The Blog

Can Terrorists Really Attack Any Time, Any Place?

Lone wolf terrorist attacks in Europe are becoming the norm or so Islamist terror groups would like us to think. It's a reflection of how terrorism is less the concerted work of an organisation or structured group and more worked out and initiated in the minds of individuals inspired by those terrorist groups. The terrorist groups then claim responsibility afterwards in a bid to look powerful and omnipresent. However, the notion of a lone wolf attack is largely a myth. All attacks require planning and reconnaissance, taking up the time of more than one person. But terrorist groups want us to think they can hit us anytime anywhere.

Nevertheless, in the last four months of 2016 there have been attacks in the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Belarus, Serbia, and Turkey which at first appear to be the work of individuals.

At its root, the shift has not been from terrorist-directed attacks to lone wolves but something in-between. As terror groups, particularly Daesh and AQAP, lose their 'soldiers' to airstrikes and ability to plan attacks, so they seek to inspire attacks from disaffected individuals in targeted countries. But these disaffected individuals often need guidance to plan a successful attack and may or may not receive it. Material on the Internet helps give people's diffuse ideas a more concrete aim outside of - and in spite of - the principles of religious belief. It's also the effect of the Internet and social media and the way in which the disaffected and extremist thinkers are able to use the freedoms on Western culture against itself. Many jihadists run up credit card bills to get the necessary funding before their planned attacks.

For state security forces it makes for a difficult situation, a major threat without a central base, no defined lines of communications or logistics to target. Being drawn into long-term military engagements with states and groups with terrorist associations - as per the war in Afghanistan - is also increasingly less viable politically and militarily.

What we've seen this year, has been a clear shift in tactics in the UK from a focus on prevention to one of resilience. There's been recognition of the limit to what prevention tactics - intelligence gathering, monitoring activities of known extremist groups and individuals - can achieve. What's become more important, given the protean nature of the threat, is ensuring that police, the military, and other emergency response services are equipped and in a state of readiness to deal with any kind of incident when it occurs, that there's the ability to minimise incidents and demonstrate a rapid, flexible response. The very public announcement of the Metropolitan Police's new heavily armed and rapid response elite counter-terrorism unit. in London is one example. The lesson from the upsurge in terrorist activity has been the importance of showing there's no such thing as a 'soft target', that national security forces are always ready to deal with any form of attack wherever it arises.

It's a smart tactic - because the real war is being carried out in our minds using propaganda and ideology. The more the UK and other governments are seen to be heavy-handed and suspicious in dealing with perceived extremists linked to any religion, limits on freedoms, involvement in pro-active assaults on potential threats, the more encouragement is given to Daesh and the idea of a jihadist cause. Demonstrating the principles of free speech, open debate, is always going to be critical. More discussion and examples of what Daesh, AQAP and Al Shabab are, their cultures, practices, and everyday behaviours, will help de-mystify the muddled and irreligious ideals they purvey.