Dr Dave Sloggett explains why the deteriorating situation in Syria and Iraq has profound implications for the Security Landscape in the United Kingdom:
The pictures emerging from Iraq that suggest large numbers of soldiers have been massacred by the insurgent group called ISIS are deeply troubling. This is an organisation that clearly has little regard for the rules that govern warfare or any concept of humanity. The extremes to which the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is prepared to go to impose their ferocious form of ideology have even opened a schism with Al Qaeda – the organisation with which they were supposedly aligned.
This pattern of a group advocating ever more extreme activity in Iraq is one that is not unique. During the height of the insurgency a Jordanian-born Sunni extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi conducted his own form of Islamic sectarian conflict seeking to purge areas of Iraq occupied by Shia’s. During his murderous campaign the then deputy leader of Al Qaeda Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri (who has since become its head) wrote to al-Zarqawi admonishing him for his actions. It was a letter that he ignored. Recent correspondence between ISIS and Dr Zawahiri seems to have had a similar minimal impact of their activities. ISIS it seems is operating from a similar interpretation of the conduct of war that was adopted by al-Zarqawi.
Given the antipathy that exists in the United Kingdom towards any further involvement in Iraq or to become more deeply involved in Syria it is understandable that some will think of the emerging situation in Iraq as a remote place, one that has no relevance to the security of the United Kingdom. However in an increasingly joined-up world the idea that events in Iraq and Syria cannot have profound implications for the security landscape in the United Kingdom is fanciful. After all the United Kingdom is one of the main sources of recruits to ISIS and by some accounts it is the British recruits that are the most violent, showing a ready willingness to become engaged in a range of forms of torture and murder including the symbolic crucifixion of some individuals summarily accused of killing members of ISIS.
Motivated to become involved in terrorism
Whilst officials figures suggest that around 500 Britons have so far travelled into Syria to fight alongside ISIS the picture of how many of them are now involved in Iraq is difficult to discern. It is also worth noting that the figure of 500 is little more than a guesstimate. In what is a dynamic and confusing situation obtaining accurate numbers is really difficult especially when relatives and friends in the United Kingdom are not prepared to alert authorities to those that may have travelled to become involved in the conflict.
Merely travelling into Syria to partake in Jihad is not of itself an indication that the individual may be ready to return to the United Kingdom and carry out acts of terrorism. Estimates published by leading think-tanks working in the field suggest that ten percent of those that return are motivated to become involved in terrorism.
If that assessment is correct, and again that is difficult to prove empirically, that suggests upwards of 50 men and women are prepared to conduct acts of terrorism either on their own as a lone wolf or as part of a group. With people travelling from all over the United Kingdom into Syria this means anywhere is at risk of such an attack. Those that are motivated often plan attacks in areas they know well as this increases their chances of success.
Further reading: Walk in the park for 'British Jihadists'
While it is easy to see how people might talk about conducting attacks in reality it is valid to ask the question would they go through with it. Might some of the 50 back-away? The issue of motivation to follow-through from mere rhetoric to action is an important one.
Anyone who has made the journey across the border into Iraq as part of the swift advance ISIS appears to be making towards Baghdad is likely to have witnessed some terrible events. These will leave a scar on their psyche. Such scenes dehumanise people.
Potential for extreme violence exported to the UK
This is an important general stage in the process of radicalisation. It is one that is often overlooked. Those preparing an attack must be able to detach themselves from the impact any event would have on the relatives and friends of those caught up in the attack. Once such people have killed indiscriminately their ability to repeat the act becomes more straightforward. If the individuals have been involved in mass murder a threshold of expectation exists that drives them forward to achieve similar results. To achieve anything less could be perceived as a failure.
This stage of dehumanisation often involves the creation of some colourful language that is associated with those that are in the cross-wires of the terrorists. Several case studies of attacks that have been disrupted in the United Kingdom have shown evidence of this part of the journey into becoming radicalised. Records from their subsequent trials have shown how this process of dehumanisation has created a willingness to achieve a higher threshold of casualties.
If you add into this mix the potential for such individuals to become involved in the assembly and use of a cocktail of different forms of weapons, including improvised chemical weapons, the potential for extreme forms of violence to be exported into the United Kingdom cannot be ignored.
While ISIS are clearly pre-occupied by their endeavours in Iraq they have already made clear the creation of a safe-haven in the north of Iraq and across the border into Syria will provide a launch-point for attacks into Western Europe. Intelligence agencies of a number of western European countries have already provided indications that ISIS commanders have been instructing Europeans to return home and plan acts of terrorism in the west.
For those in the emergency services who may have to deal with the aftermath of such an event being able to conceive that it is possible is an important first stage. The relative ease with which industrial chemicals could be used as part of an improvised chemical weapon is an obvious concern. The images of the impact of such weapons in Syria have shown the ways in which people can rapidly become incapacitated. Images of people fighting to breath are graphic and illustrate the effects such simple weapons can have in crowded places.
The idea that such scenes could occur in the United Kingdom will no doubt be greeted by some wary of past forecasts of the impact of weapons of mass destruction emerging from Iraq with some heartfelt scepticism. But such thinking is not an excuse for inaction. History provides too many examples where such thinking has led to complacency. In a world where the security landscape is so dynamic it would be the highest form of stupidity not to contemplate how prepared we are to deal with such an attack.