Last year was a "sobering" one for everyone involved in counter-terrorism and, while 2014 has thus far been relatively quiet, the threat still remains, says security correspondent Dave Sloggett.
In her latest foreword to the annual analysis published by the Home Office on the progress on the UK Counter Terrorism strategy otherwise known as CONTEST the Home Secretary says “2013 was a sobering year for everyone involved in countering the terrorist threat to this country”. She goes on to record that in 2013 the UK experienced its first fatalities since 2005. These involved the death of Drummer Lee Rigby at the hands of Muslim extremists and the murder of an 82-year old pensioner called Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham by a Ukrainian student working in Coventry with links to the extreme right wing. His name was Pavlo Lapshyn.
He went onto attempt to bomb three Mosques in the midlands. His first two efforts were so poor they were barely noticed as bomb attacks. However on his third attempt the bomb detonated. It was one hour too early. Prayers had been rescheduled back one hour from their normal time as a result of Ramadan. As a result no one was injured.
Had his plan succeeded the death toll could have been on a par with what happened in London on 7 July and its aftermath may well have provided the catalyst some in the Muslim community needed to cross a psychological threshold and become involved in retaliatory action. The consequences of that can only be imagined. The dreadful way in which Drummer Lee Rigby was killed sparked a series of hate attacks on Muslim communities. These quickly grew to unprecedented levels. Had they continued, the potential for a backlash could have easily created a very difficult and troubled domestic security situation.
But the relative calm that has descended over the United Kingdom in the last year is not an indicator of a dramatic change in the national security landscape. If anything it has got slightly worse with the situation in Syria being at the heart of concerns about what might cause the next wave of terrorism attacks in the United Kingdom.
While figures appearing in the media vary it is generally accepted that several hundred people from the United Kingdom have travelled to Syria, through Turkey, to become involved in supporting the actions of those trying to oppose the Assad regime in Damascus. Some inevitably get drawn into groups that have close connections with Al Qaeda and fall under the influence of individuals who have a wider international terrorism agenda, aside from those that are purely focused on events in Syria. Those individuals are vulnerable to being turned into potential terrorists ready to conduct attacks in the United Kingdom when they return.
This all adds another dynamic to the difficult security landscape faced by the counter-terrorism teams that work across the United Kingdom. In the past their world has been one-dimensional. Initially their focus was on countering the risk posed by dissident Irish republicans who wished to bring their fight for the merger of Ireland onto the mainland. However the improved situation that gradually followed the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998 allowed the counter terrorism teams to quickly refocus their efforts on potential problems posed by Muslim extremists in the aftermath of events on 11 September.
Today that one-dimensional highly focused world has become very complex. Arguably it is now a four dimensional world. With Muslim extremists and their counterparts in the extreme right wing providing two of the more difficult sides of those dimensions. The remaining two comprise the low level concerns over anarchist groups, such as FAI, that occasionally appear on the radar horizon conducting attacks on emergency services facilities and a resurgent dissident Irish threat to the mainland of the United Kingdom. Their intent to return to operations on the mainland being signalled very clearly with the delivery of seven parcel bombs to British Army and Royal Air Force recruitment offices in March.
Whilst that four dimensional model provides the framework around which it is possible to analyse the terrorist threat in the United Kingdom the way the threat presents itself in each dimension has subtle differences. That creates additional uncertainty for the emergency services as they respond to an event. How that unfolds is highly dependent upon which dimension of the threat presents itself. Some of these are morphing rapidly.
The threat from spread of Muslim extremism across North Africa is of specific concern. The In-Amenas gas attack which occurred in January 2013 provided an indication of the emerging strength of Al Qaeda affiliated groups in the Sahel and Maghreb regions of North Africa. That sphere of influence has now further increased into Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt where each of these countries is suffering a deteriorating security situation.
If Al Qaeda linked terrorists could establish terrorist training camps in these areas they could readily align themselves with criminal groups operating across North Africa who are involved in smuggling economic migrants into Southern Europe across the Mediterranean region. The scale of the exodus of people from North Africa is huge with Italy’s opposite number to the Home Secretary claiming that around 600,000 are preparing to sail from Africa as the spring and summer weather arrives.
The numbers seeking a better life in Europe has recently been described by an Italian Naval Admiral involved in trying to stem this flow as being ‘of biblical proportions’. The same networks that are smuggling economic migrants are also involved in smuggling cocaine. As long as they get paid the criminal groups involved do not mind adding a few terrorists into those routes, for them they are simply another commodity.
This simply adds yet another level of complexity to the problems of monitoring borders. Whilst the situation in Syria is serious it is not the only game in town as far as Al Qaeda is concerned. The sheer vastness of the Mediterranean Sea offers alternative routes to moving their acolytes into Southern Europe.
All of this paints a bleak picture as far as the security landscape is concerned in the United Kingdom. It is a position implicitly recognised by the Home Secretary in her closing remarks to the Foreword of the Annual CONTEST Review Report. She notes that in the last report in 2012 she had counselled against complacency. Repeating that theme the Home Secretary observes that “there is no reason to believe 2014 will be any less demanding”.
In the last year two of her most senior counter terrorism commanders have chosen to articulate the view of the security landscape in the UK in a slightly different way. Both have suggested that the situation is the worst they have ever seen. Given what is happening in Northern Ireland, Syria and North Africa their observations and the views of the Home Secretary are hardly surprising.