7/7 anniversary: How big is the threat of terrorism?

We hear warnings such that Britain faces the biggest threat from terrorism in a decade. Do you agree with this assessment, is the biggest problem right now the rise of ISIS or you see also some other factors? Read few comments.

Steve Hewitt, Senior Lecturer in American and Canadian Studies, University of Birmingham

Terrorism is clearly the top security threat to the United Kingdom at the moment but it is wrong to see this as something new. From 1968 into the 1990s, Irish Republican terrorism led to deaths and destruction across the United Kingdom. This problem eventually subsided thanks to the Good Friday agreement only to be replaced by Islamist violence. Thankfully, the death toll has yet to reach the levels as occurred with violence caused by Northern Ireland. On the other hand, there appears to be no clear solution to the problem as there was with Irish Republicanism where a political solution was possible. The latest manifestation of Islamist violence is ISIS and its ultimate impact on the UK domestic security scene is yet to be determined. Certainly, it has attracted several hundred British adherents who have gone to Syria and to Iraq to fight. The concern is what happens when they return as, in fact, some have already done. There have already been attacks on the continent associated with returnees but so far there has not been a UK attack. There is also a danger posed by those inspired by ISIS who decide to carry out an attack at home instead of going abroad. Inevitably, there will be a future attack because the nature of terrorism currently, with unsophisticated, small-scale attacks, carried out by small groups or individuals, makes such attacks extremely difficult to prevent. Essentially, both the security agencies and government officials have made it clear that it is a matter not of if an attack will occur but when it will occur. The one positive is that because of the small-scale and lack of sophistication the potential for a large loss of life is likely not that great although as we saw in Tunisia 1 determined individual with an automatic weapon can wreak havoc.

Adrian GuelkeProfessor, Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict, Queen’s University of Belfast

Actually the phrase used by the Prime Minister was not “in a decade” but “in a generation”.  A generation is normally taken to be 25 years, which is roughly how long the Provisional IRA’s violent campaign in Northern Ireland lasted.  That may not be entirely a coincidence as it is obviously the UK’s most recent experience in this area.  Of course, no-one can possibly reach any conclusion about this at all since there are a vast number of variables that might affect it.  In any case, lone wolves are likely to continue to kill people under a wide variety of pretexts (some political, some not) as long as they can get hold of the means for carrying out such attacks (which brings in the question of the availability of guns).  The UK domestically has very strong laws on gun control so that reduces the risk within the UK itself.  Tourists in countries in which violent political struggles are taking place are another matter and have been for quite some time (if one looks at a timeline of such episodes).  The nationalities of the tourists have varied and that has influenced the coverage in the media.

In a very large number of countries (including more or less the whole of Europe extending to Russia, US, Canada, Australia and even South Africa), there is quite evidently strong hostility to immigrants and this is compounded in a number of cases by the link in the public mind between immigrant communities and terrorism and that is reflected in xenophobia and Islamophobia – in turn driving the alienation that is producing among other consequences recruits to ISIS.  However, if ISIS disappears or is decapitated, other groups may emerge.  How all this will ultimately play out is very hard to judge, but the lead in what strategy is adopted in response is likely to be taken by whoever the US President is (Hillary after 2016?).

Anthony GleesProfessor, Director, Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, University of Buckingham

The threat we face in Britain today is more serious than it was ten years ago.

There are more Islamist jihadists in the UK than in 2005; AQ was an ideology of terror but that was all it was, the IS’s ideology of terror is not just even more extreme, if that were possible, with its sadistic and repugnant killings of large numbers of people but, importantly, unlike AQ IS is a political entity: it’s an ideology of jihadism with a state attached.

This makes it very dangerous to us because it not only serves as a beacon to young British (and European) Muslims but it supplies them with a ‘permissive place’ where they can train. I’m told that there are now fewer British people going off to IS than this time last year, which is good news, but that those who go are even more fanatical and determined, not least because they fully understand the horrors that IS perpetrates.

Some of those who go will undoubtedly want to come back to commit acts of terror over here. IS also is destablising vast swathes of territory in the wider Middle East and that affects the UK’s security as well, not least by causing a massive refugee problem which we are incapable of solving.

Against these depressing and chilling facts, it can be said that, ten years on, our intelligence and security community know much more about the nature of the jihadist threat and understand far better how it is to be countered.

We understand much more about radicalisation and where it is carried out but it is still appalling that universities and colleges of higher education who generate up to 60% of those involved in jihadist terrorism in the UK still refuse to take proactive measures to keep extremists off their campuses.

So on the one hand, the threat of jihadist terrorism is more severe than ten years ago but on the other its chances of a successful attack seem rather less (to the best of my knowledge, there’s been no mass attack in Britain since 2006, and that wasn’t successful, and the beheading of Drummer Lee Rigby in 2013 was the last time a jihadist was successful (in their own eyes).

MI5 and the counter terrorist police have foiled many plots and almost 100 people have been arrested on jihadist related charges in the past year.

One final thing I’d say: our ability to carry on stopping the jihadis before they attack us in the UK relies on our intelligence and security community continuing to be able to intercept their communications. Indeed, it’s the best way of stopping them.

Edward Snowden’s work has been to make this much harder, both by alerting terrorists to our capabilities in this respect (and so encouraging them to use other forms of communication) but also by pandering to the irresponsible and ignorant ‘civil liberties’ lobby who cannot distinguish between the lawful collection of intercepted communications and the further analysis of some of them and ‘mass surveillance’ where very communication is analysed and the information then used, Stasi-like, as a form of social control. This has affected the morale of our intelligence community and made them over cautious.

David Cameron and Theresa May are aware of this and new legislation may assist but despite the fact that some 70% of British people are happy to sacrifice some of their privacy in the fight against terrorism, the so called thinking classes object strongly (without actually thinking).


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