With just over six years having passed since the last major act of terrorism in the United Kingdom one could be forgiven for wondering why it continues to grab the headlines in the media. After the death of Osama Bin Laden there was a lot of ‘chest beating’ and claims by people that were ready to avenge his death. But nothing actually materialised in the west as a specific act of terrorism. No lone wolfs suddenly entered shopping malls and started shooting people or detonating suicide vests. Given the obvious intent of people to keep carrying out terrorist attacks and the recent arrest of people accused of planning an attack in the West Midlands, it’s all a bit confusing why we have not seen another event.
Perhaps most surprisingly given Bin Laden’s own pre-occupation with the date, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001 also passed largely without incident. Couple this with the reported death of the well-known Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki last week in aUnited States drone strike in theYemen and one has to wonder if the game is up for Al Qaeda? Have the drone strikes so disabled the organisation that some kind of ‘victory’ over Al Qaeda is close?
That Al Qaeda have suffered a number of set-backs of late is clear. The pressure on the surviving key members of the organisation is gradually being ratcheted up by the Obama administration. The Predator and Reaper drones are proving very effect in locating key players and then finding opportunities to kill them when the potential for civilian casualties is at a minimum. Reporting from the sources in the United States that claim to be in the know suggest that Anwar al-Awlaki was in the cross wires of a drone on the 10th anniversary of September 11th but that no opportunity to launch a missile against his location was available. Had he died on that date there would be many writing the word ironic into his obituary.
The attack on Anwar al-Awlaki also appears to have claimed the life of Al Qaeda’s top bomb maker, the person alleged to have been responsible for the attempted bombing of an aircraft overDetroitin Christmas 2009 and the more recent effort to bring down two cargo planes on the eastern seaboard of theUnited States. It was Ibrahim al-Asiri that sent his brother to his death trying to assassinate a member of the Saudi Royal Family and the Minister of Security with an explosive device secreted inside his body. Whilst his death is important in the short term his legacy in bomb making ideas will no doubt be appearing on an Internet site near you fairly quickly. It is the nature of the way things work these days – one person’s ideas and skills can rapidly be transferred to others if there are those willing to take the risks involved to take up becoming a bomb maker.
A third person that was also reported to be killed was the Editor of the INSPIRE magazine – Al Qaeda’s English language magazine that was used to try and reach out to potential recruits to Al Qaeda’s cause in the west. The death of these three key individuals in theYemen is significant. It is a major set-back for the local Al Qaeda franchise Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – the one franchise of Al Qaeda that had clearly demonstrated intent to launch attacks on the international stage. So are we witnessing the final dénouement of Al Qaeda?
Al Qaeda’s strength comes from its dispersed structure. It appears that before he died Osama Bin Laden, a graduate of business studies, had been reading the latest management text books from business management courses in the west. The ideas encapsulated in these contemporary text books that have been labelled as ‘power to the edge’ seem to provide a model for how Bin Laden encouraged the development of franchises and the spread of Al Qaeda.
Reports from a number of sources suggest that there are anywhere between 30 and 70 of these franchises either operating or in development. The dispersed nature of these makes it inevitable that theUnited Stateswill continue to press home its drone attacks on an increasingly wider geographic extent. Recent media speculation of new airbases being built across Africa and theMiddle Eastlend credence to this analysis.
In what maybe a really significant development one of the other franchises Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is making moves to exploit the aftermath of the conflict inLibya, moving its focus fromMaliandMauritaniatowardsAlgeriaand the south-west ofLibya– where the terrain provides lots of opportunities to re-establish training camps. If AQIM start to gain a foothold in this area it provides a much shorter route intoEuropefor those planning acts of terrorism. Hiding amongst the steady flow of economic migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea might provide an easier route into Europe than trying to fly in fromPakistanor any other recognised transit state. It appears that as the immediate threat from AQAP declines it is replaced by AQIM. This is exactly the kind of operational flexibility that Bin Laden sought.
By giving authority to these franchises Bin Laden was in effect giving ‘power to the edge’ of his organisation. Allowing local leaders to decide what their priorities are and how they should pursue Jihad. In its ultimate form one manifestation of ‘power to the edge’ thinking is the encouragement of lone wolfs – people who decide spontaneously to become involved in Jihad. These people are able to work beneath the radar horizons of the security services, such as Roshonara Choudhry and Andrew Ibrahim. They are difficult to detect.
In the United Statesthe fear is of a lone wolf attack. In the wake of the death of Anwar al-Awlaki the New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has acknowledged that the city’s police are on the highest state of alert. This is understandable given the last edition of INSPIRE edited by Samir Khan called for a specific attack upon Grand Central Station. The potential for a revenge attack by a lone wolf is clearly something on the mind of the Commissioner. He is right to be wary.
What of the threat to theUnited Kingdomin the light of the deaths of key members of AQAP? That Anwar al-Awlaki was a clever propagandist cannot be in doubt. His Youtube site at one point had over 2,000 sermons and videos of his lectures on Jihad. He was a persuasive advocate for Jihad, especially in its lone wolf form. His death will partially disrupt that recruitment process. But it is unlikely to bring the end of the threat from lone wolfs. If the New York Police Commissioner’s concerns are valid, and there is little reason to doubt his reasoning, the same arguments apply in theUnited Kingdom. The potential for an act of revenge cannot be too readily dismissed.
But theUnited Kingdomdoes not just face the threat from lone wolfs. The arrest and charging of seven people accused of being involved in commissioning acts of terrorism in the West Midlands recently highlights the on-going nature of the threat that we face. If media speculation about the activities of these people is close to being accurate those that are reported to have already filmed martyrdom videos must have been getting close to wishing to conduct an act of terrorism. Filming a video that is supposed to be shown after you die is hardly something one does without some pause for reflection.
Given the apparent evidence that is emerging on the case that has been built against the individuals that have been charged it is difficult not to conclude that the recruitment stream of people into terrorism has been turned off magically. It is a sobering and yet clear conclusion that despite the success of the drones strikes the threat for Al Qaeda continues.