage terrorist threats (one of the biggest reasons why we have not seen anything larger than a lone actor attack in a while). But our politicians seem unable to grasp the difficult nettles that are required to deal with these issues in a sophisticated fashion. Either we learn to live with the problem or focus on the real underlying issues.

 

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