As 2014 comes to a close Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the current threat landscape in the United Kingdom:
Barely a week passes at the moment without a report of someone being arrested, charged or convicted as a result of some alleged involvement in terrorism in the United Kingdom. The high tempo of arrests, and the subsequent court cases and convictions that follow, show that the security services and their colleagues in Special Branch are clearly working flat out to prevent a terrorist attack.
Despite all of these efforts the potential for a terrorist attack to occur, perpetrated by a lone individual or small group that has managed to remain off the radar horizon of the security services, is very real. As Christmas approaches there is a very real sense of many people working in the field of counter terrorism collectively holding their breath. There is a common acceptance that given the highly chaotic situation that currently exists that a terrorist attack is almost inevitable.
This fear of an imminent attack is not just limited to the United Kingdom. Across Europe young men and women have been flocking to the symbolism of the black flag raised by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has recently called for ‘Volcanoes of Jihad to erupt everywhere’.
Some of his close cohorts have gone further with quite specific threats against European countries calling for individuals to repeat the attack conducted on Drummer Lee Rigby across the whole population irrespective of their involvement in the military.
The recent concern in the West Midlands over a specific threat to policemen is just one example of the way in which such calls have an impact. Clearly as far as the Chief Constable of the West Midlands was concerned his officers faced a clear and present danger from an attack with all the hallmarks of the dreadful attack outside Woolwich barracks.
The near enemy
Such worries come in the wake of an attack by a lone individual in New York armed with an axe against two recently qualified Police Academy graduates. One was severely wounded in the attack which had clear links to the calls being issued by ISIL. These calls for action by what are in effect lone individuals are just one dimension of the current problem.
Whereas Al Qaeda focused on attacks on what it described as the far enemy (for which you can read America first and Europe second) ISIL is more focused on what it can call the near enemy i.e. Western Europe. As the Home Secretary, Teresa May, has pointed out Western European capitals are only a few hour’s flight time from countries such as Turkey which are one of a growing number of points of entry for westerners drawn by the ideology of ISIL.
Concerns over the potential of those returning from the fighting in Syria and Iraq to become involved in an act of terrorism in Europe have been raised for some time now in the media. While the European media speculates about this possibility the security services across Europe are collaborating closely trying to identify those who may be most at risk of carrying out such an atrocity.
In the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, France, Germany and Norway local security forces are on a heightened state of alert. Comments emerging from these services suggest that the numbers of people travelling overseas to become involved in Syria and Iraq has risen in the last six months. Whilst these may be official numbers, such as the figure of 700 from France and 500 from the United Kingdom, the reality on the ground might be quite different.
Already senior public figures in both countries have publically expressed concerns over the veracity of these numbers. One United Kingdom Member of Parliament has even gone on record to suggest that the figure of 500 is ‘nonsense’ and that an estimate four times that level is more likely. This however is not the only way in which a backlash can occur in Western Europe as a result of the fighting in Iraq and Syria.
Bringing the fight to the streets of Europe
In Germany another dimension is also feared. A backlash by Kurdish people living in Germany against local Muslims, in effect bringing the street fighting in Kobane between ISIL and the Kurdish people to the streets of Europe is something that is distinctly possible. The fighting in Kobane has become something of an icon in Kurdish circles. Images of Kurdish women willing to die to defend their town against ISIL have become commonplace in media coverage. They have made the defence of Kobane a cause célèbre amongst Kurdish minorities living in Western Europe.
In Sweden, which has a large migrant Kurdish population, there is some evidence of such attacks occurring at a low scale. Norwegian commentators have also noted that Kurdish migrants living in Norway are being tempted to get involved in the fight against ISIL by travelling into Turkey and crossing the border to Kobane. These individuals may also one day return to Norway and decide to conduct acts of terrorism against Muslim communities.
This Kurdish-Muslim dimension also sits alongside the potential for members of the extreme right wing across Europe to become involved in acts of terrorism. Concerns over immigration are not simply confined to the United Kingdom. In Germany recent protest marches have shown that some German people also have concerns. Earlier on in the year in Sweden migrants took to the streets in Stockholm to complain about discrimination. The resulting riots lasted for several days before the police re-established control.
These are but simple illustrations of the growing fault lines that are appearing in societies across Western Europe exacerbated by the difficult prevailing economic situation. The potential for any of these to fracture and create really deep societal problems are a constant source of concern for political leaders across Western Europe. In the aftermath of a major terrorist attack the potential for such a rupturing of these fault lines would be heightened.
This shows why preventing a terrorist attack is so crucial if the fault lines in society are not going to be opened. The work of the security services and their Special Branch colleagues has been successful in preventing a reported forty attacks since the outrage in London in July 2005. This excellent work has helped keep our society safe.
But in such difficult circumstances it is important to ask the question can they continue to prevent all such attacks, no matter what form they take. With the Guardian newspaper suggesting that ‘a terrorist attack on the United Kingdom is almost inevitable’ and senior policeman voicing concerns over the likelihood of an attack it may not be too long before we see the degree to which such an event can test the resilience of our society as a whole. It would seem as we come to the end of yet another difficult year as far as international terrorism is concerned even darker days may lay ahead.