With only one stage-managed major political debate amongst the political leaders vying to gain leverage in a new Parliament in Westminster it is somewhat strange that the threat from terrorism barely featured in the discussions. This was particularly striking since the event occurred as the deadly attack on the Kenyan university in Garissa which saw over 150 students killed was unfolding.
Al Shabab, Al Qaeda’s franchise in Somalia, was quick to claim responsibility for the attacks. Given it has already called for similar attacks in the west it could be thought this might have been a point for the leaders to discuss in their televised debate. Clearly as far as the British public are concerned the focus is on the economy and the National Health Service. This is a reflection on just how politically introverted people become when it comes to selecting their next government.
That would of course all change in the next few weeks if a major terrorist attack were to occur in the United Kingdom. With the current threat level described as being at the “high end of severe” it seems the authorities have not dismissed the potential for such an event to occur. Some commentators, including notably the Guardian newspaper, have even ventured that “an attack is inevitable”.
Imagine its impact upon the political landscape. It would be nothing short of an earthquake with rival sides seeking to position themselves to exploit the maximum potential out of the outcome. The blame-game that would emerge could be a defining moment for the election.
Any perceived or real failings by the emergency services in mounting a response would be latched onto by political leaders outside the current government as a by-product of austerity. The coalition that came to power saying quite clearly that it was “prepared to accept more risk” may be about to find out the political implications of such a strategy.
In this regard Al Qaeda has form. The Madrid bombings in 2004 were pivotal in changing the outcome of the election. One hundred and ninety one people died in those attacks which saw four of the bombs failing to detonate. That was a day when the death toll could have been so much worse.
With opinion polls in the United Kingdom suggesting no clear winner is likely to emerge any self-respecting terrorist group would want to try and shift the political landscape towards an outcome it would see as favourable to its position.
An attack in the run up to the General Election on May 7 is therefore something that is feasible. It could prove decisive in shifting public opinion away from the coalition who could be labelled as having taken too many risks with public safety as it imposed austerity on the emergency services.
Arguments by the current coalition government that more resources were placed into the intelligence services to help prevent an attack would cut little ice in the wake of a major attack. They would also be shown to have vastly under-estimated the scale of the threat.
Political opportunists would accuse them of deliberately trying to talk down the scale of the threat. Efforts to reassure the public that the numbers of people travelling to Iraq and Syria are around six hundred are clearly nonsensical. The figures do not chime with the day-to-day drum beat of stories emerging of British people being arrested at Dover, Gatwick, Luton, and Heathrow or in Turkey trying to join ISIL.
In private conversations senior officers accept that they work on a range of numbers and those in the public domain are always on the low end of that estimate. The higher end is always difficult to assess but suggestions that in reality around two thousand people have made the journey from the United Kingdom into Iraq and Syria are rarely countered with any great protests.
The argument about the increasing potential for a terrorist attack gains further weight when the current weak position of Al Qaeda is carefully analysed. Its position is serious. Several of its franchises are now in open revolt against its leadership. Boko Haram in Nigeria has even defected to the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Other groups across North Africa from Morocco and Tunisia to Egypt have also pledged allegiance to ISIL. Al Qaeda is therefore currently haemorrhaging support to what is perceived to be a more successful international terrorist organisation that has seized land in Syria and Iraq and established the start of what it claims will be a new Islamic State or Caliphate.
When terrorist groups come under pressure they can do one of two things. Wait out the situation in the hope that the security services will eventually lose interest in them or lash out in an attempt to regain media headlines. The attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was one rather small-scale attempt to re-establish Al Qaeda’s credibility for conducting long-range attacks against the west.
That attack was planned in Yemen, a country in turmoil suffering the ravages of internal conflict between rival groups. Al Qaeda’s most loyal franchise (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) is in an ideal position to exploit the chaos in Yemen and use its platform to launch further attacks in the west. In the next few weeks it may turn its sights on the United Kingdom.
If it does, or if an ISIL acolyte choses to conduct a lone wolf attack, the emergency services will be called into action. It is on that day that the country discovers if a coalition government who entered office prepared to accept more risk finally understands the implications of the austerity measures it has introduced over the last five years in the emergency services.
It may have to learn the hard way that resilience can never be bought through multi-agency working alone. On such a dreadful day its capability in terms of highly trained and dedicated people and their equipment that really matters. That insurance policy against what everyone agrees is a high risk simply has to be paid for by society through taxation. It is the ultimate ring fence of security around the people of the United Kingdom. Without it arguably little else matters because if a government, irrespective of its political colours, cannot guarantee security for its people its basis for leadership of the country becomes fatally undermined.