Looking at how terrorism morphs  

June 21, 2024



With everything that has been going on between Russia and Ukraine, cyber-attacks on the UK MoD payroll system, never mind local elections and speculation around general elections, it would be easy to forget a very clear and present threat – Terrorism. Philip Ingram MBE reports.

We hardly hear about the 900+ active counter terror investigations that are ongoing today in the UK into 3000+ people with hundreds of thousands on a growing terror watchlist.

Or the 38 late-stage attacks thwarted since 2017, nine of them since 2018, or the very real links between terrorism and serious and organised crime, none more evident than those with Irish terror groups both on the Republican and Loyalist sides.

The very real measure of success in the world of counter terror is nothing happens, in the public domain, that doesn’t mean our security services and counter terror police are inactive, it is purely because of them that nothing happens! 

However, terror morphs.

In the 1980s the principal threat was from Irish terror and the author, a Northern Irish man, remembers well silencing a pub in southern England ordering a beer whilst wearing a small backpack.

So, what is the current terror threat and how is it likely to change?   

According to the US National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2040 report, “Terrorist groups will continue to exploit societal fragmentation and weak governance to push their ideologies and gain power through violence.

“During the next 20 years, regional and intrastate conflicts, demographic pressures, environmental degradation, and democratic retrenchment are likely to exacerbate the political, economic, and social grievances terrorists have long exploited to gain supporters as well as safe havens to organise, train, and plot.

“These accelerants, the intensity, and effects of which are likely to be uneven across different regions and countries, probably will also foster rural to urban international migration, further straining state resources and diminishing global and local counterterrorism efforts.” 

Colin P. Clarke, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Director of Research at The Soufan Group in a “Trends in Terrorism” essay, analysed how the impact of the Hamas attack on 7 October could influence global terror trends. 

He said, “Projecting where new threats will emerge is rarely linear, as the Hamas attack itself proves. For a significant swath of the counterterrorism community, Hamas has mostly been an afterthought for much of the past decade, relegated down toward the bottom of the list of priorities, after affiliates and franchise groups belonging to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, far-right extremists such as white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and Shia groups including Lebanese Hezbollah.”  

He went on to add, “Not only did the devastating terrorist attack of October 7 demonstrate a capability and intent that few believed Hamas to possess, but it also led counterterrorism analysts worldwide to re-interrogate their prior assumptions about the conventional wisdom in terms of the most potent threats.

“This should be a continuous process, as analysts seek to measure and assess a wide range of factors and variables that contribute to the ever-evolving nature of transnational terrorism.”

The bottom line is it reset many of the assumptions that were being made about the threat today.  

However, what is reassuring on one hand and worrying on the other is the prediction by the US National Intelligence Council that “most terrorist attacks during the next 20 years probably will continue to use weapons similar to those currently available—such as small arms and improvised explosives—because these are generally sufficient, accessible, and reliable.

“However, technological advances, including AI, biotechnology, and the Internet of Things, may offer opportunities for terrorists to conduct high-profile attacks by developing new, more remote attack methods and to collaborate across borders.

“Terrorists will also seek weapons of mass destruction and other weapons and approaches that will allow them to conduct spectacular mass casualty attacks.” 

State sponsored terrorism 

A potential catalyst for that could be greater nation state involvement in supporting or encouraging terror. 

We recently saw reported in the Financial Times, “Russia plotting sabotage across Europe, intelligence agencies warn.”  Citing assessments from three different European countries reporting in the Daily Express went on to say, “Russia is plotting a campaign of violent acts of sabotage across the European continent, according to intelligence agencies. The unprecedented wave of covert bombings and arson attacks are being planned “with little concern about causing civilian fatalities”. This could potentially see Vladimir Putin order a series of bomb blasts across Europe with huge death tolls.”  

We have seen Putin use a radiological substance, Polonium 210, on the streets of London when he assassinated Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and then again with the use of the nerve agent Novichok against Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018.

It would not take much for these or other substances to find their way into terrorists’ hands if Russia were to decide to take a more aggressive approach. 

Traditional terror groupings such as Al Qaeda and ISIS “haven’t gone away,” a phrase used by Gerry Adams the former Sinn Fein leader in a joking Christmas post likely referring to Irish Republican terror, they remain a symptom of a wider ‘civil war’ between the Sunni and Shia branches of the Islamic faith.

Terror remains complex and transnational in its reach, influences and at times impact.  

We are hearing of growth in Extreme Right Wing (ERW) terror, but Islamist inspired terror remains the most prevalent and we haven’t begun to see what may come from the anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian polarisation that seems to be happening across the globe, it will be being exploited by nation states and terror groups alike.

We haven’t seen the impact of the uncontrolled weapons and explosives littered all over a European country, Ukraine, and how serious and organised crime gangs and related terror gangs may exploit the opportunity to access them more easily.

It is not clear if the eco zealots will morph like the animal rights activists to have an element of a terror campaign alongside their aggressive protest campaigns.  

However, one thing is an almost certainty, there will always be a level of terror threat and it may be a better question as to what that inevitable level of terror is likely to be and what resources are needed to stop it growing?  

This article was originally published in the June Edition of Security Journal UK. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.

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