The attack in San Bernardino social centre in California that saw fourteen people die and another twenty people seriously wounded is just another verse in the chapter of worldwide terrorist incidents that have started to emerge under the banner of the so-called Islamic State. Yet again, it would seem, the terrorists have managed to stay under the radar horizon of the authorities.
Since in January 2014 President Obama when noted the arrival on the international security landscape of what at the time he referred to as a ‘jayvee team’ that “lacked the capacity to execute major terrorist plots” the group we now know as Islamic State has undergone a significant transformation.
It is no longer a bit part player. It has become the de-facto, self-appointed leader of the global jihadi movement, replacing Al Qaeda. In that time it has claimed responsibility for the majority of major terrorist atrocities that have occurred in the world including the death of thirty British tourists in Tunisia and one hundred and thirty people in Paris and numerous attacks in Turkey, France, Canada, Australia and in Egypt to name a sub-set of the rapidly growing range of countries to have experienced the consequences of its violence.
The rapid emergence of this group has come at a really awkward time. The massive movement of people from Syria and other conflict zones has added another layer of complexity to the problems of providing a secure environment in Western Europe. As Christmas approaches one can genuinely sense the foreboding in the voices of Ministers all over Europe as they come to accept that it is only a matter of time before the next attack occurs and more bodies are lined up in the streets of yet another major European city.
The Defence Secretary in the build up to the debate in the House of Commons on extending the air strikes over Iraq into Syria alluded to the immediacy of the threat posed by so-called Islamic State. But if he truly believes that there is a clear and present danger to the United Kingdom why is he a part of a government that seems set on reducing our resilience to cope with the aftermath of such an attack?
How can he and his ministerial colleagues argue coherently that this is a good time to cut back on our ability to be resilient? Surely that is to fail in their primary duty to do all they can to keep the people of the United Kingdom safe? It would seem at the moment that all the emphasis is being placed on preventing attacks rather than ensuring should one occur that the country can rapidly respond and look after those caught up in its wake.
Creep under the security radar
Trying to prevent such attacks is proving very difficult. While in the United Kingdom the authorities have now prevented over sixty attacks occurring since the attacks in America on 11 September 2001 the potential for individuals to creep under the radar horizon of the Security Services remains real.
The recent announcement by the Prime Minister that increased funding will be given to the various elements of the Security Services, such as GCHQ and its sister organisations, will take time to filter through as capacity on the ground seeking to integrate and orchestrate the development of what is known as ‘actionable intelligence’.
In the meantime the cuts to the emergency services budgets, most notably those of the Fire and Rescue Services, proceed at full tilt. While the much aired cuts to the Police Service did not ultimately appear in the ‘Autumn Statement’ due to some extra money the Chancellor was able to find the ‘eye-watering cuts to the Fire and Rescue Service’ to quote one anonymous Fire Chief have gone ahead.
What does not seem to have permeated the minds of ministers is that this approach has created a capability gap that reduces the resilience of the emergency services at arguably a point where the threat of a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom has never been higher.
In the 2,000 days-plus that the United Kingdom threat level has been at severe since its public unveiling by MI5 the background drum beat of intelligence and related activities that point to the immediacy of a problem have never been so aligned. At the moment it is like a major alignment of the planets has occurred with all their gravitational forces combining to bring on a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom.
The final piece of that alignment occurred in the House of Commons this week when an overwhelming vote in favour of extending air attacks in Iraq to Syria was passed by a significant margin. The problem is that this can be likened to the impact of Jupiter, the largest planet, coming into alignment. Its gravitational force is that much larger than many of its colleagues. Therefore it is likely to have far more of an impact on what is already a very serious situation.
More vulnerable to attack
No matter how much the Prime Minister wishes to ‘spin this’ the simple fact of the matter is that we made ourselves more vulnerable to an attack at the point we were cutting our ability to be resilient against its worst manifestations.
It is true that our Security Services have a fantastic record of preventing attacks. It is an extraordinary track record built to some extent on the years of (hard) experiences gained out of dealing with terrorism in Northern Ireland. Spain’s experiences with trying to deal with the separatist group ETA have provided it with a similar backdrop. France however has lost the skills it gained in dealing with the situation in Algeria in the middle of the 20th century. The catalogue of mistakes now emerging that led up to the Paris attacks will prove to be a national embarrassment and one that will take time to rectify.
But can the Prime Minister rely on the intelligence services continuing that same level of success? If the patterns that are emerging around the world are any indicator of what is to come this is a flawed strategy. Even the head of MI5 recognises this when he speaks of “the public having unreasonable expectations of my service” in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.
The head of MI5 has been unequivocal about what he clearly believes to be the unreal expectations of ministers in the continued success rate of his teams. The planned investment is welcome but all that does is to enable the ability of the Security Services to expand to maintain its capability in line with the growing threat. It does not place MI5 is a dominant position.
So if the head of the Security Services believes that despite their hard work and genuine track record keeping up with the threat is hard why do ministers seem unable to envision the consequences of their cuts to the Fire and Rescue Service? Surely the approach to resilience has to be balanced?
A few more (highly trained) firearms officers is always a good thing, especially when the lessons from the attacks in Paris are given serious consideration, but they can never replace the ability of the Fire and Rescue Service to go into dangerous areas when a marauding firearms attack is underway to bring out people who may shortly succumb to their wounds.
It is hard to imagine the mind-set of ministers that appear so blinkered when it comes to the problem of this capability gap they have created through the programme of austerity. It honestly beggars belief that any rational person could be so blinded by the reality of what is going on. Have they not read the chapter that the so-called Islamic State is now writing in the history book of terrorism? It is in danger of rapidly becoming a book in its own right, creating its own genre in terms of a toxic blend of inhumanity, sadism, fascism and homophobia.
It is difficult not to conclude against this backdrop that this is some kind of systematic problem that lies at the heart of Government. An inability to grasp the significance of what is really going on at the moment, living in some kind of insulated fantasy world that bears little to reality.
Sadly with systemic problems such as that the only thing that will shake them out of their dream-like state will be the shock of the aftermath of a major attack. By any measure of reason that is not a great way to awake from the slumber of complacency that seems to have infected many in government.