Today’s Terrorist Threat

Digital concept which shows abstract background and Terrorist alert text with fingerprint

By Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Former Senior Member, British Foreign Office

Tim Willasey-Wilsey served for over 27 years in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is now Visiting Professor of War Studies at King's College, London. His first overseas posting was in Angola during the Cold War followed by Central America during the instability of the late 1980s. He was also involved in the transition to majority rule in South Africa and in the Israel/Palestine issue.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — MI5 Director General, Ken McCallum’s, joint address on 6th July with the FBI Chief saw a welcome rebalancing of the Security Service’s focus towards nation-state threats. Counter Terrorism is an important function but it was allowed to dominate for two decades while Russia, China and some other belligerent states were insufficiently monitored.

The 9/11 attack was so huge that it blew Western foreign policy off course for two decades. 9/11’s impact did not merely derive from the large number of deaths (almost ten times the next largest terrorist incident) but also because it was viewed as a new form of particularly dangerous Islamist terrorism. The extraordinary television footage, both enthralling and horrifying, together with the iconic targets produced a vision of terror in a league of its own.

Until 9/11, the world had regarded terrorism like crime or poverty, as something we would wish to eradicate but might have to endure and manage forever. The main factors which distinguish terrorism from crime are the political motive, the intention to kill and maim, and, often, the covert hand of foreign countries behind the terrorists. That is why security services around the world take the lead on counter-terrorism (CT) with police forces in support.

We tend to forget that spectacular terrorist attacks did not begin with 9/11. Before 2001, there were two extraordinary decades from the early 1970s onwards which saw several major attacks each year. For example, the blowing up in September 1970, of four airliners in Jordan by Palestinian terrorists, the kidnapping in December 1975, of 60 officials at an OPEC conference in Vienna by the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal and the downing of an Air India Boeing 747 over the Atlantic in June 1985, by Sikh extremists that killed 329 people.

Some of the most high-profile attacks were carried out by the Abu Nidhal Organisation (ANO) and other Palestinian groups. There were also Sikh and Latin American organisations, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), the German Baader Meinhof gang, and the Japanese Red Army. Attacks in the 1970s and 80s received front-page and prime-time coverage but only for a few days each. The exception was the destruction of a Pan Am aircraft over Lockerbie in December 1988, which broke through an invisible barrier to become a repeated news item for several years.

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Behind these organisations we occasionally caught glimpses of nation states. In many cases it was Iran, Syria or Libya but there were other less visible actors. The French deal with the ANO (revealed in 2019) was particularly cynical but there was also Irish-American (NORAID) assistance to the PIRA and all those other countries which paid ransoms for the release of their citizens. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the extent of East Germany’s systematic involvement in anti-Western terrorism was laid bare.

Occasionally, there would be successes for security services. In the UK alone there were operations which exposed Libyan arming of PIRA and the meticulous work which attributed the Lockerbie bombing to Libya.  At the time, CT work was always secondary to operations against nation-state threats; primarily the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. In 1970, 105 Soviet intelligence officers were expelled from London, the fruit of thousands of hours of scrutiny and from that moment onwards, a coordinated effort was maintained to expel Soviet bloc spies thereby disrupting their operations.

It was the end of the Cold War in 1989/90, which ushered in the unipolar world of just one superpower. In April 2001, the Hainan Island incident involving a US spy plane off the Chinese coast, raised a question-mark about the potential future threat from a more assertive China.  But a mere four months later, the 9/11 attack took place and China was all-but-forgotten.

Allies in South East Asia would repeatedly warn Western counterparts of the dangers of ignoring the rise of China and of focussing too heavily on CT in general and Iraq and Afghanistan in particular; but to no avail. Understandably, the destruction of Al Qa’ida and the capture of its leader, Osama Bin Laden, became a US strategic objective involving massive intelligence resources. Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama both put pressure on their agencies to prevent any future attacks on US soil. When 30 British tourists were killed at a Tunisian beach resort, then Prime Minister David Cameron described terrorism as “an existential threat”.

For some countries with weak governments, such as Somalia and Mali, terrorism can indeed be existential. Terrorism can also be deeply corrosive to civil society. However, for Western democracies, the only circumstance in which terrorism could become an existential threat is if a group succeeded in obtaining weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

There have been several moments of concern. The Japanese cult Aun Shinrikyo tried to use the nerve agent Sarin on the Tokyo subway in March 1995. Al Qa’ida tried several times to obtain WMD. There have long been concerns that the collapse of a country such as Pakistan or North Korea could result in terrorists getting their hands on chemical; biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons.

The alteration of the planning for 9/11 after the British first got wind of the plot turned a conventional hijacking of an airliner to obtain the release of a prisoner, into a novel concept which used fully-fuelled aircraft as flying bombs. In essence, 9/11 became a borderline case between conventional and WMD terrorism.

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For this reason, CT will remain a major concern of security services around the world. Furthermore, for as long as nation states continue to support terrorist organisations, we will need to devote the energies of our intelligence services to discover the plans of terrorist groups and their sponsors.

The statistics show that terrorism is a small threat compared to crime and disease, even in the UK, which has been one of the hardest hit countries. Between 1970 and 2019, the UK lost a total of 3,416 lives to terrorism but 84% of those were linked to Northern Ireland and 271 to the Lockerbie incident. Between 2005 and 2022, 93 people have died from terrorism, an average of under 6 people per annum. This compares to 695 homicides in 2020, about 1,500 deaths each year from traffic accidents and some 25,000 from influenza and pneumonia.

The terrorism figures are low partly because of the successes of MI5. Operation Overt in 2006, alone prevented up to ten passenger aircraft being destroyed over the Atlantic. At the same time, the international (particularly US) successes against Islamic State (IS) and Al Qa’ida terrorists have reduced the ability of those organisations to mount large-scale attacks in the West.

Increasingly, CT has become focussed on the ‘Lone Wolf’ phenomenon; young men who become radicalised online and are persuaded to build a basic bomb or just take a knife from the kitchen drawer. For security services to address this threat, it requires a disproportionate use of their limited resources. Dealing with this threat needs to involve mental health provision, social services, education and police.

One result of the years since 9/11, is that security services have shouldered too much of the CT burden. Sometimes they have been tempted to bid for generous CT funding while the caring services have remained uncomfortable playing a CT role. However, the Lone Wolf phenomenon (whether Islamist or right-wing) should be addressed as a ‘whole of government’ effort as envisaged in the original British CONTEST plan. The precious resources of security services need to be focussed on the most strategic threats; which not only threaten our way-of-life but our very existence.

This piece was first published by our friends at RUSI.

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