In the light of international terrorist groups shifting their tactics Dr Dave Sloggett highlights the difficult of knowing which events have some link to acts of terrorism:
The last few weeks have been one set of headlines after another carrying bad news. The loss of so many fire-fighters in one major forest fire in Arizona stands out. It comes weeks after Al Qaeda declared forest fires as a viable tactic for terrorists in an edition of their Inspire magazine. The article itself discussed ways of starting forest fires with the aim of achieving the maximum impact on a local population.
Citing an example of a specific event in Australia the writer even presumed to suggest that the heat released in the forest fire equated to the detonation of 23 nuclear weapons. With Al Qaeda maintaining its interest in weapons of mass destruction that kind of language is interesting. It shows Al Qaeda’s messaging has become even more subtle in its delivery.
Given the scale of the death-toll in Arizona it washardly surprising that within hours of the death of the firemen being announced a group linked to Al Qaeda used an on-line forum to announce it was behind the start of the fire. Of course that claim may be entirely false. But the speed with which the claim was made points to the ease with which events, deliberate or spontaneous, can be used for publicity purposes. Heathland fires have also been raging in the United Kingdom. In Dorset local fire-fighters battled a blaze that all indications suggest had been started deliberately.
Fire has a particular impact upon people and its use as a weapon of terror is an obvious tactical development. The night time images of the burning Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai and the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul both provided pointed examples of how fire can be used as a weapon of terror. While as yet unlinked specifically to terrorism the blast at the fertiliser factory just outside Waco in Texas added another dimension as its destroyed houses in the immediate vicinity.
There is little doubt that the Inspire magazine has a tangible impact on its readership. The disruption of an attack in British Columbia, Canada that was scheduled to take place on the countries national day seems to have stopped a repeat of the events in Boston earlier on in the year.
Of all the recent events the fireball that consumed the Canadian town of Lac-Megnatic that appears to have killed at least 50 people was perhaps the most dramatic. The charred remains of those caught up in the conflagration will provide had to identify. The scale of the disaster was apparent from the video footage shown at the scene. It also caused over 2,000 people to leave their home. The 72 tankers carrying shale oil had gathered speed as they entered the town and then derailed. The incident is now the subject of a detailed criminal investigation as to how the brakes on the train were not functioning. Could that have been a deliberate act?
Within days of the horrific scenes in Quebec a passenger train had derailed in a small town on the outskirts of Paris on a Friday evening. People aboard were heading home for the weekend. Six people are currently known to have died in the crash with many more seriously injured.
Early reports emerging from the French railway operator suggest a bolt had come loose on a key part of the track. This is not the first, nor will it be the last, such event.
However in the light of recent events and the raised threshold of alert in France over possible acts of terrorism the question of if the bolt came undone of its own accord or with the help of someone seeking to derail any passing train will be asked. All it would have taken both in Canada and France is the actions of a single lone wolf who had no regard for the mayhem he or she was about to create.
The problem the security services in all western countries now have is that Al Qaeda is seeking to widen the range of attacks it conducts. Evidence recovered from Bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad in Pakistan showed the new thinking. Drawings in a notebook assumed to have belonged to Bin Laden had a range of what might be called novel ways of conducting terror attacks. Drawings of railway trains being derailed along an embankment are reported to have been contained in Bin Laden’s notebook.
It is of course always tempting to develop numerous conspiracy theories around such events. The majority often turn out to be the results of human error, which hardly constitutes a deliberate act of terror. Many of these events, despite claims to the contrary, may have perfectly plausible explanations. However in the febrile atmosphere in which we all now live the questions have to be asked.
But there is a final and perhaps equally important thing to consider. Despite being littered with illustrations even a magazine like Inspire only can have a limited impact of a person vulnerable to the sophisticated messaging issued by Al Qaeda. What however is far more telling is the imagery broadcast through the international media of video footage of the aftermath of events. That is something that can readily inspire those who feel they have a deep-seated grievance they wish to express.