In the middle of September an important date passed by that was completely ignored by the mainstream media. It was the day when the United Kingdom had spent 2,000 days at the threat level of severe since the first publication of the information by MI5 on 1 August 2006.
This level of severe is one below the highest threat that the country can face. That is critical and it is the point where a terrorist attack is considered to be imminent i.e. within a matter of hours. Only twice in the intervening years has the threat level gone to critical and on both occasions within three to four days it was reset to severe. On neither occasion did an attack take place.
Put another way and the country has spent 60% of its time since the first publication of the threat level at one below its maximum setting. It is possible to argue in such a situation that there is a huge danger of complacency setting in.
After all, some might argue, when was the last successful terrorist attack on the United Kingdom? Well if you chose to ignore the machinations of some of the extreme right wing, such as the murder of an 86-year old grandfather Mohammed Saleem in Small Heath in Birmingham or the attempted murder of a Muslim doctor in a supermarket in North Wales in January, the answer is the death of Drummer Lee Rigby on 22 May 2013.
Before that we have to go back to the attempted attack on Glasgow Airport, the precursor events in the Haymarket the night before and to 2005 for the attacks on London which killed fifty-two people and injured over seven hundred. This is hardly a high tempo of attacks.
With all the hype surrounding terrorism surely, it is possible to ask, is there a danger we are overcooking the response? Are we giving credence to terrorists and boosting their image and capabilities by the way we react to their activities?
Careful analysis of the situation suggests otherwise. Irrespective of the warnings issued by Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley and the Head of MI5 Andrew Parker the global situation on terrorism is not good. Despite the close attentions of the Russian Air Force the group known as Islamic State continue to spread their wings from the North African coast to the Far East. Groups that have formerly pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda have been defecting to Islamic State in a number of high profile on-line statements.
Tip of the iceberg
Perhaps the most significant of these is Boko Haram in Nigeria. They are the group that spiralled to fame on the back of kidnapping over two hundred and fifty school girls, many of which were forced into marriage with members of the group.
But that is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Islamic State have also established a significant footprint in Afghanistan with an estimated 3,000 fighters now serving in what the group calls their various provinces that exist within the Caliphate they have declared. Another one of these has just appeared in Bangladesh. Groups across North Africa, in Egypt and Libya are also aligned with Islamic State.
Al Qaeda is therefore haemorrhaging support to Islamic State. Some groups move for ideological reasons, some because they are disappointed with Al Qaeda’s own operational tempo in the west and some, such as the wing of Al-Shabab in Somalia that recently defected do so for money. It seems that far from being defeated as the Russian media would have us believe Islamic State is actually growing their presence across North Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia.
What does all this mean for the United Kingdom? Does the fact that Islamic State appear to be so resilient in the face of a massive and indiscriminate military onslaught mean that we are more at risk today than in the past. Well the Head of MI5 certainly believes this to be the case.
Twice recently he has left his accommodation on the North Bank of the River Thames to impart dire warnings of what is about to be unleashed on society. In an unprecedented interview with the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 and a subsequent speech at the Lord Mayor’s Annual defence and security dinner in the Mansion House in London, Andrew Parker laid out his view on the prevailing threat from terrorists in the United Kingdom.
At the Mansion House speech he noted that the “current level of threat was the highest he had seen in a career spanning 32-years”. It is worth recalling that this covers a period of time when dissident republicans were active across the mainland of the United Kingdom. So it is a statement that is worthy of some reflection.
The problem for the Security Services and their colleagues in the police service is that, to date, they have been far too successful. Andrew Parker is on record as saying that since 11 September his service and their Police colleagues have disrupted just over sixty planned attacks on the United Kingdom. That is a tempo of around four per year.
Given the changing dynamics of the threat sustaining that level of success seems highly unlikely.
The chances of an attacker being able to remain off the radar horizon of the Security Services remains high even if they do get their powers to monitor specific individuals behaviour on the Internet as proposed by the new surveillance powers legislation introduced to Parliament by the Home Secretary. These powers do not allow the Security Services and Police Service colleagues to surf the Internet at will. Despite its title of being the ‘Snoopers Charter’ the legislation does not allow for the creation of some form of Orwellian state.
In remarks he made on Radio 4 he noted that this year alone six attacks on the United Kingdom have already been prevented. This is an increase on the recent trends. There are clearly few indicators of any immediate downward trend in the threat.
With plots now being developed in are of the Dark Web that have become a sanctuary for terrorists the outlook is indeed bleak. Moreover given Islamic State’s growing presence across North Africa and into other areas from which migrants are flooding to Western Europe it is possible to argue the general trends are only likely to point one way, upwards. So it looks as though we are not overcooking the threat. It is very real and could manifest itself in a large number of ways, such as in the form of an improvised chemical weapon.
So it seems more than likely that in the not too distant future we will cross yet another, probably unnoticed date, when the United Kingdom has been at severe for 3,000 days. If the current threat level is maintained that date will occur in June 2018. That is an awful long time to try and maintain vigilance and currency on equipment when it comes to be prepared to deal with a terrorist attack. But for the emergency services, under pressure to cut budgets, that is just what they have to do.