Adaptation in the age of new (?) terror

After every terrorist attack, such the recent one in Manchester, there is always the debate about security measures. But if terrorism is somehow different with ISIS (is it?) how much we have been able to adapt to this situation, and in what areas? Read few comments.

James Forest, Professor of Security Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Yes, there is always a debate about security measures. However, we have to keep in mind that terrorists are humans, and most humans have the ability to figure out ways around obstacles preventing them from what they want to do. Terrorism associated with ISIS is somewhat different from the wave of left-wing terrorist groups we saw in Europe during the 1970s and 80s. ISIS and al-Qaeda are groups within a broader landscape of the global salafi-jihadist movement, a landscape in which individuals without any direct connection to a terrorist group may be nonetheless inspired to carry out a terrorist attack on behalf of the movement’s ideology. The central driving force behind the spread of this ideology is a vision of the future – the re-establishment of an Islamist caliphate, something that true believers view as the physical manifestation of God’s will, and something that is being obstructed by enemies of God. Until this underlying ideology of global salafi-jihadism no longer inspires individuals to carry out terrorist attacks, our ability to “adapt to this situation” is limited to security measures at public gathering places, surveillance and monitoring individuals of concern, gathering and analyzing intelligence, and being vigilant about the behavioral indications of radicalization. Of course, there are no easy or quick solutions to the threat of terrorism. Our political leaders must acknowledge that in order to combat terrorism effectively, patience and endurance must be nurtured within our society. Resilience – not politically-motivated fear mongering or over-reacting – will be critical to having a more effective response to terrorism in the future. A society that actively refuses to be coerced or terrorized, won’t be.

Sam Mullins*, Professor of Counterterrorism, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally different about what ISIS and their followers do, as compared to al-Qaeda and similar groups. The attack in Manchester illustrates yet again that terrorists are willing to attack the softest of targets, including even women and children. As horrific and cowardly as this is, it is not new. From a security standpoint, it’s impossible to protect everything all of the time. More police, more intelligence officers, tighter security – these help but they don’t solve the problem. One of the most fundamentally important areas of adaptation is how we respond to these events as a society. Rather than being afraid -as demonstrated by the people of Manchester- many of us are learning to be resilient. This is arguably the key to defeating terrorism in the long run.

* These views are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Marshall Center, the U.S.  and/or German Government.

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

There has been a tendency, in part driven by the domination of terrorism studies by social scientists, to read too much into each attack in terms of what it represents going forward, especially in relation to broader terrorism trends. What I would argue is that the terrorism pattern now in the UK is that there is no pattern. It had looked like that the trend was toward lone-actor attacks of low levels of sophistication as in the case of what happened in London a few weeks ago and the killing of the British soldier Lee Rigby 4 years ago. Those were attacks that appear to have been inspired by Islamist extremism. Manchester is potentially different and harkens back to the attacks of 7 July 2005 in the sense that it may not have been a lone-actor attack in the sense the person was acting as part of a group (the bomb points to this) with possible direction from abroad. These last two points are speculation but it is hard to imagine this one individual managing to build such a deadly bomb (something that would have required not just expertise in terms of design but also the physical space to do it) without some sort of assistance.

Thus going back to your original question, the job of the security forces is that much more difficult. There has long been recognition that terrorist attacks are inevitable because of the size of the threat and because, in particular, unsophisticated lone-actor attacks are difficult to stop. But, of course, it recognizing the inevitable the security forces are open the loss of life will be a low one and that’s why Manchester with regards to the loss of life, the targeting of teenagers at a concert, and the relative sophisticated nature of the attack is the most dangerous terrorist attack since 7 July 2005. It also means there is no easy response. In the short-term, there will be a frantic effort underway to determine where there is a wider terrorist network at large. Who were the bomber’s associates? Where did the bomb come from? How do we know that only one bomb was built?  In the long-term, the questions that followed London in 2005 and the recent Paris and Brussels attacks will abound. How do we stop radicalisation? Why are citizens from within a society willing to kill their fellow citizens? There are no easy answers to these questions as MI5 has admitted in the past. That’s why the threat will continue.

David WellsAssociate Director at S-RM – Business Intelligence, Risk Management & Cyber Security, Ex GCHQ & Australian Intelligence Officer

The biggest shift in the terrorist threat in the West over the past 3-4 years has been the use of vehicles and a general trend towards reduced sophistication attacks (using knives or hand guns). While not solely driven by ISIS – after all, it was AQAP who first promoted vehicle as weapon attacks – their encouragement of its use and promotion of the perpetrators of such attacks has increased their likelihood. As a result, we have already seen a greater use of bollards or barriers around significant buildings, and I’m sure this trend will continue.

Alongside that, their attacks in Paris, Brussels, Istanbul and now Manchester have also called into question proactive security in crowded public spaces, particularly arenas and transportation stations. A greater emphasis on bag searches, scanners etc is something we’ve already seen, and are likely to see more of in future.

But ultimately, these only disperse the threat, making iconic locations harder to attack, but they can’t remove it. In the Manchester case, greater security around the venue might have made the attack harder to carry out, but it’s possible that instead, the attacker would simply have attacked the crowd further away from the venue. Ultimately, you can’t stop people congregating in large crowds becoming a target.

The way to prevent further attacks lies in the prevention space (encompassing de-radicalisation but also providing ‘off ramps’ for wavering extremists), and in ensuring that the authorities can detain individuals before attacks are carried out. This is extremely difficult in the current climate given the large numbers of individuals that authorities are tracking, particularly in the case of low sophistication attacks. Better information sharing, international partnerships and community support can help, but unfortunately, we’ll be facing the Islamist terror threat for quite some time to come.

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