On Saturday 17 January, the former head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, warned that it’s becoming easier for violent jihadists to evade detection, and that the ‘ability of the police and security agencies to do this important work of protecting our society and its vulnerable people is under threat from changing technology’.
On the same day, the current head of Europol, Rob Wainwright, declared that terrorism has become more difficult to tackle, warning: ‘Even in countries like France that have some of the most well-equipped counter-terrorist capabilities in the world, still it is possible for terrorist attacks to take place’.
The print and broadcast media are busy talking about a ‘new’ form of terrorism in the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo on 7 January. The police raid, on 15 January, in Verviers, Belgium that resulted in the seizure of guns, munitions, explosives, police uniforms and a large amount of money, as well as the deaths of two individuals suspected of attack-planning, reinforce the impression of a ‘new’ kind of terrorism threat that is challenging counter-terrorism authorities across Europe.
It is right to say that terrorism risks are increasing, not only in Europe but in many parts of the world (see my terrorism forecast for 2015 for my take on things). However, it’s crucial that we understand why terrorism risks are increasing, and what’s ‘new’ about recent events. In his comments on 17 January, Jonathan Evans mentions ‘vulnerability’ and ‘threat’. Understanding how these component parts of terrorism risks have changed will allow us to get a grip on the type of challenge we’re facing and inform effective responses.
Long-standing terrorism risks
Since the terrible events of 9/11, the UK and others have been grappling with the problem of terrorism inspired by al-Qaida and their single narrative of ‘The West vs Islam’. Very crudely speaking, terrorism risks to the UK have, in the most part, been presented by two categories of people:
Physically connected terrorists:
- People who are part of a physical terrorist network, with ‘upstream’ (usually overseas) and ‘downstream’ (usually UK-based) component parts. These people receive training from territorially-fixed terrorist hierarchies, such as al-Qaida Core, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and other jihadist groups bent on attacking the West.
- These established al-Qaida ‘franchises’, as they are often described, then sanction attacks against the West, providing direction to these people as necessary until the job is done or is foiled by counter-terrorism authorities.
- This category represents people who are highly capable and strongly motivated (higher threat) but, thanks to our capability to detect and disrupt established terrorist networks, we are well-placed to protect ourselves against them (lower vulnerability).
Virtually connected lone actors:
- People who are not part of an established physical terrorist network but are part of a virtual community of like-minded jihadists who share a dislike of the West and express, promote, reinforce and solidify a commitment to the global jihadist cause.
- These people do not receive training from terrorist groups, experience any time in jihadist theatre battlefields, or engage in any meaningful way with terrorist command and control structures. Instead, they interact with extremist ideologues over the internet and in other social networks, and consume and act on global jihadist propaganda.
- This category represents people who have not achieved a high level of capability, experience or focus (lower threat) but, thanks to their disconnection from identifiable physical terrorist networks, are able to operate under the radar and engage in, usually, low impact attack-planning, without drawing the attention of authorities (higher vulnerability). Lone actors Nicky Reilly, Andrew Ibrahim and Roshonara Choudhry fall into this category.
What’s ‘new’? Higher threat and higher vulnerability risks
As I suggested in my piece following the Charlie Hebdo attack, risk = threat + vulnerability. The UK has been presented with two types of terrorism risk over the past decade or so:
- HIGHER THREAT, LOWER VULNERABILITY risks: attack-planning that is high-impact but within the capabilities of the intelligence and security agencies to spot; and
- LOWER THREAT, HIGHER VULNERABILITY risks: attack-planning that is low-impact but very difficult to detect and disrupt.
What’s ‘new’ about the terrorism risk today? Simply-speaking, it combines capable and experienced terrorists with low-visibility behaviours to create:
- HIGHER THREAT, HIGHER VULNERABILITY risks: attack-planning that is high-impact and very difficult to detect and disrupt.
This category of risk reflects a perfect storm, fueled by the foreign fighter problem in Syria. Highly capable and strongly motivated individuals who receive training and experience, but who operate independently from established terrorism networks and exploit virtual networks (such as online social media and communication tools), making it harder for authorities to identify and manage risks.
How do we manage this ‘new’ terrorism risk?
The effective management of higher threat/higher vulnerability terrorism risks requires a focus on prevention, resilience and a strong relationship between decision-making and expertise:
- ‘Prevent’ strategies need to counter violent extremism by supporting counter-terrorism goals (i.e. to reduce the risk of terrorism) by detecting and disrupting individuals who use religion and extremist ideology to influence and recruit others to commit acts of violence. This requires a focus on people, not simply ideas.
- Following the post-attack publication of Charlie Hebdo, which ran with a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad under the heading ‘All is forgiven’, Zineb El Rhazoui, a columnist at Charlie Hebdo, declared on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We don’t feel any hate to [the gunmen]. We know that the struggle is not with them as people, but the struggle is with an ideology’. Whilst this sentiment is in many ways laudable and highlights the need to undermine extremist ideology to make progress against terrorism in the long term, our efforts need to focus on the people who promote, exploit and act on that ideology if we are to make any progress at all.
- Our increased vulnerability to potentially high-impact terrorist attacks means that we need to accept that events like the targeting of Charlie Hebdo are likely to happen in the West. In the past, concern was focused on low-impact attacks slipping under the radar and creating fear and panic. Today, planning needs to be made to deal with scenarios that have the potential to result in higher numbers of casualties and occur with greater frequency.
- Beyond equipping our police, emergency and intelligence & security services to deal with this reality, the media, the private sector and civil society writ-large have critical roles to play in mitigating the impact of terrorist acts, as well as preventing young people from turning to violent extremism in the first instance.
Decision-making and expertise:
- It wasn’t long before experts in the media were comparing the attack on Charlie Hebdo with the 2008 Mumbai attacks, or describing it as a marauding gun attack, which exposed a deficiency in the rigour of some analysis. The Mumbai attacks were a series of twelve highly co-ordinated shooting and bombing attacks that lasted a period of four days, carried out by a long-established and highly organised extremist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba; not like the attack on Charlie Hebdo at all. There was also little sense that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was carried out by marauding gunmen acting indiscriminately. The attack overall was swift, targeted and, apparently, intended to end with the gunmen’s escape.
- The point being: it’s tempting to pigeon-hole when analysing complex issues like terrorism and use historical examples to shape people’s understanding of ever-evolving threats. Unfortunately, this approach can lead to poor insight and bad decisions. The relationship between decision-making and expertise, both subject-matter and in the field of structured analytical thinking/future forecasting, will be crucial if we are to anticipate future attacks and respond to them effectively.
By Chris Mackmurdo Founding Director of Contest Global www.contestglobal.com