Terror Threat: Reality or empty rhetoric?

It is completely understandable that the national focus at this moment in time is on the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. It is a national emergency. Not something that is often experienced in the United Kingdom. The reaction of the authorities and the national government was almost bound to have its moments of apparent disorganisation. Despite the attempts by many in the mainstream media to make some kind of political capital from the situation the work of many unsung people in the public service has provided the basis of a way out of the situation. As a result of their selflessness, in some cases paying the ultimate price, an end to the nightmare of COVID-19 is in sight.

While the country focuses on the immediate threat from COVID-19 it is important to ask what other surprises might be around the corner? One element of that question is could terrorists seek to use the current situation to their advantage? If we are to believe the publicity stream on social media emerging from both Al Qaeda and Islamic State certainly their leadership believes now is the time to conduct a major attack on the West.

IS has used a number of pieces of imagery on social media to convey specific threats to London and also Chicago. Under the headline “attack them now when they least expect it” so-called Islamic State (IS) has instructed its followers to be considering major attacks. Claiming the virus is a “soldier of Allah” IS seems determined to use the current situation to its advantage.

Given this call-to-arms it is worthwhile asking, in reality, just how serious a threat is this? While many may have thought IS had been defeated in Syria and Iraq in practice many IS supporters managed to leave before the final battles occurred inside Syria. Many dispersed back to their homelands. Evidence from a number of recent terror attacks show the impact of what many analysts call the “whack-a-mole” approach to terrorism. Every time one threat, such as is Syria, is destroyed more molehills appear across the global, such as in Sri Lanka, where ten attacks occurred in parallel on Easter Sunday that saw 253 die and over 500 injured.

This was a multi-phase attack on many targets in parallel. This required a great deal of planning and coordination. It also required one central component. People crammed into the tiny spaces of churches on the day of one of the most important religious festivals in the Christian Calendar. Ironically this so-called “Soldier of Allah” has created the situation where no such mass gatherings are now occurring.

Arguably any terrorist, be they a member of the Extreme Right Wing (ERW) – remembering the attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, that saw fifty-one dead and forty-nine injured – or an Islamic fundamentalist, would find locating a target where many people are gathered together difficult. Lockdown is this respect has its advantages.

But that is no reason for complacency. In France in the last few days an attack occurred, carried out by an individual, that saw two people stabbed and five injured in a tobacconist, in Roman-sur-Isère, near Grenoble. It would seem that despite the current Pandemic that social media content is still able to play on the minds of vulnerable individuals.

This is an example of the so-called “lone wolf” attack. Where an individual, equipped with a relatively simple method of killing, such as a knife purchased in a local hardware store, launches an attack on innocent people going about their daily lives. It is inevitable that with society distracted by COVID-19 that such attacks will occur.

The real question however is could terrorists seek to exploit the current situation to conduct a mass casualty attack? How might they do it? Could they create a nightmare scenario with their own form of biological weapon? While the subject of much debate the practicalities of this form of attack, often seen in terms of a single person carrying Ebola into densely populated areas, are complex.

The person infected with Ebola would quickly show symptoms that would be picked up. Contact tracing and immediate quarantine of those exposed to the disease would provide some degree of control. This is a task that the United Kingdom is specifically prepared for at the moment having gone through the contain phase of the response to the current pandemic.

So, while a biological attack would add pressure on top of a specifically challenging situation it is very unlikely. IS thinking is to task out risks in attack planning to ensure success. A revision to the kind of multi-phase attack seen in Paris in November 2015, perhaps accompanied by use of Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) would be more likely.

But at the moment what would they attack? Surely not hospitals. The danger of that creating a massive blow-back from the ERW would surely be too risky for even the zealots of IS. That could be a trigger for a much wider reaction that may even challenge the cohesion of society-at-large. Civil disturbances may even occur, a release of the pent-up frustration of lock-down, amalgamating into a break-down of society and its usual tolerances.

What seems more likely is that those seeking to conduct mass casualty attacks would wait until the country emerges from lock-down. This will be a time of maximum vulnerability. A point when many in the NHS and its associated organisations, like the emergency services, would be quite literally on their knees. As society seeks to return to “normal” whatever that will mean post COVID-19 the pent-up desire to meet friends and resume social lives that have been massively disrupted will create opportunities for more attacks, such as the Borough Market incident. These could occur anywhere across the country, not necessarily in London.

For those deeply involved in the COVID-19 response this suggests one important thing. If we find we have had some spare capacity in the system, and let us hope that is proven to be correct, then we need to maintain it as part of a more -wide ranging approach to resilience. With many people asking why Germany has gone through this situation more easily analysis shows one simple fact. They were better prepared for it.

If that is the case then in a post-austerity, post COVID-19 world arguments should be made that cutting things to the bone is no longer an acceptable approach when it comes to public safety. A resilient society needs safety margins. From now on society needs in-built contingencies to deal with unexpected events. One of which could be a group of people from IS seeking to disrupt the recovery from COVID-19.

While the current threat level remains at substantial there could be a tendency to play down the threat of an attack. That is a position into which we must try to avoid. Or else the words of IS “attack them when they least expect it” could become a reality.


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