From the moment that details began to emerge from yesterday’s attack in Westminster all of the indicators pointed to Islamist terrorism.
This was a textbook case of the kind of low tech attacks that groups like ISIS have been encouraging for years now. We have seen them becoming chillingly common across Western Europe, and observers have long feared that just such a mass casualty attack on a high profile or urban soft target would soon occur in the UK.
In many ways this felt like only a matter of time. We are told that our security agencies have foiled thirteen major terror plots in the last four years alone.
At any one time, UK counter-terror units have more than 500 terror investigations open and ongoing. It has been estimated that to maintain adequate surveillance of just one terror suspect involves 25-35 of our agents.
The scale of the threat from Islamist terrorism in the UK is dramatic and has only worsened. Since 2011 we have seen a sharp increase in the number of plots and terror related offences. Part of that rise has been related to the growth of Islamic State.
In particular, we have seen a considerable rise in terror offences relating to those seeking to travel to fight abroad, mainly in Syria. With close to 900 British nationals having gone to fight in Syria, we now have to face the dangers related to many of these individuals seeking to return to the UK. The method of attack witnessed in Westminster yesterday also fits into a wider pattern that we’ve seen with the emergence of ISIS.
Over the last two decades the vast majority of terror incidents in the UK related to bombings and bomb plots, while only 15 percent involved knifings or beheadings, and 12 percent related vehicular attacks. Yet recently it is the latter two types of attack that have noticeably increased. This is no coincidence. Whereas it was Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine that taught adherents how to manufacture simple explosive devices, Islamic State have explicitly called on followers in the West to carry out attacks with quite literally whatever they have to hand.
The prominent Islamic State ideologue and spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, stressed in his statements that attacks on western civilians were most prized, and from early as 2014 told IS supporters; “If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelievers…Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.” Fortunately, Adnani has since been killed in a US airstrike. However, as we saw yesterday, the logic of the kind of terrorism he advocated has outlived him.
As it became more difficult for would-be fighters to reach Syria, IS shifted emphasis to telling those loyal to the caliphate to remain in the West and carry out attacks in their home countries. Of course, we still don’t know the identity of yesterday’s attacker, however, there is a good chance he will turn out to be a British national, as our stats show that 72 percent of terror offenders have been British.
What that tells us is that we have a huge problem with home-grown terrorism and radicalisation in the UK. From our research we know that those involved in terrorism are more likely to come from neighbourhoods with a higher than average Muslim demographic. The problem of segregation and lack of social cohesion, like that of non-violent extremism, remains a challenge we still don’t have any quick or easy solution to.
Things like the Casey Review have been set up to try and address this. But for now the extremist milieu from which Islamist terrorism emerges continues to flourish in many of our cities. For as long as that is the case, the challenge to our security services may always be too great to be able to foil every attack.