Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the threat to the United Kingdom that as a result of the emergence of the extremist group called ISIS that now operates in Syria and Iraq:
Of all the statements emerging from Whitehall over the threat from people returning from Syria to conduct terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom the Defence and Security lecture at the Mansion House in London on 24 June is perhaps the most telling. It came at a time when numerous press reports of people travelling from the United Kingdom to Syria and Iraq where appearing.
In a section of the speech devoted to the current threat posed to the United Kingdom Teresa May stated “we face further threats from Syria and now from Iraq where Al Qaeda, ISIS and others have created a safe haven with substantial resources including advanced technology and weapons”. She went on to add “they are on the doorstep of Europe, just a few hours flying time from London, and they want to attack us – not just in Syria or Iraq but here in Britain”.
This remark drew some unfair criticism. It was compared by some commentators to the now highly questionable remarks made by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair ahead of the Parliamentary vote to become involved in Gulf War Two. In that speech he said quite clearly that the intelligence briefings he had seen suggested that Britain was a mere 45 minutes away from being attacked by a chemical weapon aboard an Iraqi ballistic missile.
Indeed it is possible to suggest that this one element of the speech he gave to the House of Commons was the centrepiece of his argument, securing support from many Members of Parliament across the political spectrum. Of course the accuracy of that claim is now openly questioned by many; hence the rather unfair comparisons drawn with the comments at the Mansion House by the Home Secretary.
Clear and present danger
On face value the Home Secretary’s speech was simply trying to illustrate that a determined potential terrorism was a mere number of hours away if travelling by air from somewhere like Istanbul into the United Kingdom. Prior to reaching his or her place of departure the terrorist would have had to travel overland for possibly several days from the war zone in Syria or Iraq before reaching an airport with direct links to London. The implication of what she said was the United Kingdom faces a clear and present danger from such potential modes of transport.
The implication that as soon as that person lands back in the United Kingdom they would be ready to conduct an attack within a matter of hours is of course just one interpretation of the speech. Any terrorist really trying to succeed would surely spend some time doing a reconnaissance of a potential target and also spend some time and effort getting ready. So despite the arguments over what the Home Secretary actually meant by using such language there are others examples of just how imminent the threat is in the United Kingdom.
The death of the thirty-one year-old Saudi student Nahid Almanea in Colchester in June was quickly labelled as a potential racist attack by Essex Police. She had been stabbed sixteen times in what was clearly a frenzied attack. This may have been a safety first approach, trying to ensure that any speculation over motive was restricted to a debate that was controlled by the Police.
But what that use of language quickly created was the conditions for a range of messages to appear on various social network sites from fighters in Syria suggesting in inflammatory language that someone in the United Kingdom should take revenge for what happened to Ms Almanea. Using arguments based on the well-established principle of an eye-for-an-eye many postings on social media called for a repeat of the attack which saw Drummer Lee Rigby die in Woolwich. These started to appear within minutes of the initial statement being made by Essex Police.
The immediacy of the response and implied threat on social media to such an event provides some important lessons for the police and also provides an alternative way of looking at the Home Secretary’s observation. Within a matter of days Essex Police started to change the narrative concerning the attack implying that there were other similar incidents that were now falling under a single investigative umbrella – playing down the potential for the death of Ms Almanea to be labelled as a racist incident.
High degree of repeatability in VBIED attacks
Of course anyone heeding the calls for a revenge attack does not have to resort to using a knife. That was also the method used by Ms Roshonara Choudhry to try and kill the Member of Parliament Stephen Timms on 14 May 2010. In China a number of multiple stabbing stacks have been used at railway stations so far this year by separatists allied to Al Qaeda. However they could also use other forms of attack. One of these is to create a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED).
This has been a weapon of choice in the civil war still gripping Syria. In 2012 a total of 113 VBIED were deployed by insurgents against the regime of President Assad. These attacks killed a total of 644 people (a ratio of 5.75 per attack). On the face of it this number appears quite low until the nature of the attacks is understood. The insurgents mainly used these devices against Syrian Army checkpoints manned by between 10 and 15 people on the outskirts of major cities.
This tactic was used by the insurgents to avoid civilian deaths. In 2013 the total of VBIED detonated in Syria fell slightly to 107 killing 768 people (a ratio of 7.2 per attack). To date in 2014 the run-rate of attacks has been maintained as is currently at 65 until the end of July. If maintained this would see 112 attacks occur by the end of 2014. These attacks resulted in 494 deaths (a ratio of 7.6 per attack). Clearly the average death toll per VBIED attack shows a high degree of repeatability over the last two and a half years. But that is in quite a specific situation where attacks are mounted outside major city conurbations.
If such technologies were to be brought to the mainland of the United Kingdom the death toll would be considerably higher. The Irish Republican Army avoided civil casualties in their attacks on the City of London (Bishopsgate) and Docklands in 1993 and 1996 choosing to detonate the devices outside normal working hours. Syrian terrorists, trained in the art of building VBIED, returning to the United Kingdom might not be quite so forgiving.
What this all suggests is that the conclusion that the Home Secretary was right to warn of the immediacy of the threat. It is just that is the modern highly connected world where actions and events can be quickly motivated by incendiary statements posted on social media the speed with which that threat can manifest itself may be even quicker than that implied in what has now gone into intelligence folklore as the ‘dodgy dossier’.