At the UK’s Nation security Summit held in London on the 9th October 2018 the head of national counter-terrorism policing, Neil Basu, warned that one for the greatest terror threats in the UK is by its own citizens who have been radicalised by extremists, in particular Islamists, who are frustrated or aspire to travel abroad to fight with the Islamic State (IS).
There is credence in Basu’s observations as seen in the recent attacks prevented attacks in the UK. For example the London Bridge/Borough Market attack in June 2017 to of the attackers, Khuram Butt and Youssef Zaghba were prevented by authorities from leaving Europe to join IS in Syria/Iraq. In addition to this, another threat is posed by individuals who did fight with IS in Syria/Iraq who have returned to their home state as they will be more experienced in the use of firearms and explosives, as well as potentially in chemical weapons that were used by IS in Syria/Iraq. This threat is not just applicable to the UK, but to states in Europe, North America and other states such as the Philippines where returning fighters are now fighting in the south of the country. This is a global problem.
In relation to terrorists’ use of chemical and biological weapons, Neil Basu correctly states the likes of chlorine and mustard gas was used in Syria/Iraq and terrorists do want to adapt these weapons for use in domestic terrorist attacks. Fortunately, what is problematic for terrorists wanting to use such weaponry is having the facilities for storage and maintaining the chemicals as they have to be stored under controlled conditions. When IS held land in their self-proclaimed caliphate this was possible, but in domestic circumstances where without laboratories it is more difficult. As such, the type of attacks being planned will be low-level attacks we have unfortunately witnessed in Europe with the use of vehicles and sharply bladed instruments such as knives, which we have witnessed still have a devastating effect.
There is also the possibility of terrorists using firearms and improvised explosive devices (IED). In relation to the latter this was seen in the Parsons Green attack in September 2017 and in Barcelona, August 2017, where the former failed to detonate and in the latter the explosives were not handled correctly resulting in the terrorists blowing themselves up in their home. To handle explosives requires a degree of knowledge and experience, which clearly many domestic terrorists do not possess. One cannot be complacent over this as the threat of the use of IED’s is still real. This could come from returning IS fighters and in the case of the UK, current paramilitaries in the North of Ireland from the republican New IRA to loyalist’s groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster freedom Fighters have members who have experience in the use of IED’s from the 1968-1998 Irish Troubles.
One must not forget that the terrorist threat does not solely emanate from Islamist inspired terrorism, there is also the threat from far-right groups too, and in the UK from paramilitaries in the North of Ireland. The UK is still the only state to proscribe far-right groups as terrorist organisations and to date these groups have been inspired by the national socialist narrative (National Action, Scottish Dawn and NS 131). Other far-right groups are also being monitored by UK counter-terrorism police and the security services such as Resistance System Network. Again, the terrorist threat far-right groups pose is not unique to the UK, it is prevalent throughout Europe, North America and Australia.
In relation to the UK republican groups in the North of Ireland have been using the impasse regarding the Irish border in the Brexit negotiations to influence an increase in paramilitary activity, in particular the New IRA.
Due to the diversity of terrorist threats, the number of groups and individuals being monitored and the increasing pressure counter-terrorism police and the security services have in keeping us safe is enormous. There are two areas that can help alleviate their workload so as to enable them to focus on the groups and individuals that pose a real threat to our security. First is to allocate more resources from the public and private sectors as well as communities to the Prevent strategy. A pre-criminal strategy, Prevent is aimed at helping individuals who are vulnerable to being drawn into terrorist activity. Secondly, we can all play our part by being more vigilant in reporting any activity we see as suspicious. Initiatives in the UK like Action Counters Terrorism (ACT) and the British transport Police’s ‘See it, Say it, Sort it’ are there to help us report anything we suspect is likely to be linked to terrorism and the police will deal with any reports sensitively.