For terrorists, UK is tough nut to crack

February 19, 2015 11:59

There is a growing sense across Europe that the threat from Islamist extremists is escalating. Recent weeks have seen dramatic attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, violent shoot-outs in Belgium, and thwarted attacks in Germany, and elsewhere. The UK has been on the front line of Islamist terrorism for over a decade. Does the marked surge in violence in our European neighbours mean increased trouble here?

The previous peak in Islamist terrorism in the UK occurred in the mid-2000s with, most spectacularly, the July 7 bombings in London in 2005. During this period there were also serious attacks against our neighbours, particularly the Madrid bombings in 2004, which remains the most lethal Islamist attack in Europe. Islamist violence during this period was partially tied to the conflict in Iraq, with the role European governments that played there contributing to domestic radicalisation back home.

As Europe's involvement in the Iraq conflict declined, this coincided with a decline in domestic terrorism. Attempted attacks continued but increasingly these were foiled either by the police and intelligence agencies or simply by the unreliability of the homemade explosive devices then favoured by the terrorists.

The failure of so many of the explosives-based plots gradually pushed the terrorists to other methods. The success of the Mumbai attacks in 2008 marked a watershed, and in recent years the number one terrorist threat for mainland UK, as judged by intelligence and police planners, has consistently been a marauding gun attack, exactly of the type witnessed in Paris and Copenhagen.

Plots to carry out just such an attack have already been made here, and the plotters are serving long prison sentences in the UK.

The amount of weapons in the UK is relatively small

The major obstacles the terrorists have faced is trying to access the weapons and ammunition needed for such an attack. The UK's tough gun legislation makes this one of the most difficult countries in Europe to get hold of firearms. Islamist terrorists have struggled to smuggle such weapons in, and have had even less success acquiring weapons from British criminal gangs.

There are illegal weapons available in the country and criminal networks use these for armed robberies and other gang-related violence. The amount of weapons available is small though - particularly considering the size of the country - and they are incredibly expensive to buy. So much so that most suppliers will only rent weapons and small amounts of ammunition. Bullets in particular are especially difficult to get hold off, and very expensive.

Fundamentally, there is no incentive for the criminal gangs who control the weapons to provide such scarce and valuable resources to Islamist terrorists. The terrorists can rarely afford the huge sums needed to buy the weapons and ammunition outright. But more importantly, the criminal quartermasters know that weapons sold to Islamist terrorists will be recovered by the police in the aftermath of an attack, and analysis will lead the investigation back to the suppliers with a strong likelihood of very long terrorism convictions for those involved. It is a high risk game, with no long-term benefits.

For now, the threat of an Islamist terrorist attack in the UK is rightly judged as severe. Today, the conflict in Syria, and with IS, is fulfilling much the same role as Iraq ten years ago. The UK police and intelligence agencies will continue to view a marauding gun attack as the most serious realistic scenario they face. Whether Islamist terrorists in this country will actually be able to acquire the firepower needed is far from certain though, and attacks using much cruder weapons or homemade devices may still remain the most likely threat for now.

February 19, 2015 11:59

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive