The publication this week of the first CONTEST Report into the government’s counter-terrorism strategy has raised a number of trends regarding the development of the terrorist threat in the UK. Particularly of interest, following on from notes in the Monitor of March 14, is the underscoring in the report of the potential threat emanating from domestic extremists returning from ‘theatres of Jihad’ in places such as Syria, where the Home Office estimates “hundreds” of British citizens have joined fighting, with a number working with the most dangerous salafist/jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra.
The report confirms our earlier prediction that instability across the Arab world will continue to drive threats elsewhere. While the over-arching threat from a centralised al-Qaeda network has generally decreased, the report notes that threats are becoming more diverse and increasingly extremists are operating without a developed command and control structure. Indeed, as al-Qaeda’s ability to project command and control into Europe from traditional areas decreases, encouraging local cells to act alone (sometimes following a degree of training) has become a key cornerstone of capability, as evidenced in the recent trial of three would-be terrorists from the Sparkhill area of Birmingham. This is in line with al-Qaeda’s current main effort, which is primarily to drive volunteers to support the struggle against the “Tyrants” of the Arab world, but such volunteers are experienced and “hardened” by participating in combat – potentially more than was the case with those travelling to Pakistan previously, where training still seems remarkably ineffective, due in part to intelligence pressure and a seeming lack of hands-on experience as part of the syllabus.
The developments noted in the report are likely to shape the counter-terror scene for the foreseeable future, with the implications being that small cells will have better operational security, be more aggressive and confident than has recently been the case. As radicalised returnees are more likely to operate in small groups or individually, lone wolf attacks may also increase, with the use of firearms noted in the report as a growing trend. This threat has also been noted as a possible tactic from the extreme right wing, as reported in the previous Monitor, although in general we consider that non-availability of ammunition remains a significant constraint on these sorts of operations in the UK.
While the CONTEST Report clearly states that key terrorist concerns for the UK remains the states most traditionally associated with al-Qaeda, these areas are currently seeing aggressive anti-terrorism efforts that have stunted the ability of localised groups to act globally. Beyond the traditional threat areas, there is therefore a clear trend towards a number of smaller and less sophisticated attacks potentially posing a more frequent threat in the near future, both domestically and against British business interests worldwide.