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Terror landscape changing according to report

by Brian Sims

The threat of terror-related incidents in the UK remains high, and whilst significant steps have been taken, both nationally and internationally, to mitigate the risks, the reality is that the challenges still exist. Changes in the structure and operations of terror-related groups have seen the method of attacks alter significantly, and this fact alone increases the need for continual reassessment of circumstances. If anything, the need for planning and ensuring adequate protection is in place is more important for businesses and organisations. Last month saw the publication of David Anderson QC’s annual report into the Terrorism Act. Anderson is a senior lawyer, and produced the report in a role as an independent reviewer of the Terrorism Act, a role he has performed since 2011. The role of an independent reviewer is to report to the public and Parliament, and to further the debate on counter-terrorism via written reports and delivering evidence to committees, as well as participating in liaison with Ministers, officials, police and other relevant parties. The report recognises that threats from terror groups organised by, or in association with, al-Qaeda have decreased since the early to mid-2000s. This has predominantly been due to the loss of members of the organisation’s hierarchy, along with constraints in the group’s operational freedom in certain territories. As a result, the core group has been less able to extend its control over cells in other parts of the world. The report highlights that while al-Qaeda might have restricted capabilities with regard to direct command over distributed terror cells, it still has the capacity to be involved in attack planning. Indeed, it can and does provide training and encouragement for self-organised extremist cells with intentions to carry out attacks when they return to the UK post-training. The report cites a number of cases which resulted in convictions, which all showed links to al-Qaeda training overseas. In late 2010, two London-based men and two from Cardiff created plans for attacks, including targeting the London Stock Exchange. They were further linked to three men from Stoke who trained in Pakistan and planned to run and take part in a terror training camp in Kashmir, with a view to carrying out future attacks. Two others associated with the group considered a mail-bomb campaign. In the autumn of 2011, 12 individuals from the Midlands were arrested for involvement in a plot to conduct a bombing campaign in the UK, which they claimed would be ‘bigger’ than 7/7. It involved the use of improvised explosive devices in rucksacks. Two of the cell had visited al-Qaeda terrorist training camps on two occasions, and had arranged training for four other individuals. Recordings released since their convictions indicate that they believed the plot was approved by al-Qaeda. Four men in Bedfordshire were arrested in Spring 2012 when planning a terror attack against a Territorial Army base in Luton. One of the four had visited Pakistan the previous year to meet al-Qaeda representatives, and was planning to revisit when arrested. Anderson goes on to state that those involved in terrorism are very difficult to categorise, even with reports such as his attempting to do so! However, the report identifies that the nature of al-Qaeda threats has changed. Complex large-scale attacks directly controlled by the group are less numerous, but the organisation still provides support and training for those wishing to self-organise, including individuals in the UK. The desire and capacity from self-organised cells to commit larger scale atrocities still exists in the UK. However, the threat is being mitigated by improved operations by the security services. However, more basic attacks are becoming more common. Because these involve small groups of people or individuals, and have significantly less planning, they can be very difficult to detect. The report quotes Jonathan Evans, retired Director General of MI5, from 2012 when he stated, ‘In back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here.’ It adds a comment from Evans in regard to al-Qaeda-related terrorism, which points out that ‘Britain has experienced a credible terrorist attack about once a year since 9/11.’ The threat level with regard to Northern Ireland-related terrorism is at a Severe level (an attack is highly likely) in Northern Ireland itself. This is due to a substantial number of attacks along with a considerably greater number that were abandoned or thwarted. Many attacks used crude but potentially lethal pipe bombs; more sophisticated devices were also evident. Towards the end of 2012 there was an increase in dissident republican activity, resulting in more sophisticated attack planning, due to a new grouping formed by a merger of terror groups. Terror activity has greatly reduced in volume since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The threat to Great Britain from Northern Ireland-related terrorism was reduced to Moderate (an attack is possible but not likely) in October 2012. Other threats such as from the extreme right wing are minimised as such organisations are fragmented. In this area, attacks tend to come from ‘lone wolf’ perpetrators. Where incidents do occur, political views are often overlaid with mental health issues, personality disorders, criminality and social isolation. However, as a note of caution, the report recognises that the 77 deaths associated with Anders Breivik in Norway shows that a lone perpetrator can take a significant number of lives. Other extremist organisations including animal rights, environmental protest, extreme left wing, anarchist and nationalist groups do not appear to have used violence in 2012 to achieve their goals. The trend towards lone wolf attacks (the authorities refer to such individuals as lone actors, because the phrase is considered less glamorous) means that terror incidents are ‘smaller-scale and less sophisticated’. However, this also makes them difficult to detect as they are unpredictable and can be initiated very quickly. In its conclusions, the report points out that the number of deaths caused by terrorism in the UK is small, and statistically ‘almost insignificant’. However, it goes on to state that, ‘The terrorist threat is far from negligible. Comforting as it may be to dismiss as mentally ill the perpetrators of religiously-inspired (or religiously-badged) violence, the evil inherent in such acts needs to be honestly recognised. ‘In 2012 alone, al-Qaeda related plots were thwarted which might have succeeded in blowing up an airliner in flight, with incalculable social and economic consequences, and in killing and maiming hundreds of people in an English city. ‘Even the smaller-scale home-grown incidents that now seem more prevalent have the capacity to spread bigotry and hatred and to poison community relations in a way that a gangland killing or a domestic feud cannot.’

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