Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the current international security landscape and asks is this the calm before the storm?
London awoke to one glorious hangover on 7 July 2005. The Olympic Games were coming to the capital city. The United Kingdom had beaten Paris and had won the rights to stage the world’s greatest sporting event. Hours later as fifty-two people lay dead and nearly seven hundred had been wounded the situation looked a lot different. Terrorists inspired and trained by Al Qaeda had attacked the heart of Parliamentary democracy.
The attack on that day was clearly designed to have a greater impact in the wake of the decision to award the games to London. People across the United Kingdom were taken from a high to a low in a matter of hours. Ironically had not the girlfriend of one of the bombers not gone into labour the day before, the attack would have coincided with the announcement of the award.
That would have made very different headlines. It may have even led to the postponement of the decision with the potential for those supporting the United Kingdom’s bid to have backed away – despite the obvious ensuring accusations that they had given into terror. The wider ramifications of such a pathway would have been immense. Terrorists could have claimed to have re-written history almost in real time.
It is not difficult to imagine how that may have played out as London played such a platform in helping create the success all of us have witnessed in Rio de Janerio. Team GB’s hugely successful games may not have happened blowing away the inevitable feel-good factor that any sporting success brings to a nation.
As life post the Olympics returns to normality the brief respite Europe has enjoyed from the spate of terror inspired attacks in June and July will come into focus. Is this the calm before the storm some may ask? Will terrorists try again to deflate the British public? Taking the edge off the Olympic success. Will terrorists strike again in Western Europe or will they continue to expand their footprint across the world?
Recent headlines do not bode well. In Turkey fifty-one people were killed and over sixty were injured when a boy reported to have been aged between twelve and fourteen blew himself up at a wedding party. Hours later in Kirkuk in Iraq another boy aged twelve had his live suicide vest removed from his body in the full glare of the media.
The story does not end there. In recent weeks Singaporean law enforcement officials intervened in a plot to use a rocket fired from an offshore island to create a mass casualty attack on the main island. In the Philippines a group that has pledged allegiance to so-called Islamic State has embarked upon a wave of pirate attacks designed to kidnap seafarers and ransom them. And in Russia so-called Islamic State have claimed their first attack when a police station outside Moscow was targeted.
Both terrorists, armed with axes and automatic weapons, were killed by the authorities which saw two police officers wounded. In a video released by IS the two attackers stated that is was called ‘revenge operation’ and was carried out to avenge the attacks by Russian aircraft in Syria.
These incidents also come in the wake of the most-deadly range of attacks that occurred during Ramadan. Nearly one thousand people died in that period of intense religious observance, the highest total on record. The attacks occurred across the globe. In Orlando, Florida forty-nine people died when a gunman entered a nightclub and started shooting. It was the worst attack ever of that nature in the United States.
Across the Middle East attacks continued to occur claiming hundreds of lives. In South East Asia a spate of attacks in previously quiet areas such as Bangladesh showed how the evil narrative spread by so-called Islamic State is spreading. Ironically as pressure mounts on the terrorist groups heartland in Syria and Iraq so its appears to be recruiting new apostles across the world. Even in the run up to the Olympics the Brazilian authorities arrested a group accused of planning attacks to coincide with the games.
Overall the number of terrorist attacks continues to grow relentlessly. In July one thousand nine hundred and ninety-three attacks occurred, just shy of the next benchmark figure of two thousand. The rise since January 2009 has been inexorable. The rate of attacks has climbed by around fourteen a month over that period.
Another statistical observation emerging from the data is that whereas up until the start of 2016 there was high degree of correlation between events in Syria and Iraq and the global figures – suggesting they were a driver for the overall patterns of attacks – recent data suggests that the degree of correlation is lessening. What had been a figure of 0.9 (where 1.0 is a prefect degree of correlation) is has reduced to 0.8. This points to so-called Islamic State widening its international footprint.
The problem with all of this is that there appears to be little stopping this growth in attacks. As so-called Islamic State is pressurised in one area it appears to enjoy a high degree of manoeuvre room to start up new franchises and encourage lone wolves to attack at will.
This latter ability to inspire lone wolves saw a massacre on the streets of Nice as a lorry was driven at speed through crowds celebrating France’s national day. It has also seen a spate of knife attacks on railway trains and possibly an attack in London that saw an American citizen die and five other people stabbed in what was quickly labelled a random attack.
While the Metropolitan Police were quick to reassure the public that this was related to mental health issues since then they have gone remarkably quiet. We may yet see the Metropolitan Police use the wriggle room they gave themselves in their narrative on the attack in Russell Square and suggest that the attacker had in some way been inspired by the terrorist’s narrative. Some reporting in open sources has already suggested that this might be the case. No doubt as the police probe the background to the case this currently uncertain position will be clarified.
So what does this all mean for the United Kingdom? With over sixty attacks prevented since 11 September we are clearly doing something right. Since the attack on Glasgow Airport the security services have enjoyed an enviable record of preventing terrorism with the attacks on Drummer Lee Rigby and a recent potential kidnap attempt on a Royal Air Force servicemen punctuating an otherwise brilliant record. Our collective knowledge drawn from years of dealing with various religiously motivated terrorism in Northern Ireland has served us well. The United Kingdom enjoys a high degree of joined-up working between the various agencies involved.
In France, by way of contrast, their seven different intelligence agencies are clearly struggling to come to terms with their challenges. One of the key lessons to emerge from the aftermath of the attack in Paris was that the security agencies have to develop better sources of human intelligence – through community engagement.
In the run-down urban areas of a number of major French cities (known as banlieues) and their equivalent in Brussels from which the Paris attackers emerged where as President Hollande has noted the ‘fuse of discontent burns slowly’ gaining that community trust and engagement will take time. By way of a benchmark in Northern Ireland it is generally accepted that this process took close to ten years and was helped by a community that grew tired of terrorism and all its ravages.
The problem is that has so-called Islamic State enjoys greater freedom of manoeuvre across the world so those involved in terrorism in Western Europe are also manoeuvring in cyber-space. The Dark Net now offers ways to shroud their activities and planning. Applications like Telegram offer new secure ways of communicating that are encrypted. As ever law enforcement authorities are slightly behind the curve trying to introduce new legislation to help deny that manoeuvre room to the extremists.
In his most recent assessment of that legislation the Independent Reviewer David Anderson QC has agreed that the latest legislation to be presented to Parliament is required. He acknowledges that the intelligence services should be allowed to continue the bulk collection of data with greater oversight and strict controls on its use.
This is an important step as various annexes in his report highlight real world examples including one where a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom was prevented literally at the last moment. Issues over accessing encrypted communications, such as those use by the application Telegram, still have to be finalised.
Given all of the above it is difficult not to conclude that this is the calm before the storm. With senior police officers constantly warning that it is not a question of if but when an attack occurs the likelihood is that at some point the feel-good factor emerging from the Rio Olympics will again be used by extremists as an excuse to burst that bubble and bring the country back to a sense of normality.
That is a position where for just over fifty percent of time we have maintained the national threat level at severe since it was first made public in 2006. It is our new norm. A threat that is one level below critical – where an attack is deemed imminent. A position that all too easily could lead to complacency. That, for all of society, is the danger especially when the distraction of the Olympic Games has provided such a wonderful relief from the deep seated scars of terrorism that now inhabit the collective psyche of society.