Dr Dave Sloggett looks at events over the Christmas period and suggests that the trends in terrorism are distinctly negative and remain a serious cause for concern at the start of 2015:
While there are some positive signs emerging from Iraq that suggest that the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) or Dā’ish as they are otherwise known is slowly conceding ground other factors suggest that the threat from terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom and across Western Europe is actually growing.
In France the latest estimate of the numbers of people that have travelled to Syria and Iraq to become involved in the fight to establish what Dā’ish refer to as the Caliphate has increased dramatically from a low point of 500 at the start of 2014 to nearly 1,200 at the end of the year.
Other countries across Western Europe have reported rises – if not of the scale noted by France. In the United Kingdom the continued reference in public announcements to an estimated 500 British citizens that have made the same journey increasingly looks implausible.
At some point someone in the Home Office is going to have to publically admit the numbers are worse than the official figures suggest or imply that the attractiveness of traveling to Syria and Iraq is somehow less for British citizens than it is for their Western European counterparts. Given the open source reporting that is available on people willing to make the journey any such claim would be open to serious question.
While concern about those who might return from Syria and Iraq emboldened to conduct terrorist attacks is high the potential for lone wolfs who have still been radicalised without traveling must be remembered. What recent attacks in France have specifically demonstrated is the threat from people who have mental challenges. In the build up to Christmas a series of attacks by individuals thought to have been influenced by specific religious teachings have occurred in busy shopping areas and in a police station. These incidents echo recent high profile attacks by lone wolfs in America, Australia and Canada.
As Dā’ish and Al Qaeda suffer from serious setbacks on the battlefields of Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan their obvious strategy is to appeal to people in the west sympathetic to their ideology to conduct attacks (at random) to show they still can have an effect. History shows that terrorist groups that are unable to maintain a momentum of attacks quickly become irrelevant. They suffer from the ‘silence of inaction’. People existing on the periphery of these groups inevitably drift away disillusioned by a lack of action reducing the potential constituency to which the terrorist groups can appeal.
'Lone wolves are the West's worst nightmare'
Dā’ish and Al Qaeda are obviously alive to these concerns. In the latest edition of Al Qaeda’s English language magazine Inspire specific rhetoric has been employed to encourage lone wolfs to act alone. In language designed to rally supporters Sheikh Nasr Al-Ânisi tells readers that “lone wolves are the West’s worst nightmare. They instil fear around the world”.
However similar calls in the past have appeared to fall largely on deaf ears. This is despite articles in Inspire providing specific guidance on how to prepare and carry out such operations. In one article readers were encouraged simply to pick out a knife from a kitchen cupboard and go out and attack people in a busy area, such as a railway station or shopping centre.
While the savage attack on Drummer Lee Rigby was conducted by two people it can be categorised as a ‘lone wolf’ attack. It stands out as being unusual. This is a pattern repeated across Europe. On the continent no major wave of lone wolf attacks has so far occurred. The only recent example was the attack conducted by Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29 year-old French citizen, in Brussels on 24 May 2014. This was an episode that quickly drew comparisons with the string of attacks conducted by Mohammad Mehra in the Toulouse region of France. He was the man that gunned down Jewish school children and killed former members of the French Foreign Legion in a separate attack.
The majority of terrorist plots disrupted in the UK over the last few years and brought to court proceedings have shown groups of people willing to act. Yet the possibility that any number of single people can respond to the New Year call to arms issued by Al Qaeda cannot be dismissed.
The calls to action by Al Qaeda have also been repeated by the leader of Dā’ish, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. While using slightly different rhetoric he has called for ‘volcanoes of Jihad to erupt everywhere’ in a speech issued just before Christmas. Of the three attacks in France in the lead up to the holiday period at least two have been shown to have links to the call issued by al-Baghdadi.
For the emergency services, facing some of the most savage cuts to their budgets in history, the issue of how to be resilient in the face of such attacks is difficult. While multi-agency responses are much lauded as the way to go even this approach has its limitations.
One highly motivated individual equipped with a gun or a knife can readily induce panic in a major shopping centre or railway station. How many would be seriously injured in such an attack is difficult to estimate but it could run into the low tens of people. The potential for crushing injuries can only be imagined as people try to leave the immediate area under attack.
As Government seeks to downsize its emergency services it needs to remember that the general public will not readily forgive it if cuts are made in front-line services that compromise their ability to respond. Where savings are made senior members of the emergency services do need to ‘war game’ how they would deal with some specifically difficult scenarios. It is not beyond the whit of such people, with schooling from overseas, to plot a series of events in short order that would severely test the ability of the emergency services to protect the public. That is the “nightmare scenario” to which Al Qaeda and Dā’ish aspire. It is one that could dawn at any time and at any place in Western Europe in the coming year.