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Perfect storm: Reducing the chances of a terror attack


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Dr Dave Sloggett explores the basis of another spectacular terrorist attack in Western Europe.

Perfect storm: Reducing the chances of a terror attack

A perfect storm: it occurs infrequently, but when it does, the powers of nature are unleashed cataclysmically. Hurricane Katrina is one such example whose images are set in our collective psyche. While weather forecasting has become more accurate predicting when events occur to a specific date and location requires a human touch, the meteorologist.

The events of September 11 can be seen through such a lens. This time terrorists harnessed the power of images to send a message to the world. But was this a one-off event? Never to be re-written again in the annals of history.

At the time Al Qaeda bragged it was planning three such attacks a year. September 11, however, remains the high watermark of terrorism if benchmarked by sheer audacity, originality and the numbers of people that died, nearly 3,000 from more than 90 nationalities, including 67 British nationals. Today over 18,000 people suffer from long-term health impacts of being exposed to the debris caused by the attack.

Terrorists however continue to aspire to conducting mass casualty attacks. It is axiomatic that they cannot terrorise unless they maintain a drum-beat of attacks that are credible. Attacks, such as Westminster Bridge and Borough Market in London by individuals still have the ability to capture headlines. But by comparison with September 11 they are small-scale events.

From a marketing viewpoint they do maintain the brand image. Few doubt, that terrorists inspired by a specific ideology could not strike at a time and place of their choosing and with an increasing range of tactics and improvised weapons at their disposal.

Attacks last year in the United Kingdom made that clear. Cars, knives, Molotov Cocktails and improvised explosive devices are now part of an increasingly wider range of ‘weapons’ that terrorists use on a day-to-day basis. These are important elements required to create a perfect storm.

In November 2015 terrorists carried out another spectacular attack. This time in Paris. One that saw 130 killed. Change the timings a little and perhaps many more would have died. It is not difficult to write a scenario with more than 500 dead. This was a significant event. As was the lorry attack in Nice. Terrorists have also targeted The Manchester Arena, Brussels Airport and the Metro and Istanbul Airport. Casualties in those attacks ran into the several tens of dead and many hundreds injured.

Such major attacks occur infrequently. Like major earthquakes and volcanic eruptions these are rare events. But they do happen. Forecasting that they will occur again is not hard. But predicting precisely when such major events occur is much more difficult. Like earthquakes, there are lots of little events – the terrorism equivalent being attacks by so-called ‘lone wolves’, but just occasionally a major event occurs and many people are killed.

The recent lack of successful acts of terrorism in Western Europe comes at a time when the international Muslim Extremism movement - Al Qaeda and so-called Islamic State (IS) - is arguably in disarray. International efforts by Russia and the Syrian Government in collaboration with the Turkish military operations in the north have seen many of the remnants of IS scatter from their former stronghold in Raqqa to sanctuaries in the desert. From these locations they have been able to launch isolated suicide attacks that clearly seek to maintain their operational momentum – albeit at a much lower tempo.

Others have returned to Pakistan, the Philippines and other parts of Africa looking to continue acts of terrorism. In the last week IS has been able to claim four significant attacks in Pakistan, one killing 130 people at an election rally. Similar occasional high casualty attacks have occurred in Afghanistan. These are, however, increasingly isolated events. Records of IS attacks now show they peaked in 2013 and 2014. Since then there has been a steady, if unspectacular, decline in the attacks they have conducted.

That IS seeks to conduct major attacks cannot be in doubt. IS claims to be ready to attack the European Champions’ League Final in Kiev and the World Cup have come to nothing. IS messaging claiming to out Russia in the crosshairs seeking revenge for their intervention in Syria has turned into a damp squib. Chilling videos showing famous footballers being beheaded and drone attacks on stadiums have not materialised in reality.

Many IS supporters may be becoming disheartened at this point. A point recognised by its leadership in their evolving narrative which emphasises steadfastness and that recent setbacks are a ‘test of their commitment to their ideology’. 

Other former IS fighters have simply returned home to the countries they left seeking to fight for IS in Syria and Iraq. Interpol claims it has a list of just over 150 people that it believes are ready to conduct attacks in Western Europe. Recent reporting from the Netherlands suggests that this rate of returns has increased over the last few weeks.

Other countries across Western Europe are seeing similar patterns. Intelligence services are being stretched by this and are finding it hard to maintain a watch on all of those that may wish to remain involved in the International Muslim Extremist movement in some way.

A similar pattern has occurred in Iraq where the Iraqi Government and their NATO allies have made huge strides in stabilising Mosul and its surrounding areas. Some authorities believe that IS now holds less than five per cent of the terrain it previously occupied. That IS has been severely weakened is true. But it does not mean it is defeated.

What of Al Qaeda? Its leadership cannot like remaining in the shows of IS. That Al Qaeda wishes to relive its moment in the media spotlight by conducting another major attack in Western Europe cannot be doubted. It wishes to reclaim the leadership of the International Muslim Extremism Movement. To suggest Al Qaeda is beyond being able to conduct such operations is to tempt fate.

If anything, recent statements by the head of MI5 and his opposite numbers across Western Europe suggest a very different take on the way the threat is emerging. Many warnings and indicators are pointing towards another major attack being on the horizon. The recent rate of arrests of those planning attacks and those coming before the judicial system across Western Europe is an obvious indicator.

Another measure, in the public domain, is that 350 people, of a total of 450 who went to fight for IS in Syria and Iraq from the United Kingdom have returned. A further 900 people who wished to travel to Syria and Iraq were denied that right as their passports were withdrawn.

How are they feeling today knowing that the Caliphate in which they wanted to live has all but been destroyed by the west? If the numbers of people arrested in 2017 for planning acts of terrorism is anything to go by many are unhappy. Those incarcerated rose by just under 60 per cent in 2017. The figure in 2016 had been 261. In 2017 it was 412.  Of those arrested in 2017, 135 were charged, 110 of those on terrorism-related offences. The overwhelming majority of these held extreme Islamic views.  

Other obvious warnings and indicators suggest that the conditions for a perfect storm are clear. The number of people jailed for terrorism-related offences in Western Europe that are due to be released in the next 18 months sees a significant number of people being freed. In France, for example, 64 per cent of people currently convicted of being involved in terrorism will have left jail by 2020. Similar patterns exist across Europe in countries such as Denmark and Belgium.  

In the United Kingdom 80 of 193 prison terms will also end by the end of 2018. A significant number (418 out of) are refusing to be involved in deradicalisation training. Of itself, this is concerning and suggests that the next stage of the evolution of the storm, with the winds increasing, is already in motion.

But that is not the only indicator that a perfect storm is gathering. The rate of information flow from the public in the United Kingdom on people who are acting suspiciously and may be on the fringes of terrorism or the Extreme Right Wing continues to provide the Security Services with around 20 ‘concrete’ leads a day.

Just trying to maintain a watch over those and eliminate the other approximately 85 leads a day that require at least a peripheral analysis is difficult. Despite the set-backs suffered by IS the workload on the security services is notably increasing. Clearly their strategy of using cyberspace as their main recruitment channel still works. Action to curtail their activities in this arena has never been more important.

In calling for that degree of cooperation to be maintained across Europe Andrew Parker is trying his best to ensure that other elements of the conditions required for a perfect storm to occur are reduced to a minimum. He knows that another major terrorist attack is highly likely. But as with weather forecasting, being absolutely clear as to when and where it will occur is extremely difficult. Everyone just knows, as with earthquakes, the next event will occur. The problem is predicting precisely when, where and how that will happen.

Dr Dave Sloggett is an independent consultant and academic working in the emergency services sector.

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Hopefully everyone is aware of RUN HIDE TELL

Obviously the TELL phase should include dialing 999, but what if you're in hiding and can't speak for fear of discovery? Then you can use the "55 Silent Solution." Once you are connected to the operator just dial 55 on your mobile phone and that will  tell them for sure that this is an emergency and that you cannot speak.

Another - and potentially safer - option is to send a text to the emergency operator, but you need to register your mobile number first:  send "register" to 999 and follow the instructions on the return text.

These facilities are not just for CT incidents but can be used in any emergency when it's not possible to speak (eg Mountain Rescue Teams often prefer a text as voice calls can be difficult in bad weather) so I encourage everyone to register and spread the word.

Be safe out there







Edited by Billy Blue Tac
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