A guest column in this weekend’s Sunday Times looking at the question of lone actor terrorism and how it fits into perceptions of the threat picture at home. Given the work I have done on this topic, it might seem I am contradicting myself, but I think the point is that all of these threats have to be kept into perspective. Lone actor terrorism is going to be a growing priority (as the end of this year has shown to grim attention), but when held up against the sort of plotting we have seen in the past (and might still face in the future), we are dealing with a very different threat and this ought to be reflected in perceptions. This aside, spoke to the International Business Times about ISIS’s year.
Despite isolated incidents of extremism, we are safer than we think, writes Raffaello Pantucci
Published: 28 December 2014
The year has ended with a sharp increase in “lone wolf” terrorist attacks. A threat that had been growing for some time finally found its feet in 2014’s closing months with incidents in Canada, America, Australia and France as well as disrupted plots in Britain and elsewhere. Yet while it feels like the threat is on the rise and security services are working at full strength to counter the risk, we are actually safer from the threat of terrorism at home.
None of this is to say that lone terrorists are not a danger. Sometimes these individuals are able to summon the wherewithal to launch attacks that kill many. The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is the best example with his 2011 bombing and shooting campaign in Oslo and on Utoya island that killed 77 within a few hours. However, he is a rarity and most lone-wolf plots pale in comparison with al-Qaeda’s former ambitions.
For example, in August 2006 British police disrupted an al-Qaeda plan to bring down transatlantic flights with liquid bombs. But while the security services continue to worry about such ambitious plots, they are able to disrupt them. Plots involving lots of people mean communications and other activities that set off intelligence tripwires.
In contrast, an individual planning to stab a random policeman using a knife he already has at home is a hard target to pick up unless he has told someone else. And it is not always the case that the person he is telling will report it or realise what they are being told. This sort of threat slips under the radar, as in the case of the men responsible for the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby last year in Woolwich, southeast London, or like Man Haron Monis, the Sydney siege gunman, this month. In the first case the two attackers were hard to separate from the larger antisocial, but legal, community of radicals in the UK. The Australian case shows the difficulty of spotting prior to an attack an individual angry at society who adopts the appearance of a terrorist to express himself more loudly.
The real question, though, is whether we should react in the same way to these incidents as we did to the July 7, 2005, bombings of London’s transport system. The deaths of more than 50 commuters is surely more menacing to society than the death of a single off-duty soldier in Woolwich, as tragic as any loss is. Almost a decade since the July 7 bombings we are now facing a terrorist threat that is only really able to express itself in the form of lone-wolf attacks. And while such attacks will lead to great suffering for those directly involved, they will affect many fewer people than, for example, the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
Abroad, it remains a different matter. As the year ended, the Pakistani Taliban launched an attack on a school in Peshawar, killing more than 140, and Boko Haram murdered dozens and kidnapped another 180 people in Nigeria. Terrorism on a large scale is still the aim but it is a goal that is increasingly hard to achieve in western countries and capitals. Instead groups push for their supporters to carry out attacks without direct communication.
Individuals who are part of networks, and who are launching attacks with terrorist motives and intent, become confused with deranged or unstable people who see lone-wolf terrorism as their way of joining a larger cause or bringing attention to themselves. However, while the attacks seem more frequent, the casualties at home are less. If work by the security services has managed to reduce the threat down to lone-wolf terrorists or deranged individuals then things are not necessarily as bad as they seem.
The concern caused by lone-wolf terrorism is understandable. The rash of seemingly random incidents towards the end of the year gives the impression of a rising tide. But it must be kept in context. Terrorist groups continue to want to attack the West, yet find it increasingly hard to do so.
The lone-wolf terrorists we have seen are a mix of individuals with connections to other terrorists (but little evidence of direction in launching their attacks), or socially awkward, troubled individuals who demonstrate little ability to do much more (in most cases) than kill or injure a couple of people and try to dress it up as an organised plot.
Terrorist groups continue to be unable to carry out large plots on the scale of the July 7 bombings, though they continue to try. In fact it is even possible that the hyperventilation around lone wolves is helping to attract more people to the idea and exacerbating the problem. If people notice that these sorts of attacks attract attention, then they might want to emulate them to direct some of the spotlight onto their own personal cause. The current lone-wolf panic might ultimately be instigating the very sort of incidents we are all worried about.
Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute