Ahead of a major year for the UK emergency services, security correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett looks back on the key terrorism issues of the previous 12 months and asks whether these worrying trends are an indicator of what's to come?
Looking back on 2013 there will be few that argue it was a year in which positive trends over the fight against international terrorism started to emerge. The international defence and security group IHS-Janes have documented close to 18,000 damaging attacks (a close approximation to terrorist events) across the world in 2013. For those of a mathematical mind that is a rate of 50 attacks around the world every day.
What is more, the longer the year went on the worse things got. The trend on any graph was monotonic, inexorably upwards. The average number of these damaging attacks each month at the start of the year was around the 1,000 mark. By the end of the year it was close to 50% higher with July having a peak of 1784 attacks in a single month; a rate of nearly 58 a day around the world. In these attacks around 100 people a day die.
One of a number of factors contributing to this clear hike in the figures is what happening in Syria. It is rapidly replacing Pakistan as the place where international jihadists cut their teeth on terrorism – where they turn a dream into reality. While it is hard to establish precisely how many people are travelling from Western Europe into Syria to fight alongside groups linked to Al Qaeda there appears to be in the region of close to 1,000 individuals that have made the journey.
They often travel overland and end up in dingy safe houses on the border with Syria waiting for an escort across into the areas held by those opposing the Assad regime in Damascus. Where once Somalia was a magnet for British jihadists Syria is now seen to be the place to go. Its image has been specifically crafted to attract dislocated and vulnerable people in western society looking for self-esteem.
Public available figures suggest that upwards of 300 British people have already entered Syria and are fighting alongside Al Qaeda. Privately leading figures in the counter-terrorism world will admit that they cannot be certain if the actual numbers travelling are in fact a great deal higher. Anecdotal evidence emerging across the United Kingdom suggests that might be the case.
Daily diet of terrorism
The danger with all of this is what happens when those people decide to return to the United Kingdom. One of the leading figures in the counter-terrorism world in the United Kingdom, Richard Walton (Head of Counter-Terrorism Command), has already gone on record to say that there is evidence that Al Qaeda linked groups are already asking British fighters to return home and conduct acts of terrorism on a wide range of potential targets. His analysis is that the specific threat to London has never been as bad as it is as 2013 draws to a close.
The attraction of Syria as a destination however does not mean things have suddenly improved in Pakistan. For those wanting to learn how to build a variety of bombs and use weapons it is still a destination where those wishing to get involved in Jihad can learn the key skills of being a capable terrorist. Pakistan’s internal security problems and almost daily diet of terrorism creates a crucible in which those wishing to learn how to conduct quite sophisticated attacks can gain the insights necessary to conduct a major atrocity.
Of course for the United Kingdom the threat from terrorism does not solely emerge from Islamic fanatics bent on Jihad. The situation in Northern Ireland has been steadily worsening over the year. The Chief Constable, Mark Baggott, is also on record noting that Dissident Republican activity had recently undergone a surge. Mr Baggott, and the Northern Ireland Secretary Teresa Villiers, both received letter bombs in 2013.
These incidents are not isolated. It would seem that the death of the Prison Officer David Black was the trigger for a new wave of hoax calls and an increasing number of attempted attacks against the Police Service of Northern Ireland. As 2013 drew to a close so the risks taken by the dissidents grew with bombs being placed in public locations. On two occasions in the run up to Christmas dissident groups placed bombs in locations where the public where placed at greater risk than before. It appears the groups involved are gradually moving towards conducting another major atrocity and are building the public expectation of what is to come to help minimise the reaction that might occur.
Despite this notable increase in activity those involved in dissident republicanism do not enjoy the kind of widespread support base they have been used to in the past. This restricts their freedom of manoeuvre. An attack on the United Kingdom mainland however is an option and while the official threat remains at Moderate the potential for a new outbreak of dissident attacks in major cities cannot be easily dismissed.
Potential for more violent activities
As if that were not the full scope of the problem faced by the hard pressed security and intelligence services in the United Kingdom the fragmentation of the Extreme Right Wing is also a potential problem. The reaction to the dreadful and horrific killing of Drummer Lee Rigby has involved by passive protests and active attacks on symbols of the Islamic faith. In Grimsby two former soldiers, one who used to serve at Woolwich barracks, decided to firebomb a local Mosque.
While no one was hurt any action like this carries risks. Across England and in Cardiff local Muslim people were subjected to race crime and low-level attacks. The brutal and savage way in which Drummer Lee Rigby was killed opened fault lines that already existed in the Extreme Right Wing. The potential for more violent activities simply cannot be ruled out. If a copy-cat attack were to occur it might see an even more serious level of retaliation.
All of this means that as 2013 comes to a close that the security situation is not more complex than perhaps it has ever been. In the 25 years since the Pan American airliner was brought down over Lockerbie the number of what might be called ‘Black Swan’ events have largely remained few and far between. Where they have occurred in New York, Washington, Mumbai, Madrid, London, Boston and Nairobi, to name a few, they have gained a huge amount of notoriety.
What however is more concerning is the background drum beat of attacks in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria and the increasing threat in the Sahel in Africa and in Libya. These are the placed that are now continuing to contribute to what appears to be a monotonic rise in terrorism across Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia. In a world where interconnectivity is not just about whose email addresses you have in your contacts list there is a very real possibility that another Black Swan may already be in the final stages of being planned. For those in the emergency services the security picture looks as bad as it has ever been.