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September 2021 marked 20 years of war against terrorism and the moment a historic cycle closed. The image of the US plane (1109) leaving Afghanistan in August 2021 carries the symbolism of a numbers game sending a powerful message not just to the American people, but to all its Western allies. The 9/11 aftermath is now over, and this is the time for a strategic change and for the development of a new approach in the fight against terrorism.

Just like the United States of America, the United Kingdom will remain one of the key players in the new round of, evidently, the same game.

The terrorist threat has evolved into a global, both physical and virtual, hard-to-follow, hard-to-predict or control phenomenon that knows no boundaries of geographical, cultural, linguistic, ethnic, ideological, or bureaucratic nature. Its main advantage remains its enhanced capacity to easily adapt to any context. Beyond the general characteristics developed by the global terrorist phenomenon, there is also a layer of individual traits for every country, based on historical evolution, national/regional and local circumstances. Adapting to both pandemic and post-pandemic reality, at the same time in a post-Brexit environment, the United Kingdom continues to be the target of many terrorist groups active on the ground. Unlike ever before, the lines between those groups are now blurred, leaving the chance for a symbiotic relation that makes the phenomenon even harder to control and defeat.

How has Terrorism Evolved in the UK?

The history of terrorism in the UK has always tended to transcend the narrow political and religious dimensions that have so far been associated with the phenomenon around the world. Some key moments in the evolution of the terrorist threat should be provided to serve as background for this assessment. While its historic roots lie much deeper, many believe that the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, an attempt to blow up the House of Lords carried out by Guy Fawkes and fellow Catholic conspirators represented the starting point of the terrorist threat in the UK.

Later, England became an important hub for anarchist thought as a result of the less restrictive national laws that created a haven for radicals who faced political repression in their home countries. The bombing of Clerkenwell Prison in London in 1867 marked the presence of a different dangerous group, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, nicknamed the “Fenians” – a movement mostly observed in Canada and Ireland. The 1909 assassination of a British official on the steps of the Imperial Institute in London by the Indian revolutionary Madan Lal Dhingra, sparked an anti-colonial wave of militant networks throughout India and Great Britain, while the most intrusive repercussions were felt by the Indian students present in the country. Probably the most discussed and analysed terrorist threat within the evolution of the phenomenon in the United Kingdom, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), was the movement that struggled against the British Government, resulting in systematic attacks that lasted until the late 1990s. While Belfast was at the heart of the fight, the IRA also conducted terrorist attacks in England, some of which were disastrous for the country.

Current Trends

More recently, following the global trend, the UK has been facing the Salafi-jihadi threat, becoming one of the top countries affected by the evolution of this phenomenon. Although various forms of extremism have been witnessed after 2006, the international practitioner and scholarly focus has remained on Salafi-jihadist terrorism, creating a gap in research regarding the topic of violence and extremism from the extreme right and left, in particular, on target selection, perpetrators, patterns of action, and facilitating conditions.

The current trend provides sufficient motivation for this gap to be filled, but there is still much work to be done and many elements of this phenomenon are yet to be understood as events are continuing to develop. Bearing in mind the increasing activity of the right-wing and left-wing extremist groups around Europe and especially in the UK, the current terrorist threat should be assessed from all sides and ideologies. The “trinity of terror” – Salafi-jihadism, right-wing and left-wing terrorism – have been feeding on each other’s propaganda, strategy and means, in a symbiotic relationship. Strategic enemies on the surface, the three become rhetorical allies through mutually reinforcing hate speech, using fear to divide communities and gain new members. The current terrorist threat in the UK has evolved beyond the general ideological classification, creating the need to use a different set of spectacles to understand the generic and context-specific dynamics of the violent radicalisation among individuals and groups.

Law and Strategy

Similar to its European counterparts, the UK government has adopted a variety of legislative laws as part of its national strategy to prevent, combat and fight against terrorism and violent extremism. Among the main “legislative weapons” used by the UK Government, the “emergency laws” have allowed necessarily restrictive measures to be taken during difficult times against different terrorist actions. Some of the earliest emergency powers were used against the IRA from 1874 to 1989. As the threat evolved, the security measures have been packed by supportive legislation that, sometimes, in the long-term, indirectly gave way to resurrecting violence and hatred. Over the years, various laws and legislative acts have sought to expand on this original legislation to provide a better strategy to track and prevent terrorist attacks.

Some of the main extended laws passed in the UK in the past twenty years are:

  • the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act (2001)
  • the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005)
  • the Counter-Terrorism Act (2008), the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act (2011)
  • the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015)
  • the Investigatory Powers Act (2016, Snoopers’ Charter)

Since 2003, the UK Government has introduced, developed, and updated the CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy. This response to fighting terrorism is built upon an approach that unites the public and private sectors, communities, citizens, and overseas partners around the single purpose to leave no safe space for terrorists to recruit or act. The strategy proposed by CONTEST provides the framework that enables law enforcement to organise this work to counter all forms of terrorism. CONTEST’s overarching aim is to reduce the risk to the UK and its citizens and interests overseas from terrorism, so that its people can go about their lives freely and with confidence. The strategy is composed of four central pillars:

i) Prevent (to safeguard and support those vulnerable to radicalisation, to stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism).

ii) Pursue (to stop terrorist attacks happening in this country and against UK interests overseas).

iii) Protect (to strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack in the UK or against our interests overseas, and so reduce our vulnerability).

iv) Prepare (to mitigate the impact of a terrorist incident, by bringing any attack to an end rapidly and ensure fast recovery).

According to the 2018 report of CONTEST, an updated and strengthened version of the strategy continues with the tried and tested framework of the four work strands. An in-depth review of the counter-terrorism approach found that this structure remains effective and continues to guide the planning and work of many agencies and departments in the UK. In this regard, the purpose of Prevent and Pursue remains to reduce the threats faced by the country, while the purpose of Protect and Prepare work is to reduce its vulnerabilities. Still, despite the fact that the historical evolution of terrorism has forced the UK to face various types of terrorism, the counter-terrorism agenda has been largely focusing on the Salafi-jihadi threat, aligning its framework to the global trends of national security and war on terror. As a result, the response to the terrorist threat reinforced a malign cycle of violence, hatred, and stigma that have not benefited any side.

Terrorist Threat in 2020-2021

Recently lowered to “Substantial”, the current terrorist threat to the UK remains real and undeniable, assuming that an attack is currently “likely” to happen. Bearing in mind the current situation in Afghanistan, and the fact that events at home are often inspired by those far away, the threat is expected to rise once again in relation to the evolution of events developing outside of UK’s borders. In other words, the threat level is designed to be a dynamic decision, reflecting both the international and domestic security situation, while rising and falling with some regularity as-and-when things change. The UK threat level is set by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC). According to its mission statement, JTAC “brings together counter-terrorist expertise from the police, and government departments and agencies so information is analysed and processed on a shared basis” (JTAC website). Based out of MI5’s headquarters at Thames House in London, they are operationally independent from politics, government and the intelligence agencies.

Ethno-Nationalism and Separatism

At this point in time, threats from terrorism have shown an evolving and shifting pattern in the UK. The oldest forms of domestic terrorism, the ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorism, in the Northern Ireland context, although operating under a different nature, are still ongoing with the New IRA. Recent cross-cutting events such as the global pandemic and lockdowns, Brexit, the FTF phenomenon and the returnees, the radicalisation of young people in various settings, especially the prison environment, the online domain, and now, the Afghanistan context, have encouraged a dramatic rise of various types of terrorism, including right and left-wing extremist groups that invoke the “us vs them” narrative.

According to the latest information released to the public by the UK’s principal domestic security agency, MI5, the “toxic” issue of racism is fuelling a growing threat from the far right, reaching and radicalising through the online environment teenagers as young as 13. While far-right terrorism has been described as the UK’s fastest-growing threat, in 2020, MI5 stated that investigations into left-wing terrorism would be conducted for the first time. However, the government stressed that the threat level from left-wing terrorism was relatively small compared to Islamist and far-right extremism. In the last four years, 10 out of the 29 attack plots disrupted in the UK were related to the extreme right-wing. Far-right attacks in the UK have not resulted in mass casualties but have instead caused individual casualties, usually via stabbings or by driving into crowds of people, its wider threat comes from the ability to influence and convert young people to a twisted and violent narrative.

Moreover, during 2020, EU Member States reported a total of 57 completed, failed, and foiled terrorist attacks, while the UK alone reported a total of 62. This represented a slight decrease from the preceding year when the number of terrorist attacks completed, failed, and foiled in the UK in 2019 was 64. In 2020, a decrease was also observed among the terrorist arrests within the EU and UK: 449 in EU Member States and 185 in the UK. Still, it is unclear whether this indicates reduced terrorist activity, or is a result of changes in the operational capabilities of public authorities during the pandemic. As the number of Salafi-jihadi attacks has increased since 2019, EU Member States and the UK have witnessed a higher number of completed Salafi-jihadi attacks (ten for the EU, three for the UK) than thwarted attacks. This represents a dangerous trend that should be addressed. Furthermore, radicalisation in the prison environment and the issues of returnees from war-zones around the world continue to be key topics in the continuous development of a counter-terrorism strategy for the UK, and elsewhere.

The Changing Nature

The virtual global terrorist phenomenon puts added pressure on the authorities to map, profile, and track the perpetrators and the networks that continuously develop using the diverse pool of opportunities offered by the digital world. Moreover, the blurred lines between the main ideologies, Salafi-jihadi, right- and left-wing, are overlapping through the common elements they use in their online propaganda materials, feeding on mainly similar, but context-adapted twisted extremist narratives. As observed through the numbers, the terrorist threat remains high, and it is now more diverse and dispersed. The new trends make it harder to identify a pattern of radicalisation or to be able to track individuals who might be connected to a certain terrorist network. While there is an increasing need for protection and surveillance in the online environment, we must ensure that we reach people who are susceptible and sensitive to extremist material before a terrorist group does. As lockdown and social distancing measures are now being relaxed, the UK Government is promoting greater use of open public spaces to try to kick-start the economy while keeping transmission of the virus low. Bars, cafes, restaurants, and entertainment venues can more easily apply for “pavement licences” to place tables and chairs in public spaces outside their premises. While this response is likely to benefit businesses and the economy, there’s a real risk these new outdoor arrangements may become attractive targets for terrorists. The UK’s recovery strategy mentions redesigning public spaces to make them “secure”, but only focuses on the risk of the virus itself. Security also needs to take into consideration the threat posed by terrorism.

The current situation in Afghanistan might also represent a potential danger of Salafi-jihadist terrorist groups trying to rebuild their capabilities and re-establish some training facilities like the ones seen in the past. Although it does not imply a direct immediate threat to the UK and other western countries, the withdrawal from Afghanistan represented a “morale boost” to the Salafi-jihadi movement and a ‘gain’ for their narrative. Therefore, the possibility of an attack being perpetrated in the future is high and the authorities need to be alert. As observed through the numbers, the terrorist threat remains high, and it is now more diverse and dispersed than before. The new trends make it harder to identify a pattern of radicalisation or to be able to track individuals who might be connected to a certain terrorist network.

What Should Be Done?

Firstly, it is important to underline that the UK needs to learn from the past and implement effective and just policies that do not discriminate against specific members of its population, with trust building and cooperation as key elements, to “evolve” and successfully prevent terrorist attacks. Secondly, while there is an increasing need for protection and surveillance in the online environment, we must make sure that we reach people who are susceptible and sensitive to extremist material before a terrorist group reaches them first. Moreover, the global pandemic has kept people at home and opened them up towards a virtual reality. The vulnerability of younger people to extreme ideology is worrying, and it is highly likely that against a backdrop of populism and economic stagnation, right-wing extremism will continue to grow in Europe and in the UK also. But that doesn’t mean that we have the luxury to repeat the mistake of focusing on just one ideology, while underestimating the potential of the others. Therefore, the current strategy should be developed not only regarding treating all these threats equally, but also to develop the ability to adapt and respond to the symbiosis between terrorist groups from different ideologies. Thirdly, any future strategy should be based on a comprehensive understanding of the thought processes and conditions that lead people to choose to join a violent extremist group and eventually, become the perpetrators of a terrorist attack. To deal with this problem in the longer term, we must understand these underlying issues and deal with them. And this stage can only be achieved through a strong commitment from people working in the field, scholars, and communities at risk. Last, but not least, we all need a change of perspective that should begin from here. Violence leads to violence, and we only reap what we sow. The next round of this game should bring new rules to the table to ensure that past mistakes are never repeated, because the price for this only becomes higher each time.