The arrest of Erol Incedal near the Tower of London in 2013 revealed a new threat to the country: The return of fighters from Syria who wanted to harm the UK. The problem of returning fighters however was not new.
International terrorism from the 1980s was heavily shaped by those involved in, or influenced by, the various conflicts in Afghanistan, which attracted fighters from the Middle East and Central and South Asia especially. During the 1990s, Afghanistan became a haven for extremists to train, develop strategies and form international alliances; veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan also fought in the Algerian civil war, in Bosnia and Chechnya and carried out terrorist attacks internationally. Some veterans subsequently sought asylum in the UK, where the combination of extremists from different regions with a variety of experiences and skills helped shape the contemporary Islamist threat to the UK. The loss of Afghanistan post-9/11 was a significant setback to al-Qaeda (AQ), although AQ remained in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas from where it launched several major attacks and attempted attacks against the West, including the 2005 London bombings and the attempted airlines plot of 2006. The regular ow of extremists attending training camps in Pakistan proved highly significant to the terrorist threat to the UK for many years, demonstrated by the number of AQ attack plots involving conspirators who had received terrorist training there.
In 2017, the UK suffered four Islamist attacks involving at least six terrorists. Whilst international influences were apparent in the events, particularly Salman Abedi’s travel to Libya and Ahmed Hassan’s Iraqi heritage, none of the terrorists had undertaken extremist travel to the so-called Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The threat of returning fighters undertaking attacks appears not as stark as feared. The events in the UK were in contrast to trends seen in Europe, including the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 and upon Brussels airport and metro in March 2016 where cell members had returned from the so-called Caliphate. Whilst Daesh was influencing global trends in terrorism by directing and inciting such attacks, UK counter terrorism (CT) also had an inadvertent role in shaping the threat the UK would face.
In the UK, CT use of travel restrictions post-2013 proved an essential tool in mitigating the then increasing capabilities of Daesh, preventing extremists from travelling to Iraq and Syria and gaining combat experience which could later be used against their homeland. The travel restrictions, however, did not prevent domestic attack plans especially by those extremists who had their travel frustrated by the CT police and MI5, including members of the London Bridge attack cell. In an apparent response to the difficulties some extremists were experiencing in reaching the so-called Caliphate, Daesh provided remote incitement to them via media and propaganda. The ‘Indeed Your Lord Is Ever Watchful’ speech by then-Daesh spokesman al Adnani in 2014 encouraged low complexity attacks against a range of targets by those who could not travel. A wave of attacks, starting in Australia, then spreading to America and into Europe quickly followed. Whilst extremist ideology had been a long-standing aspect in UK attack plots, this speech correlates to an increased frequency of actual attacks. This is a strong indication of the start of extensive and sophisticated media and social media campaigns, creating a ‘virtual caliphate’, when evolving media technology and extremist messaging offered an alternative to actual travel for extremist purposes. This ‘virtual caliphate’ continues to provide a domain of both AQ and Daesh narratives, propaganda and instructional material for extremists to access, reducing the need for terrorist training overseas.
Encrypted messaging channels and social media platforms now provide extremists with an operational apparatus to incite, encourage, plan and publicise attacks. This online ecosystem provides a realistic alternative to the knowledge transfer and experiences previously only offered by undertaking travel for extremist purposes and returning home. Like AQ’s experiences post-Afghanistan, the Daesh post-caliphate now has a decentralised command and control structure with senior leaders’ communications disrupted and infrequent. Daesh, however, is in the position to exploit technological advances and use them to sustain operations internationally. This, together with the sheer volume of extremist material and encrypted messages makes plots harder to detect and disrupt. The intensity of this influence now means attack plans can quickly progress to an advanced stage, reducing opportunity to stop them.
This post-caliphate generation of extremists will prolong the SEVERE terrorism threat to the UK. This generation incorporates those convicted terrorists already released, or soon to be freed, after serving custodial sentences, including Erol Incedal, al Muhajiroun co-founder Anjem Choudary and members of significant plots such as the AQ cell who attempted to bring down transatlantic planes with liquid bombs in 2006. As such, the UK will soon experience a mix of both AQ and Daesh terrorists freed from prison and likely to reside in existing hotspots of Islamist extremism within England, particularly Birmingham and London. Whilst reoffending rates for terrorism offences may be low, these releases can only place even greater demands on MI5 and the CT police, managing and monitoring their reintegration with society.
It is probable that the domestic threat will be amplified by a shortened cycle of conviction, custodial sentence and release of terrorist prisoners. Because of the 2017 attacks, CT police are likely to have a lower tolerance for risk within investigations. This could result in earlier plot disruptions resulting in weaker evidential yields that reach only the threshold for terrorism offences which carry lesser custodial sentences. Whilst terrorist arrests and convictions are likely to increase, many are likely to serve shorter custodial sentences and their quicker release will compound the current threat.
This illustrates why the severity of the threat shows no indication of reducing. Whilst the spectre of fighters returning from the so-called Caliphate and undertaking attacks is a factor, greater risks already sit closer to our homes. Attacks are likely to happen with little or no warning and involve a spectrum of methodologies against a range of targets. How those attacks are carried out no longer relies on battle experience from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya or Iraq and Syria. The ‘virtual caliphate’ is replacing the need to travel. Understanding the frequency of contemporary terrorism should not be judged purely on attacks when they occur. The high level of arrests and disrupted plots is likely to continue, and the private sector should, through proportionate risk mitigation measures, place itself in a position not only to reduce the likelihood of being caught up in an attack, but also to recover quickly from events should they occur.