Any member of the public who watched the recent carnage by jihadists in Tunisia may well have been tempted to recollect July 7, 2005 when Islamic terrorists last (successfully) visited the streets of the United Kingdom. On that day, 52 people died alongside the four terrorists who planned and conducted the attack. More than 700 people were injured. The ratio of those killed to the number of bombs detonated was 13, excluding the suicide bombers. In Madrid 15 months earlier, the ratio was 19 when 10 bombs killed 191.
In the 10 years that have passed since the attacks in London, a number of other high profile terrorists events have occurred – in Mumbai, Nairobi, Garissa, Tunis … and most recently Sousse, have been added to an ever growing list of locations that have borne witness to the horrors of Islamic extremism.
This, however, is not the totality of what has been done in the name of Islamist extremism.In Baga, Nigeria, 2,000 people reportedly died at the hands of Boko Haram In January 2015. This is just one of a sequence of attacks by Islamists which have shown little regard for human life.
Across Iraq and Syria, mass graves are routinely being uncovered that bear witness to the bestiality of the group known as Dā’ish. Their ability to shock seems to know few boundaries. From crucifixion, to throwing people off high buildings because of their alleged sex orientation, the group conducts a campaign of intimidation and terror that appears to be reaching an ever wider geographic area across the Middle East.
Other forms of extremism have also left their indelible mark on the region’s society. In Norway, Anders Breivik, a single lone gunman motivated by a very different form of extremism, killed eight people in an initial bombing in Oslo before 69 people lost their lives as he embarked on a murderous campaign of violence on the island of Utøya.
The catalogue of major terrorist attacks in places such as Oklahoma, Beirut, Mombasa, Baghdad, Kabul and Damascus … and of course, Washington, DC and New York on September 11 continues to escalate. In the last 10 years, the average number of terrorist attacks per month grew from around 1,000 a month at the time of the attack on London to 2,000 a month following the so-called “Arab Spring,” which was supposed to bring democracy to the Middle East.
As governments around the world have responded to the increasing threat of Islamist jihad, the level of killings has been reduced to around 1,500 a month. But, this number, is still 50 percent above the level it was at the time of the attacks on London a decade ago. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, just over 50 major terrorist attacks have been prevented since September 11 — five of these this year. Despite the passage of time and all the lives sacrificed in Iraq and Afghanistan that were supposed to make the streets of the United Kingdom safer, the threat level remains at severe.
But what else has changed in that period of time? Ten years ago, the major threat to Western societies was Al Qaeda. But today Al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self — teetering on extinction. As a result of the concerted activities of the Pakistani Army, the small remnants of the group’s “core leadership” are scattered over various areas of Pakistan. Its leader, Dr.Ayman Al Zawahiri, is unable to publish a voice mail claiming credit for the jihadi attacks in Paris on the magazine Charlie Hebdo.
With many of its former franchises now publically declaring their allegiance to Dā’ish, Al Qaeda appears to be in a tail spin of irreversible decline. The loss of its second-in-command to a drone attack in Yemen seemed to highlight its current misfortunes. Al Qaeda’s only recent fragment of good news is that its Somali-based franchise, Al Shabaab, has decided — for the time — to remain loyal.
But that news cannot hide the major transformation that has taken place within the Islamist threat landscape during the last 10 years. Unless Al Qaeda can pull off a spectacular act of terrorism to put itself back on the map of jihad, its decline into the wilderness of inconsequentiality and irrelevance seems inevitable. Today, Dā’ish is the main player — and the focus of the West’s intelligence services.
So, what, exactly, is the threat Dā’ish presents to the West?Well, at present, the evidence emerging from the many lone wolf attacks in Canada, Australia, United States, France and Demark is that well-planned and high mortality attacks that were the hallmark of Al Qaeda have been replaced by the random act of violence by people seeking to associate themselves with Dā’ish. Many radicalized jihadists are clearly responding to the narrative of Islamic State (ISIS) “Caliph” AbuBakr Al Baghdadi’s call to “ignite volcanoes of Jihad everywhere.”
But will this continue? With Dā’ish so focused on the creation of a new Caliphate across the Middle East, is it possible that the threat to the West has subsided for the time being?
The answer, of course, is difficult to know. The risk from the actions of lone jihadists is apparent — one jihadi with a gun or knife can still create mayhem and receive a lot of attention from the media. But after 10 years — barring a failed attempt to attack Glasgow Airport — and many arrests preventing attacks that were in various stages of planning, the threat from Islamist extremists has hardly proven to be robust. In other words, when was the last time organized jihadis actually achieved anything significant? A decade without a successful attack in the United Kingdom could be the cause of optimism if the long shadow of Dā’ish were to be removed from the equation.
That notion, however, is undoubtedly wishful thinking. As the acolytes of Dā’ish continue to return from their forays into Iraq and Syria, they will inevitably bring with them the knowledge of seasoned, battle-hardened jihadists. Long-standing friendships made on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq will be reinvigorated into different context.
Because it takes time for trusted social networks to form, during the next two years battle-hardened jihadis may come to form — presenting a new form of mass casualty attack capability using improvised chemical weapons. Many Western jihadists who’ve proven their dedication to the cause in the Middle East undoubtedly will be instructed to return and plan attacks using the deadly skills they obtained fighting for Dā’ish in Iraq and Syria.
The nature of the immediate threat we face is different from that which was posed a decade ago, but that may simply be a respite from the start of another jihadi campaign carried out by Islamists who’ve made a habit out of showing just how brutal they can be when it comes to finding novel ways of eliminating infidels and apostates.
Should that kind of Islamist mind-set be at the heart of future planned jihadist attacks in the West, we may very well see the horrors of America’s 9/11, and London’s 7/7, revisited upon us in more catastrophic attacks.
Dr. Dave Sloggett has more than 40 years’ experience analyzing international security issues. His most recent books are, Focus on the Taliban, and, Drone Warfare. His article, Kenyan Fault Lines: An Unstable Divide Ideal for Terrorist Exploitation, appeared in the June/July, 2014 Homeland Security Today. He also recently wrote, The End of Al Qaeda — and the Emergence of a More Dangerous Jihad?