The likely Islamist-inspired Feb. 2 knife attack in Streatham, south London, and a similar incident at London Bridge Nov. 29 have brought public attention back to the threat of Islamist terrorism in the UK. Despite this renewed focus, the threat from Islamist terrorism has not increased in severity and both incidents were relatively low-level; the Streatham attack injured two passersby, while the London Bridge incident killed two people and injured three more. Both suspects were known to authorities, had served time for extremism-related activities, and were under surveillance by the British intelligence services. Both attacks were amateurish in nature and prompted a quick and lethal response from law enforcement, which possibly prevented further casualties. Attacks in the medium-term in Western Europe will likely be high profile, though low impact.
International Terrorist Threat Decreasing in Western Europe
The threat from international terrorism in Western Europe has decreased since a peak in 2015-2017, when major attacks in Brussels, London, Manchester, Paris, and other European cities took place. The reduction of militant strongholds in the Middle East and the consequent weakening of transnational terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), is largely responsible for this improvement in the regional security environment. In response, in August 2019, WorldAware reduced its national terrorism threat ratings for the UK and certain other countries from 3 (Moderate), which indicates that threats are generally limited but dynamic incidents can occur and basic precautions may not entirely mitigate the impact, to 2 (Low), which indicates that threats typically occur only in specific areas, infrequently affect businesses, and are generally avoided by basic precautions. Some city-specific ratings, such as London, remained unchanged. Reflecting WorldAware’s assessment, the UK’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) lowered its official threat level the following November.
Given their limited resources, AQ, IS, and similar groups have previously called on sympathizers to carry out attacks in the countries where they reside using whatever means are at hand. Nonetheless, the loss of their former strongholds will likely damage their influence and result in fewer individuals answering such calls. The elimination of bases in the Middle East has also driven militant leadership underground and restricted its ability to communicate with their global supporters. Additionally, these groups are drastically losing financial and military resources, as well as land in which radicals can train.
Security Forces Strengthen Counter-terrorism Capabilities
Western European security forces have recently improved their capabilities to deter, detect, and respond to terrorist plots. Several Western European countries have set up extensive deradicalization programs such as the UK’s Prevent strategy, which aims to counter terrorist ideology and steer would-be militants away from violent extremism. Such projects also assist authorities in identifying potentially susceptible individuals at an early stage. Although these programs have received mixed reviews about their effectiveness, they show that European countries are addressing the societal factors that have led to radicalization.
An Evolving Terrorist Threat
Increased communication technology, including mobile telephones and the internet, enables terrorism by providing avenues through which groups can radicalize individuals, as well as access basic knowledge in operational methods and capability building to maximize the impact of a terrorist act. This technology has created a “new normal” in which terrorists are individuals who act in their own capacity. These terrorists are not part of a wider network operating according to a central plan to execute mass casualty attacks on specific targets. Today’s terrorist requires little support; the weapons they use – household knives or everyday vehicles – are readily available. Perpetrators are less selective in their targeting than before and willing to attack the most vulnerable targets without fear of a damaging backlash against a larger terrorist organization. Anyone can be a terrorist, anything can be a weapon, and anyone can be a target; however, as the new breed of Islamist terrorist often acts alone, attacks are usually smaller in scale and less sophisticated, which generally limits the likelihood of mass casualties.
Despite the reduction in their frequency and scale, radicalized individuals continue to carry out sporadic, rudimentary attacks. These are difficult for law enforcement to detect, as perpetrators usually act on their own initiative with limited or no interaction with a terrorist network. Lack of support from such groups means that perpetrators must resort to available weapons such as household knives and vehicles, as seen in the attacks in Berlin, Nice, Stockholm, and London.
The main effect of terrorism will continue to be disruptive security measures around suspected or actual incidents. High public sensitivity to the terrorist threat will frequently lead to short-notice, short-term security alerts, evacuations, and security cordons in response to bomb scares and hoaxes.
To prepare for short-notice security alerts, consider the following:
- Be alert to sudden increases in police or security activity and gravitate away from suspected security incidents.
- Move through security checkpoints as soon as possible and leave the immediate area.
- In the event of a security incident, vacate the area immediately. Do not stay and take photographs.
- Do not congregate at security cordons.
- Obey all instructions from emergency responders without hesitation; do not ask questions or offer assistance.
- Be prepared to evacuate an area or building quickly if ordered to do so by security forces.
- In a suspected terrorist incident near your accommodation or place of work, remain inside and stay away from windows. In the event of an explosion, seek shelter in a bathroom or an interior stairwell. Remain sheltered in a secure location until you are certain the danger has passed.
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