Nodin Muzee, a senior counter-terrorism analyst at Global Risk International.
My motivation for writing this article has been to understand why the British government, with its enormous intelligence and counterterrorism budget and the capabilities that entails, has failed to eliminate the elements of the “terror triangle model”. This is a concept developed by David Otto, the director of step in step out (SISO) program based in the United Kingdom. SISO develops from the notion of push and pull factors—what draws vulnerable into terrorist groups, and what makes them leave or step out.
For any terrorist attack to take place, the elements of the terror triangle model have to act in concert with each other. These three elements are: motivation, capacity, and target.
Motivation refers to vulnerable and at-risk individuals, who are exploited by extremist groups promoting their ideology and narrative. Countering this aspect is the job of the Prevent program.
Capacity refers to an extremist group’s ability to get its hands on the weapons to carry out a terrorist attack. This could be explosives, guns, or a simple kitchen knife, the latter being “low tech” and requiring very little sophisticated planning
Finally, the target component is self-explanatory and relies on hostile reconnaissance and the likelihood of an attack being successful.
British law-enforcement agencies have become skilled at responding to terrorist attacks. This was well-illustrated by the first London Bridge terrorist attack on 3 June 2017. It took the police just eight minutes to response to this incident.
With the second London Bridge attack, involving Usman Khan, it took the police only five minutes to respond. The Khan case is a notable instance of prior failure: this terrorist offender had undergone a deradicalization program and had exhibited signs of false compliance, that is doing all the right things to convince prison authorities that he was reformed so he could get early release and commit more terrorist atrocities.
Both London Bridge attacks were low tech; the weapons used were knives and fake explosive vests. The resort to these methods suggests that terrorists are wary of trying to procure more sophisticated lethal weapons like explosives, and thus the intelligence services have—or are believed to have—good coverage, and significant infiltration of, the nexus of criminal and terrorist networks.
There can be no doubt that there us dysfunction in the current UK counterterrorism strategy; at a minimum it is not firing on all cylinders, and in some areas it appears to be worse than that. The current prison population, for example, shows worrying trends; the rates of radicalism are higher among those leaving the system than entering it. In other words, people are being radicalized in prison. The prisons do have separation centres designed to keep hard core extremists away from the regular prisoners, but reports indicate that these separation centres are not being used to full capacity, which defeats the purpose of their creation.
The much-maligned Prevent program does have successes, but its failures are real. One lapse was the ability of “hate preachers” like Anjem Chowdary to, first, gain so much prominence in the country at large, and then, later, to be allowed near vulnerable individuals in prison. One cannot quantify how many people have become radicalised and gone to the battle fields of Syria because of his extremist preaching.
In conclusion, the UK counterterrorism strategy as conceived has the potential to meet the challenges set for it, but it is currently being hamstrung by the “bottlenecks” outlined above, with the different strands of the counterterrorism strategy not coordinating properly. A well-executed counterterrorism strategy has to be synchronized between the various government departments and the various communities they serve. Furthermore, trust and respect is of paramount importance and the negative perceptions around some programs like Prevent create problems—whether or not these perceptions are factually correct. Our very existence as a society demands we get this right.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.