On 22 March 2017 a disturbing terror attack occurred around the UK Parliament in London. It was a day the country had been anticipating for some time. More than 13 separate plots against the UK had been foiled since 2013, but it was only a matter of time before something got through. It constituted only the third successful jihadist attack on the UK homeland in over 20 years since the birth of al-Qaeda and its associates. The total death toll in the United Kingdom, even including this attack, remains under 65. Political leaders and the security services were quick to try to keep this latest incident in perspective within the mind of the public.
During 2016, the UK lived in a Europe that was increasingly troubled by attacks, and by threats, from jihadist terror groups. Of the 43 states that the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office listed as running the highest risk of terrorist activity, the European group consisted of France, Belgium, Germany, Spain and the UK. Successful jihadist attacks across France, Belgium and Germany in 2015 and 2016 seemed to herald a new wave of terrorism in Europe driven largely by the wars in Syria and Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State (IS).
Nevertheless, the UK didn’t suffer any direct attacks from jihadist terrorists in 2016 and didn’t raise its national threat level, which remained at ‘severe’, where it has stood for the past two years. This reflects both the strengths and the vulnerabilities of the UK’s position as a prime target of international terrorism. On the one hand, the fact that no successful jihadist attacks occurred indicates the evident success, good fortune, or both, of the security services in the UK. Leaving aside the March 2017 attack, only two jihadist attacks have been successful in the UK between 2001 and 2016: the July 2005 attacks on the London underground and a bus; and the murder of soldier Lee Rigby outside his London barracks in 2013.
Those two cases have to be set against at least 50 credible and advanced plots in the past 15 years, in addition to several times that number of incidents that may be classed as ‘disruptions’ of ongoing terrorist plots. The mercifully low casualty toll however does not reflect the other side of the story—the increasing potential for jihadist terror attacks on the UK in the current climate. The pattern of terrorism has been changing since 2015 with fewer attacks but growing lethality within Western states, particularly in Europe. Within the UK’s security services there is an acute awareness of a potential wave of terrorism building against the country, although the wave has yet to break against the UK in successful attacks
The UK CT authorities have a strong tradition of operational planning and coordination going well back before 9/11 with a generation of experience in Northern Ireland on which to draw. The UK security services ramped up their CT efforts again after the London attacks of 2005, and have since successfully disrupted ten bombing attempts. The intelligence services and GCHQ have also been retasked over the past 15 years to make terrorist groups a major target of their activities and the police are also undertaking more CT activity than ever before.
The fact is that there is evidence from intercepted IS files and the testimony from those in custody that the UK may have achieved some degree of ‘deterrence by denial’ in the thinking of terrorist leaders. At least in relative terms, the UK is a more difficult target for a terrorist group than most other European states, and intercommunity relations, certainly in France and Belgium, are more conducive to a terror-friendly environment than in the UK.
UK authorities now confront the future with a sense of vigilant resolve, as was revealed in responses to the March 2017 attack on Parliament. The greatest uncertainty ahead in 2017-18 is the practical effect of the Brexit vote on allied cooperation in CT. On the face of it, CT cooperation between European security services and police forces should be the easiest element of the Brexit tapestry to replicate once the UK leaves the EU. It is clearly in the interests of all the agencies across Europe that this should be the case, and the nature of the terrorist challenge makes it imperative. There have been many statements to confirm this fact. The UK has some 5,500 people working on digital access to intelligence—more than twice the number in France and five times the number in Germany.
The UK’s allies have a lot to lose if intelligence cooperation is harmed by the Brexit negotiations, but new arrangements will nevertheless have to be worked out for the UK’s relations with Europol and its access and contributions to common databases. The Shengen System III arrangements, to which the UK will want access, need to include information exchange arrangements and the facility to exchange operational data such as DNA, fingerprint and vehicle registration details. Political statements aside, association agreements will have to be concluded but are as yet uncertain. More than that, as Europol further develops, a UK voice in its evolution, the way it handles its data access and its common protocols, will either not be heard or else will be inserted at a later stage in policy development.
As the anticipated terrorist wave breaks against Western societies throughout the world, the UK is relatively well placed to cope, and there’s a high degree of public acceptance in Britain that terrorists will be successful from time to time. But anything that makes the UK’s coordination with other partners more difficult than it otherwise need be, such as the sheer distraction of the Brexit negotiations, and still more any distancing of the UK from Europol, can’t be other than a further challenge for the security services and the police.