In a remark designed for public consumption Deputy Commissioner Stuart Osborne noted that the “United Kingdom faced the most complex threat from terrorism in its history”. Security expert Dr Dave Sloggett analyses that threat:
For those minded to be somewhat dismissive of the on-going terrorist threat to the United Kingdom DC Osbourne's recent comments must have come as quite a shock. After all, they might reason, since the failed attempt to attack Glasgow Airport nothing has happened of any consequence in the United Kingdom.
Strictly speaking their analysis is true. But it is one based upon a superficial viewpoint. Burrow a little deeper and the picture dramatically changes. The threat from terrorism in the United Kingdom has undergone a significant change. Whilst evidence emerging from recent trials suggests that the Security Services have not lost their ability to pick up on people travelling overseas to obtain training difficulties remain. One of the most vexing of these is how to track and disrupt the lone wolf.
In the period from September 11 to the end of 2012 there were 53 attempts to conduct another major attack against the United States. Many of these plots were disrupted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation at critical junctures. A significant number of these attacks were planned by what the American’s term Home-Grown Violent Extremists
As entry to the United States became more difficult in the aftermath of September 11 Al Qaeda decided to switch its tactics. It set out through its various media arms and publications to encourage potential recruits to stay at home. Whilst they could never explicitly say they did not want people to travel into Pakistan or the Yemen they sought to encourage people to remain within the United States. There they could plan and conduct their own acts of violence using material that was readily available on the internet.
To go public and say if you come to Pakistan you may be arrested on route or killed in a drone strike was to admit the increasing weakness of Al Qaeda’s core leadership cadre that was still hanging on by its fingertips in places like North Waziristan. The barrage of drone strikes in 2010 had clearly had a major impact on Al Qaeda. It had severely limited its ability to plan future major operations.
The decision to promote home grown violent extremism was a natural and pragmatic step in seeking to maintain the campaign. It is axiomatic in terrorism circles that you have to “strike to exist”. So the absence of activity on the United States mainland would be seen as further prove of the increasing irrelevance of Al Qaeda.
The encouragement of domestic extremism was not limited per se to the United States. Several similar calls to arms were also published in Al Qaeda publications such as Inspire. In making his public remarks Deputy Commissioner Stuart Osborne was simply facing up to the problem that similar recruitment of vulnerable people might also be occurring in the United Kingdom.
The remarks however do not simply cover the enduring problem of Islamic extremism in the United Kingdom and Europe. In venturing the comment that the threat was the most complex seen in history the Deputy Commissioner also had Irish Dissidents in his mind.
Since the formation of Special Branch the problems of Irish dissidents has rarely been far from the thoughts of those in higher levels of command. Contrary to some public perceptions Irish dissidents have not packed up their bags and given up on the fight for a united Ireland. Far from it if publically disclosed activity is anything to go by the levels of violence in Northern Ireland has resumed those experienced during 2010 and 2011. This was after a brief lull at the start of 2012.
In addition to these two major threat axes the Deputy Commissioner would also have been thinking about the unpredictability of the extreme right wing and the prolonged activities of animal rights activists. His implication that the threat in the United Kingdom is as bad as it has ever been is simply a public acknowledgement of a trend that has been apparent for some time. It also recognises the equally unpredictable way that Al Qaeda franchises are developing in places like the Sinai, Syria, Mali and Nigeria. All with the potential for linked events in the United Kingdom public estimates over around 100 British people having travelled to Syria mirror similar estimates of past analysis of the situations in Somalia and to a lesser extend Yemen.
But there is one other dimension underlying Mr Osborne’s comments. Concerns over how lone wolfs can be detected. When someone fails to surface anywhere but the Internet the current laws restricting the ability of the security agencies to monitor Internet activity hamper potential leads and investigations. Calls made to the recently established hot line for confidential information may be of less value if behaviour of concern to neighbours and friends cannot be fully explored.
When someone choses to operate off the usual radar horizons of the security services new ways of detecting aberrant behaviour need to be developed. That means that the legislation currently being debated in Parliament, which has been nicknamed the “Snoopers Charter” needs to be prioritised. If it were to fail the risks to the United Kingdom would undoubtedly increase.