Any member of the public watching the scenes emerging from Tunisia may well have been tempted to recollect the day on 7 July 2005 when Islamic terrorism last (successfully) visited the streets of the United Kingdom. On that day fifty-two people died alongside the four terrorists that planned and conducted the attack with just over seven hundred people being injured. The ratio of those killed to the number of bombs detonated was thirteen, excluding the suicide bombers. In Madrid fifteen months earlier it had been nineteen when ten bombs killed one hundred and ninety one people.
In the ten years that have passed since the attacks in London a number of other high profile events have occurred. Places such as Mumbai, Nairobi, Garissa, Tunis and now Sousse have been added to an ever growing list of locations that have borne witness to the horrors of Islamic extremism.
This however is not the totality of what is done in the name of Islamic extremism. In Baga in Nigeria a reported two thousand people died at the hands of Boko Haram In January 2015. This is just one of a sequence of attacks that have shown little regard for human life.
Across Iraq and Syria mass graves are routinely uncovered that also bear witness to the bestiality of the group known as Dā’ish. Their ability to shock seems to know few boundaries. From crucifixion to throwing people off high buildings because of their alleged sexuality the group conducts a campaign of intimidation and terror that appears to be reaching an ever wider geographic area across the Middle East.
Other forms of extremism have also left their indelible mark on society. In Norway the act of a single lone gunman motivated by a very different form of extremism saw eight people die in an initial bomb attack on Oslo before sixty nine young people also lost their lives as Anders Breivik embarked on a murderous campaign on violence on the island of Utøya.
The catalogue of major terrorist attacks in places such as Oklahoma, Beirut, Mombasa, Baghdad, Kabul and Damascus and of course Washington and New York on September 11 seemingly continues to grow at a pace. In the last ten years the average number of terrorist attacks per month grew from around one thousand a month at the time of the attack on London to two thousand a month just after the ‘Arab Spring’ which was supposed to bring democracy to the Middle East.
Of late as governments around the world have responded to the increasing threat the level has dropped back to around one thousand five hundred a month. This however is still fifty percent above the level it was at the time of the attacks on London a decade ago. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned just over fifty major terrorist attacks have been prevented since September 11 – five of these so far this year. Despite the passage of time and all the lives sacrificed in Iraq and Afghanistan that were supposed to make the streets of the United Kingdom safer the threat level remains at severe.
But what else has changed in that period of time? Ten years ago the major threat to western societies was seen to be Al Qaeda. Today it is a shadow of its former self – teetering on extinction. As a result of the concerted activities of the Pakistani Army the small remnants of the group’s ‘core leadership’ are scattered over various parts of Pakistan. Its leader Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri is unable even to publish a voice mail claiming the attacks in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
With many of its former franchises now publically declaring their allegiance to Dā’ish Al Qaeda appears to be in a tail spin of irreversible decline. The loss of its second-in-command to a drone attack in Yemen seemed just to highlight its current woes. Its only recent piece of good news being that the Somali-based franchise Al-Shabab has decided to remain loyal.
Reinvigorated in a different context
But that one piece of news cannot hide the major transformation that has taken place in the threat landscape in the last ten years. Unless Al Qaeda can pull off a spectacular to put itself back on the map of international terrorism its decline into the wilderness of inconsequentiality and irrelevance seems inevitable. Today Dā’ish are the main player and the focus of the western world’s intelligence agencies.
So what is the threat that Dā’ish presents to the west? At present the evidence emerging from the many lone wolf attacks in Canada, Australia, the United States, France and Demark is that the well-planned and high mortality attacks that were the hallmark of Al Qaeda have been replaced by the random act of violence by people seeking to associate themselves with Dā’ish. Many are clearly responding to the narrative of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s call to “ignite volcanoes of Jihad everywhere”.
But will this change continue? With Dā’ish so focused on the creation of a new Caliphate across the Middle East is it just possible that the threat to the west has actually gone done? Could it be that ten years on London is actually safer at the moment with the chances of a repeat attack almost minimal? After all while thirty British citizens died on a beach in Tunisia they were targeted on holiday, not in the United Kingdom.
The answer of course is it is difficult to know. The risk from the actions of lone wolves is apparent and one man with a gun or a knife can still create mayhem and receive a lot of attention from the media. But with ten years having passed and barring a failed attempt to attack Glasgow Airport and many arrests preventing attacks that were in various stage of planning the threat from Islamic extremism has hardly proven to be robust. When was the last time they actually achieved anything significant? A decade without a successful attack in the United Kingdom could be the cause of some optimism if the long shadow of Dā’ish were to be removed from the equation.
That however is almost bound to be wishful thinking. As the acolytes of Dā’ish continue to return from their forays into Iraq and Syria they will inevitably bring with them knowledge of others that have fought from similar backgrounds. Long-standing friendships built up on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq will be reinvigorated in a different context.
It takes time for trusted social networks to form and the next two years is the point at which they may come to the fore – presenting a new form of high casualty attacks perhaps based on improvised chemical weapons. Many who have proven their dedication to the cause in the Middle East will be told to return and plan attacks in the west using skills they have obtained whilst fighting for Dā’ish in Iraq and Syria.
Ten years on from the attacks on the London transport system it is clear that the nature of the immediate threat we face is somewhat different from that which was posed a decade ago. But that may simply be a respite from the start of another campaign carried out by people who have made a habit out of showing just how barbarous they can be when it comes to finding novel ways of eliminating their opponents.
Should that kind of attitude be at the heart of a planned attack in the west we may well see the horrors of 7 July revisited upon us in the United Kingdom. As our emergency services prepare and plan for dealing with such an event it is worthwhile remembering that as far as many in the intelligence services are concerned it is simply a case of when not if.