Downgrade counter-terrorism efforts at your peril

Posted: January 21, 2023 in Financial Times
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My last column of last year for the Financial Times, thinking some rather unseasonal thoughts about the terrorist threat and what is happening to responses towards it. In large part draws on some very specific discussions I had in the last quarter of last year. Am always a bit concerned about sounding like a doom-monger, but at the same time the problem with these threats is they can surprise and in the absence of concerted response get worse. Yet, if there is a response then the problem never appears. Better to be Cassandra or crying wolf?

Downgrade counter-terrorism efforts at your peril

Resources are being reallocated towards state-based threats, but the risk posed by extremists is too deadly to ignore

People run away from the Twin Towers in New York on September 11 2001. Trying to divine where the next hazards may emerge requires careful attention © Suzanne Plunkett/AP

The growing consensus among the UK national security establishment is that terrorism is no longer the biggest threat. As migration, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Chinese military expansion increasingly top the list of concerns within Whitehall, terrorism has fallen out of vogue.

To some degree this is a positive thing. Al-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks warped the global security apparatus, and the exaggerated response to this event, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, created their own security problems. But it is alarming how quickly the terror threat has been downgraded: capability and resources are now being reallocated towards state-based threats. For the security agencies, China, Russia and Iran are the priorities, and more attention is being paid to them. Generally this resource is reallocated (often from counter-terrorism) rather than created.

Terrorism has been a feature of human society for generations. Back in the early 2000s, the scholar David Rapoport posited the idea of this threat operating in 40-year “waves”. He traced an “Anarchist wave” (1880s to 1920), an “Anti-Colonial wave” (1920s to early 1960s), a “New Left wave” (mid-1960s to 1990s), and the current “Religious wave” that began with the siege of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the fall of the shah of Iran and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

By his calculations, the religious wave is now receding. The UK and Australia have both recently lowered their terror threat levels. The question is where, and when, the next wave will emerge. Polarised politics, stratified societies, growing anti-establishment sentiment, public concern about climate change or other large-scale injustices and numerous global conflicts are all potential fissures.

Tracking potential new risks while keeping an eye on existing ones requires a monitoring mechanism. The signs are there if you are alert to them. Al-Qaeda loudly and repeatedly telegraphed its intention prior to its attacks in Africa, Yemen and the US. The emergence of the al-Qaeda-linked insurgency in Iraq and the consequent expansion of terrorist threats globally was clearly signalled in reporting prior to the invasion. The over-optimistic early responses to the Arab Spring masked the clear growth of threats in Africa as Libya’s weapons stockpiles were drained.

Meanwhile, the flame of conflict was ignited in Syria. The emergence of Isis on the battlefield may have been a surprise to some, but not to those who had been watching ISI, its precursor organisation in Iraq, in the wake of the 2009 US withdrawal.

Elsewhere, the growth of the extreme right in Europe was relatively predictable given the increasing disquiet about immigration and Muslim extremism. The 2011 attack in Norway by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was an early indicator which has subsequently proven to have inspired a wider neo-fascist community. Breivik’s attack was directly referenced by the 2019 Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant.

These things tend not to come out of the blue. But trying to divine where the next hazards may emerge requires careful observation, assessment and attention. While there was clearly a need to adjust the terrorist threat response given the growing state-based threats, the concern now is whether we are going too far the other way — especially when the picture is so confusing.

The UK Home Office has created a category of threat called “mixed, unstable and unclear”, referring to extremists with no clear ideology, or those citing multiple, and sometimes conflicting, influences. And while it is unlikely that another epoch-changing event on the scale of September 11 is around the corner, even smaller-scale terrorist events can prove deadly and scar societies.

Any reduction in resources, therefore, must be carefully thought through. Re-evaluating the risk is fine — forgetting it entirely is not.

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

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