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‘New’ Terrorism and the National Security Strategy

Written by Dr Alia Brahimi and Chris Mackmurdo, former head of terrorism and national security analysis at the UK Foreign Office.

‘The threat to the UK from terrorism is increasing and, in important ways, so is our vulnerability. The revised National Security Strategy, which will be launched in the coming months, represents a unique opportunity for the UK government to reformulate its approach to counter-terrorism.

New threat

In the past decade or so, two main types of terrorist plots confronted the UK security services.

Firstly, there were plots like the 2006 conspiracy to blow up multiple transatlantic airliners with liquid bombs. The conspirators planned to use household batteries and hydrogen peroxide – which they referred to in coded messages to Pakistan as ‘Calvin Klein aftershave’ – disguised in soft drink bottles. The aim was for coordinated suicide bombers to detonate the small devices, which would punch holes through the fuselages of as many as seven planes, and kill hundreds of travellers bound for the US and Canada.

It is believed the plot was directed by an al-Qaeda linked network in Pakistan, where some of the plotters had travelled to work with Afghan refugees. On account of the circles he moved in, the group’s ringleader, Abdullah Ahmed Ali, came to the attention of the British security services. Hundreds of officers went on to monitor the men researching flight timetables, discussing details of the plot with one another, and working in their bomb factory in east London.

Having been in contact with jihadist hierarchies, physically-connected terrorists like Ahmed Ali were capable individuals planning high-impact attacks. However, given the protagonists’ links to established terrorist networks, it was within the capabilities of the intelligence and security agencies to detect and disrupt such plots. Operation Overt, the investigation into Ahmed Ali and his associates, was the UK’s largest ever covert surveillance operation. Therefore, plots like the liquid bomb conspiracy presented ‘higher threat’ but ‘lower vulnerability’ risks.

At the same time, there were plots by people like Roshonara Choudhry. Having recently dropped out of her degree programme at Kings College London, the 21 year-old from East Ham made an appointment at a community centre with her local MP, Stephen Timms. As Timms went to shake her hand, Choudhry smiled and then stabbed him twice in the stomach with a kitchen knife.

Choudhry told police that she targeted Timms because he had voted in parliament in favour of the Iraq war. Six months prior to the assault, she had begun listening to online lectures by the Yemen-based al-Qaeda propagandist, Anwar al-Awlaki. Reflecting on Choudhry’s life sentence, handed down in November 2010, Timms noted that it was alarming that she had reached the decision to attempt to murder him and throw her life away ‘simply by spending time on the internet’.

Certainly, virtually-connected lone actors like Choudhry did not engage in any meaningful way with terrorist command and control structures but were part of an online community of like-minded radicals. These individuals did not achieve a high level of capability or experience, and tended to plan low-impact attacks. However, owing to their disconnection from identifiable physical terrorist networks, these ‘under the radar’ machinations were very difficult to detect and disrupt. Choudhry, for her part, told no one what she was thinking and planning. Thus, plots like hers presented ‘lower threat’ but ‘higher vulnerability’ risks.

What’s ‘new’ about terrorism today? Simply speaking, it unites the most dangerous elements of the liquid bomb plot and Choudhry’s attack. Capable terrorists planning high-impact attacks are combining with low-visibility behaviours. The result is ‘higher threat, higher vulnerability’ terrorism risks.

This changing risk picture bears an intimate connection with what has happened – and is happening – on the ground in Syria, Iraq and beyond, primarily due to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Changing landscape

ISIS fundamentally altered the nature of radical Islam, mainly through its approach to jihadism as a state-building enterprise. This was driven by the participation of its predecessor groups in the post-2003 insurgency and tactical alliances with former Ba’athist officials. From Borno state in Nigeria to Baghlan province in Afghanistan, the ISIS paradigm of jihad is now widely invoked. It involves seizing territory from weak governments, and brutally imposing a vision for society.

This state-building model had a dramatic impact on jihadist ideas, actors and spaces – and evolving technologies, particularly social media tools, connect these changing ideas, actors and spaces like never before.

In terms of ideology, in order to maintain control over local populations, ISIS must continually instil fear. This imperative has led to an ever more fanatical jihadist discourse, in which the camp of ‘the enemy’ is continually expanding. At the same time, engagement with theological nuance is far more limited than in previous years, and mass casualty attacks against any civilian targets are now depicted as self-evidently justified.

Jihadist actors have also changed. The scale of foreign fighter flows to the ‘Islamic state’ is overwhelming. Nationals from more than 70 countries are fighting in Syria and Iraq today. The US intelligence community estimates that 3,400 citizens from western countries have now made the journey, up from 2,700 last November. The security services are therefore straining to keep track of who is going to fight, who has returned and, most importantly, what their intentions are. Beyond fighters who physically join jihadist ranks, ISIS’s territorial vision of jihad, with the attendant declaration of a caliphate, has enabled its sympathisers worldwide to conceive of themselves as soldiers waging war on behalf of a state – a tangible community – rather than as lone actors carrying out terrorist attacks in the service of an ill-defined end.

Alongside active jihadist theatres in Iraq and Syria, permissive operating spaces for extremists are proliferating, particularly in North and West Africa. ISIS and allied ‘provinces’ do not merely seek to exploit chaos, but also, through the establishment of proto-states, to impose a long-term order. Thus, jihadist spaces are not only geographically expanding, but also systematically deepening. As a result, the scope for secure training bases, far beyond the reaches of western intelligence services, is unprecedented.

Furthermore, given widespread governance challenges, as things stand there are dim prospects for local governments to reclaim ISIS-held territory and hold onto it in the long term. Even in Iraq, where a ‘popular mobilisation’ drive yielded thousands of volunteer fighters who are supported from the air by a US-led coalition, anti-ISIS efforts are inevitably hampered by the lack of a broader political strategy to reach out to Iraq’s long marginalised Sunni community, as well as the absence of significant and viable local opposition from within ISIS-held territories.

Across the border in Syria, the position of ISIS is set to remain strong, irrespective of whether the brutal regime in Damascus continues or it collapses to (mainly radical) opposition forces. Indeed, the gestation of ISIS in Syria and Iraq is intimately bound up with a deep crisis of authority on the political level, sectarian polarisation on the societal level, and a race to the bottom on the tactical level.

Of course, longstanding al-Qaeda networks pose an enduring security threat that requires disruption, but newer terrorist phenomena present an increasingly complex global risk picture, in which the relationship between governance failures, local conflict and international terrorism is growing rapidly.

Full-spectrum security strategy

Given the complexity of ‘higher threat, higher vulnerability’ terrorism risks and their close connection to developments in troubled parts of the world, the UK must begin to reformulate its counter-terrorism response. Rather than solely working to mitigate immediate threats, the UK needs an international counter-terrorism framework that incorporates the broader drivers and enablers of terrorism, and sets out clearly their linkages to threats. Accordingly, counter-terrorism ought to be conceived as part of a full-spectrum approach to international security, conflict-reduction and stabilization.

Of course, terrorist leaders, networks and propaganda machines require detection and disruption using ‘traditional’ counter-terrorism tools. However, long-term progress will elude us until we also deal with terrorism drivers (conflict, instability and poor governance) and terrorism enablers (ideology, operating spaces and terrorist financing). These fuel and facilitate the evolving terrorist threat, and require a broader set of responses that are not conventionally considered counter-terrorism-specific, but are critical to tackling fundamental parts of the terrorism problem.

In revising the National Security Strategy, the UK government must address the underlying trends that produce ‘higher threat, higher vulnerability’ terrorism risks over the longer term. To combat a mutating threat that is entwined with problems and policies abroad, counter-terrorism requires the implementation of a wide range of strategies in fragile and conflict-affected states. With a new strategic vision for counter-terrorism that is integrated with international policy, we can begin to lower the terrorist threat to the UK, and lower our vulnerability.’