Terrorist Threat Today

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EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — MI5 Director General, Ken McCallum’s, Joint Speech at 6e July with the FBI chief saw a welcome rebalancing of the intelligence agency’s focus on nation-state threats. Counter-terrorism is an important function, but it was allowed to dominate for two decades while Russia, China and some other belligerent states were insufficiently controlled.

The 9/11 attack was so massive that it rocked Western foreign policy for 20 years. The impact of 9/11 stemmed not only from the high number of deaths (nearly ten times the second-largest terrorist incident), but also because it was seen as a new form of particularly dangerous Islamist terrorism. The extraordinary television images, both captivating and horrifying, along with the iconic targets produced a vision of terror in a class of its own.

Until 9/11, the world had viewed terrorism as a crime or poverty, as something that we would like to eradicate, but that we might have to sustain and control forever. The main factors that distinguish terrorism from crime are political motive, intention to kill and maim, and often the secret foreign hand behind the terrorists. That’s why security forces around the world are leading the way in counter-terrorism (CT) with supporting police forces.

We tend to forget that spectacular terrorist attacks didn’t start with 9/11. Before 2001, from the early 1970s, there were two extraordinary decades in which several major attacks occurred each year. For example, the September 1970 blow up of four planes in Jordan by Palestinian terrorists, the December 1975 kidnapping of 60 officials at an OPEC conference in Vienna by the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, and the downing of an Air India Boeing 747 over the Atlantic in June 1985, by Sikh extremists, killing 329 people.

Some of the most high-profile attacks were carried out by the Abu Nidhal Organization (ANO) and other Palestinian groups. There were also Sikh and Latin American organizations, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), the German Baader Meinhof gang and the Japanese Red Army. Attacks in the 1970s and 1980s received front-page and primetime attention, but only for a few days each. The exception was the destruction of a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie in December 1988, which broke through an invisible barrier and became a recurring news item for years.


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Behind these organizations we occasionally glimpsed nation states. In many cases it involved Iran, Syria or Libya, but there were also other, less visible actors. The French deal with the ANO (revealed in 2019) was particularly cynical, but there was also Irish-American (NORAID) aid to the PIRA and all those other countries that paid ransom for the release of their citizens. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the extent of East Germany’s systematic involvement in anti-Western terrorism was exposed.

Occasionally there were successes for security services. In the UK alone, there were operations exposing PIRA’s Libyan armaments and the painstaking work that the Lockerbie bombings attributed to Libya. At that time, CT work was always secondary to operations against nation-state threats; mainly the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. In 1970, 105 Soviet intelligence officers were expelled from London, the result of thousands of hours of investigation, and from then on, a coordinated effort was continued to expel spies from the Soviet bloc, disrupting their operations.

It was the end of the Cold War in 1989/90, ushering in the unipolar world of just one superpower. In April 2001, the Hainan Island incident involving a US spy plane off the Chinese coast raised questions about the potential future threat from a more assertive China. But just four months later, the 9/11 attack took place and China was all but forgotten.

Allies in Southeast Asia would repeatedly warn Western counterparts of the dangers of ignoring China’s rise and focusing too much on counter-terrorism in general and Iraq and Afghanistan in particular; but in vain. Understandably, the destruction of Al Qaeda and the imprisonment of its leader, Osama Bin Laden, became a strategic goal of the US, involving vast intelligence resources. Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama are both putting pressure on their agencies to prevent future attacks on American soil. When 30 British tourists were killed in a Tunisian seaside town, Prime Minister David Cameron described terrorism as “an existential threat”.

Indeed, for some countries with weak governments, such as Somalia and Mali, terrorism can be existential. Terrorism can also be very corrosive to civil society. For Western democracies, however, the only circumstance in which terrorism can become an existential threat is if a group manages to obtain weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

There have been several moments of concern. In March 1995, the Japanese sect Aun Shinrikyo attempted to use the nerve agent Sarin on the Tokyo subway. Al Qaeda tried several times to obtain weapons of mass destruction. There has long been concern that the collapse of a country like Pakistan or North Korea could lead to terrorists getting their hands on chemicals; biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons.

The change in planning for 9/11 after the British first got wind of the plot changed a conventional hijacking of a plane to secure the release of a prisoner into a new concept that used fully powered aircraft as flying bombs . Essentially, 9/11 became a borderline case between conventional and weapons of mass destruction.


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For this reason, CT will continue to be a major concern for security agencies around the world. In addition, as long as nation states continue to support terrorist organizations, we will have to use the energy of our intelligence agencies to uncover the plans of terrorist groups and their sponsors.

The statistics show that terrorism poses a minor threat compared to crime and disease, even in the UK, which is one of the hardest hit countries. Between 1970 and 2019, the UK lost a total of 3,416 lives to terrorism, but 84% of those were related to Northern Ireland and 271 to the Lockerbie incident. Between 2005 and 2022, 93 people died from terrorism, an average of less than 6 people per year. This compares with 695 homicides in 2020, about 1,500 deaths a year from traffic accidents and about 25,000 from flu and pneumonia.

The terrorism figures are low, partly due to the successes of MI5. Operation Overt in 2006 alone prevented up to ten passenger planes from being destroyed over the Atlantic. At the same time, international (mainly US) successes against terrorists from the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda have diminished the ability of these organizations to carry out large-scale attacks in the West.

CT has increasingly focused on the ‘Lone Wolf’ phenomenon; young men radicalizing online and being persuaded to build a base bomb or just grab a knife from the kitchen drawer. Countering this threat requires a disproportionate use of their limited resources. To counter this threat, mental health, social services, education and police must be involved.

A consequence of the years since 9/11 is that security services have taken on too much of the CT burden. At times, they have been tempted to bid for generous CT funding, while the nursing services continued to feel uncomfortable playing a CT role. However, the Lone Wolf phenomenon (whether Islamist or right-wing) must be addressed as an ‘entire government’ effort, as envisioned in the original UK MATCH plan. The precious resources of security services must be focused on the most strategic threats; that threaten not only our way of life, but also our very existence.

This piece was first published by our friends at RUSI.

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