The British security agencies worry that Islamic State is plotting large-scale terrorist attacks in the UK by coordinated commando-style groups similar to those in Brussels and Paris.
Isis propaganda videos frequently identify the UK as a major target and intelligence officers repeatedly caveat conversations by saying it is only a matter of time before there is a successful attack in the country, whether lone wolf-style or a large-scale assault.
The threat level in the UK is “severe”, meaning an attack is designated as “highly likely”. That sounds alarming but it would need specific information to raise that to the next and highest category, “critical”, and the agencies have no such intelligence.
Raffaello Pantucci, who focuses on counter-terrorism and radicalisation issues and is director of international security studies at London’s Royal United Services Institute, said he did not think the British security services could be accused of complacency but there were a number of significant differences from continental Europe. “There are realities on the ground that make it harder in the UK ( to mount an attack) than on the continent.”
First, it is harder to get weapons and ammunition in the UK than, say, Belgium. “You can make a bomb instead but that needs expertise and it is harder to sneak in and out. To make a bomb yourself, you have to practise and if you practise, you attract attention,” he said.
Pantucci also identified a shift in Islamist terrorism. The heart of global jihadism had been in south-east Asia with its close connections to the UK but it had now shifted to the Levant and the connections were with Arab communities in continental Europe.
UK ports provide a barrier and though they have proved more porous than the security agencies would like, it is still better than on continental Europe, which has a direct land link to Isis-controlled territory, he added.
Pantucci said the UK security services also tended to be “proactively aggressive”, clamping down at an early stage of investigations into plots.
This ability to intervene early is because the security services, in one of the biggest lessons learned from the attacks on London in 2005, established good networks in communities with large Muslim populations across the UK. Resources were shifted out of London to the Midlands, the north of England, Wales and Scotland. Another lesson was that the old barriers between the domestic agency MI5, the overseas agency MI6 and the surveillance service GCHQ were partly broken down, with increased coordination and staff seconded to work with sister agencies.
One of the world’s leading counter-terrorist experts, the Australian David Kilcullen, who was an adviser to the US military and state department, offers a bleak assessment of the future, regarding the west as being in a conflict that looks set to last at least a generation and one that the west is losing.
In arecent interview with the Guardian, Kilcullen said the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris last year marked a shift from spontaneous actions by one or two individuals to more coordinated, sustained tactical assaults, what he referred to as Mumbai-lite, the 2008 attack by gunmen that created mayhem in India’s financial capital.
He was speaking after the Paris attacks but before the Brussels one and his words proved prophetic. “The evidence is that this is here to stay and will not go away any time soon.”
Kilcullen, author of the newly published Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror, acknowledged that the UK appeared to be a little more secure than continental Europe.
“We are protected by the Channel a little bit. But that is not a complete protection. The ability to move things by boat and even to move things and people in containers is still there. I think the risk is a bit less for the UK but for the rest of Europe it is pretty serious.”
Since the 7/7 bombings, there have only been a handful of fatalities from terrorism in the UK. Fusilier Lee Rigby was murdered in a spontaneous attack in London in 2013; the Muslim pensioner Mohammed Saleem was stabbed to death by a Ukrainian white supremacist the same year; and only last week, the prison officer Adrian Ismay died in Belfast from a bomb planted by dissident Republicans.
There are at least four potential kinds of attacks on the UK. One is from returning volunteers, which Kilcullen thinks is overblown. An estimated 800 British volunteers have returned to the UK from Syria and Iraq but Kilcullen argues that the attrition rate among foreign fighters is high, with many killed on the frontlines.
The second is the kind of spectaculars favoured by al-Qaida and which Isis also engages in, such as bringing down the Russian plane in Egypt. But the Isis bomb was a crude device, one that would be harder to smuggle on to a plane in the UK.
That leaves the spontaneous lone wolf attacks influenced by Isis propaganda and the coordinated urban guerrilla-style attacks seen in Brussels and Paris. Pantucci sees this a worrying combination. “A threat picture going aggressively in two ways at the same time,” he said.