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Comment: The threat of international terrorism - a 'wicked' problem 

Dr Dave Sloggett provides his thoughts on the implications of the latest terrorist attacks in Tunisia for the UK's Prevent Programme.

The dramatic images of a lone gunman walking along the foreshore of the tourist resort of Sousse in Tunisia comes at a time that is poignant for many in the United Kingdom. Almost ten years ago 52 people were slaughtered in London as four men undertook the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history. Ten years on at least 23 British people are now believed to have perished at the hand of a twenty-one year old gunman who was previously unknown to the police and intelligence services in Tunisia.

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Soldiers patrol around the attack site in Sousse, Tunisia, on June 26, 2015 (Xinhua / Rex)

The attack in Tunisia is easily labelled as the actions of a lone wolf. This is the most difficult category of attack to prevent. Anyone harbouring thoughts of what they might see as a glorious death may well be capable of hiding their real intent and feelings even from their closest family.

Speaking in the aftermath of the atrocity in Tunisia, the British Home Secretary Teresa May reiterated her call for Muslim parents to take action and report any worrying behavioural signs in their children that might be an indicator they are having radical views incubated in the crucible of social media.

The call for parents to take more action to help prevent lone wolf attacks is important, but it is not a panacea. It comes after two boys had been reported by one of their mothers when she became suspicious of their activities. Finding a white powder in one of the boy’s bedrooms, which turned out to be crushed paracetamol, she immediately called the police.

Reporting from the court case shows that the youngsters had been buying various components (chemicals, pipes and fuses) based on a specific recipe contained within the Anarchists Cookbook – a well-known text that is readily available on the Internet.

The action by one of the parents possibly prevented another major terrorist attack occurring in London. Work conducted by an undercover investigative journalist working for one of the major national newspapers in the United Kingdom also appears to have prevented an attack directed against the celebrations of Armed Forces Day.

Prevention of these ongoing domestic plots continues to achieve a high rate of success. More than 50 mass-casualty terrorist plots have now been recognised as having been prevented since September 11, 2001 in the United Kingdom. Only the attack on July 7, 2005 has succeeded. The Glasgow Airport attack and the unsuccessful attempt to detonate two car bombs in London in the Haymarket the night before came close to success – as did the attempt to follow up the initial attack in London on July 22, 2005.

This analysis shows that the police and intelligence services have achieved an overall prevention rate of over 90 per cent of the mass-casualty attacks that have been planned in the United Kingdom. This is a remarkable testament to their vigilance and hard work.

But it is not a reason to become complacent. Indeed it is vital to recognise that, to some extent, we have been lucky as a society. Sometimes these attacks have been prevented because the terrorists made mistakes. The only problem is that as evidence against them is presented in court cases the nature of those mistakes becomes apparent – helping the next terrorist to avoid similar pitfalls. As time moves forward the inevitability of another major attack on the mainland of the UK grows.

At every opportunity senior commanders involved in the prevention of terrorist attacks in the UK go out of their way to put it on record that they cannot get it right all the time. They know this to be true. In their heart of hearts they also know we have been lucky on too many occasions. The laws of probability are beginning to stack up against us.

This message has been recently echoed by the Director of EUROPOL, Rob Wainwright and, some months ago, it was also a theme developed by the Prime Minister in one of his speeches on terrorism.

On the surface, therefore, there appears to be a unity of understanding of the threat posed by lone wolves. But underneath all the usual political froth that accompanies speeches and media appearances in the aftermath of a major terrorist incident what is the reality of the situation? Do the political leaders really get the nature of the threat? Are they really ready for the kind of situation that might arise if a mass casualty attack were to occur – especially if such an event were to be carried out away from London? If such an event were to take place, just how resilient would we be at this moment?

Sadly the answer to that question is not clear. Political froth is one thing, firm action and resolve to address the real problems that exist in cauldron of radicalisation that exists in the UK are another. Simply dressing up another round of Prevent measures will not make any progress.

Neither will the continued development of the narrative appearing from Government that ISIL is somehow a ‘death cult’. That is language that actually appeals to those being radicalised and those grooming potential future jihadists. It is not a turn-off, it is a recruitment aid. This is a narrative that is based on western values that sees life as being valuable and should be halted immediately. It is unhelpful.

Perhaps the UK might like to take a lesson from recent developments in Austria, which has clamped down severely on anyone thought to be readying themselves to become involved in the activities of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Those caught trying to join the organisation are being given harsh prison sentences.

Of course some people in our society society will howl at the thought of more stringent prison sentences for those on the fringes of terrorism. Arguments will no doubt be forthcoming that this will deter parents from reporting on their children.

That is one line of argument. But too many Muslim parents in the UK now suffer the angst of not knowing what is happening to their children and, in some cases, their grandchildren. Others are mourning the loss of a loved one. Do loving parents want to see their children die as martyrs in some foreign land? If they do then they themselves are complicit in the process of radicalisation and need to be regarded as sponsors of terrorism with all the associated legal ramifications.

Events in Tunisia have confirmed, if confirmation was required, that the threat from international terrorism is not about to go away anytime soon. Those who speak of it as a generational issue are closer to the truth. It is a complex problem, one that can be defined as being ‘wicked’ – meaning that there is no single obvious solution. This position is one confirmed by the history of measures taken under the guise of the Prevent programme that have been quietly consigned to history with the label of: “it seemed like a good idea at the time”.

As the nature of terrorism unfolds and ISIL starts to look beyond its current focus on the Middle East towards developing a wider vision that involves co-ordinated attacks on the west, the challenge for the Security Services in preventing attacks is going to become measurably more difficult. Sadly, in the wake of this most recent addition to the catalogue of notable events in international terrorism our luck may be about to run out.  

Dave Sloggett, 06/07/2015
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