Whilst we recognise the event outside the Palace of Westminster on 14 August is being treated as potentially terrorist in nature, there have been no other terrorist attacks on the UK Mainland during the year to date. The intent of Islamist extremists, however, to inflict mass casualties in crowded places remains clear and present. The lack of successful attacks in 2018 is in stark contrast to 2017 which witnessed five successful attacks (four Islamist and one Extreme Right Wing (XRW)), resulting in 36 deaths and over 300 injured. A further 17 plots have been disrupted since March 2017. It would be too easy and premature to say that the loss of the physical, so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq has led to this decrease in attacks and that the threat of Daesh and al Qaeda (AQ) has diminished. The Police and MI5 currently state that one major terrorist plot is being thwarted every month. It is therefore unsurprising that the UK threat level from Islamist extremism remains at SEVERE and is likely to remain so for the next 18 to 24 months. It is probably too early to make any predictions on what might happen next and what form ‘Daesh 2.0’ might take and, more importantly, whether we are at a ‘tipping point’ in the Islamist extremist campaign against the West. Our guest writers express their views, supported by Pool Re subject matter experts.
Dr Andrew Glazzard comments in his article that “Daesh is down but not out and, on the surface, Daesh appears to be downtrodden in Syria and Iraq and has entered, probably quite deliberately, into ‘survival mode’ as it considers its options, recuperates, regroups and rearms.” However, there have been recent incidents of increasingly brazen attacks by small groups of Daesh fighters who are now operating in cells along traditional insurgency lines. The emergence of increasingly powerful affiliates in Afghanistan, Yemen and Southeast Asia – leveraging off areas of weak governance and local issues – is evidence that the perverse ideology that it promotes is far from extinguished. The contagion effects of this ideology will continue to spread across the globe and fuel extremist behaviour. Whether these ‘foreign’ affiliates will pose a direct threat, in the near future, to the UK (as Daesh achieved during the height of the so-called Caliphate, with its ‘directed operations’ from Syria/Raqqa) remains to be seen. Ali Soufan goes one step further by proposing that the “fracturing of Islamic State could lead to the emergence of new, and in some cases more violent and operationally capable, splinter organisations.” Soufan raises the concern that these “follow on franchise groups could ultimately develop to be highly operationally capable and focused on attacking the West, as we have seen before with the evolution of al Qaeda (AQ) in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.”
A review of the attacks across Europe in 2017 and the first half of 2018 suggest that most attacks were undertaken by inspired or self-radicalised individuals, utilising low technology methods to inflict lethal effect. The TRAC database highlights that, across Europe, the main targets remain police, Government and military figures, although attacks in the UK have been predominantly against crowded places. Andrew Glazzard comments that “homegrown terrorists, inspired and not necessarily directed by Daesh or AQ, will remain the biggest problem.” This is supported by other experts in the counter terrorism (CT) field who predict that there will be an organic growth of ‘inspired’ terrorist groups, many of them portraying more cult and group-based behaviours than genuine followers of Islamist extremism. Anticipated attacks by returning fighters, enabled by battle hardened experience and technical competence from the front line, has yet to fully materialise in the UK, but this does not discount the possibility of it happening or the mounting of a spectacular attack by Daesh or AQ. Ali Soufan highlights one of the reasons for this being to “maintain group morale and burnish the group’s brand”. The aviation sector, be it a plane or airport, remains the most highly desired target for AQ.