Counter-terrorism - Home Affairs Committee Contents

2  Threat Assessment

4. The threat from terrorism to the UK and its interests overseas is more diverse and geographically dispersed than it was a decade ago. In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in February 2013, the Foreign Secretary said that the greatest terrorist threat to the UK remained Al Qa'ida and its ideology, and suggested that the nature of the threat had changed in three principal ways:

    First, it is geographically more diverse. We face a determined 'Al Qaeda core' in Pakistan and Afghanistan's border region, and multiple groups inspired by Al Qaeda in the world's most fragile regions. Second, the threat is more fragmented. Al Qaeda does not control a franchise of groups all operating to the same agenda, however much they would like us to think this. Third, terrorism today is based even more closely on the exploitation of local and regional issues. Terrorists are constantly searching out new areas where they have the greatest freedom to plan external attacks.[2]

5. We heard evidence that the threat is not only diversifying in terms of geography—with Syria becoming the latest battleground for terrorist groups—but in methodology, as terrorists collaborate and coordinate their actions, both online and offline, sharing information, skills and expertise. The evolution of the terrorist threat in Syria and the increasing reality of foreign fighters travelling back to the UK from Syria in order to carry out an attack on the British mainland is the latest, troubling development.[3]

6. While Syria is a priority concern for the Government, the UK still faces a significant threat from Al Qa'ida (AQ) based along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, groups such as Al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and Al Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQM) in West Africa.

7. In recent times there have been reminders of the global nature of the terrorist threat and its ability to impact upon UK interests. The attack on In Amenas, in Algeria, included six British citizens amongst the 40 dead. Following the attack on the Westgate shopping Mall in Nairobi (in which six British citizens also died), Al Shabaab, a terrorist group based in Somalia, remains capable of mounting attacks throughout Kenya and against targets in the Horn of Africa. The bomb blast in Addis Ababa which killed two people in late 2013 could be a sign Al Shabaab are beginning to target Ethiopia.

8. Kidnapping for ransom has become an increasingly common terrorist tactic. Over 150 foreign nationals have been kidnapped by Islamist terrorist groups since 2008 (at least 13 of whom were British nationals). Numbers kidnapped in 2012 (almost 50) were more than double those in 2010. In many cases ransoms have been paid, and the British Government conservatively estimates that AQ affiliates and other extremist groups have collected at least $60 million in foreign national ransom payments since 2008.

9. The Government's CONTEST strategy identifies Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria as priority countries for the UK's counter-terrorism work overseas. The United States Government's National Counterterrorism Centre estimates that the number of terrorist attacks around the world has levelled off following a rapid increase between 2003 and 2008, but the global threat from terrorism remains high.[4] According to the CONTEST Annual Report published in 2014 there were there were nearly 8,500 terrorist attacks in 85 countries, causing nearly 15,500 fatalities.[5]

The United Kingdom

10. According to Home Office figures, between April 2010 and March 2013, 580 individuals were arrested in Great Britain for terrorism-related offences.[6] The breakdown of arrests, along with figures for the past year can be found in the table below.
Domestic terrorism Northern Irish terrorism International terrorism Not Classified Total
2012-201333 4182 30249
2010-201380 9446 45580


The outcomes of those arrests can be found in the table below.
Charged Released Alternative action taken Total
Under Terrorism Act 2000 Under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 With terrorism offences under other legislation With non-terrorism related offences
2012-201331 42 68105 39249
2010-201378 812 143285 54580


11. David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, suggested to us that Jonathan Evans, then Director General of MI5, was not exaggerating when he said in 2012 that "Britain has experienced a credible terrorist attack about once a year since 9/11."[7] Mr Anderson went on to say:

    The will and capacity to commit 7/7 style atrocities in the United Kingdom may well still exist, as demonstrated by the Birmingham rucksack bomb plot of 2011. Significant numbers of British citizens have lost their lives abroad this year to terrorism, notably in the Algerian gas plant and Nairobi shopping mall attacks. In Great Britain, 43 persons were charged with terrorism-related offences during 2012-a figure precisely in line with the average since 2001.[8]

12. We understand that, in the past few years, the police, security and intelligence agencies have seen a trend towards 'low signature' terrorism by small, self-directed groups and lone actors. These individuals or groups develop the intent and capability to conduct attacks without support or direction from AQ or AQ affiliates.[9]

13. We also heard that the police were concerned with so-called 'self-starters': individuals who radicalise themselves (often over the internet) and plan attacks independently. Their attack methods tend to be simple, requiring little money or technical ability, and detecting and disrupting such threats is therefore a significant challenge.[10] An example of such an attack occurred last year when Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian student, was convicted of murdering an 82-year-old man and planning to cause explosions near mosques in racist attacks.[11]

14. Many of the trends outlined above have been identified by Government. The CONTEST strategy included the following series of planning assumptions:

·  The death of Osama bin Laden will further damage the operational capability of Al Qa'ida in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Continued international pressure will make it harder for the Al Qa'ida senior leadership to plan and conduct terrorist attacks. Al Qa'ida will try to exploit the withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan.

·  Al Qa'ida affiliates may continue to grow, taking advantage of state fragility and failure. They will all aspire to attack western targets. The Al Qa'ida senior leadership will try to guide and direct its affiliates but will not exert close control: Al Qa'ida will continue to become less of an organisation and more of a movement.

·  A wider range of Al Qa'ida inspired terrorist networks, groups and unaffiliated individuals will collaborate to launch attacks against the West, sharing resources and capabilities.

·  Current political and social change in the Middle East and North Africa has undermined the credibility of Al Qa'ida and like-minded terrorist groups and may continue to do so; but terrorist groups will try to adapt their propaganda and will exploit uncertainty and instability in the region.

·  The process of radicalisation will continue: the ideology which has come to be associated with Al Qa'ida will be more resilient than Al Qa'ida itself. Extremist material on the internet will continue to motivate some people to engage in terrorism but will rarely be a substitute for the social process of radicalisation.

·  Terrorist groups will use a range of attack techniques, both established and new. There will be more cyber terrorism. Groups will continue to benefit from off-the-shelf technology in planning and conducting attacks, making operations more secure and potentially more lethal. The internet and virtual space will be strategically vital.

·  Organisations will seek to conduct attacks which cause mass casualties or otherwise have visible mass disruptive impact. Al Qa'ida and other groups will maintain their long-term interest in using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.

·  Geographically, vital countries for our counter-terrorism work will continue to be Afghanistan and Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria.

·  Some states will continue to support terrorist groups to try to protect their own strategic interests.

·  Terrorists in Northern Ireland will continue to conduct attacks in an attempt to reverse the peace process. Some groups will aspire to conduct attacks inside Great Britain.

·  There will continue to be isolated individuals who engage in terrorist activity in the name of extreme right or left-wing views or other ideologies. They will not pose as high a risk to our national security as terrorism associated with Al Qa'ida.[12]

15. We asked Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism whether he was satisfied with the planning assumptions two years on. He replied:

    I am satisfied that our planning assumptions in 2011 continue to be relevant. They do not mention Syria specifically though they do refer to the likely increase in activity by Al Qa'ida affiliates and their exploitation of instability in the Middle East. Syria of course reflects these broad trends.[13]



16. Syria is the current theatre of choice for foreign fighters, something which should be of great concern for EU Member States, given the country's proximity to Europe, and ease of travel to its main cities. Dr Thomas Hegghammer, Director of Terrorism Research at The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, suggested that while there are not strong signals of a concerted effort by terrorist groups on the ground in Syria to target the West:

    There have been some indications in the past six months that such a change might happen...Those indications include statements and threats by foreign fighters in Syria—including British ones—and reports conveyed by intelligence officials, like James Clapper in the US, that dominant groups in Syria have now established training camps dedicated to the grooming of operatives in the west.[14]

Dr Hegghammer went on to say that foreign fighters in Syria were present in unprecedented numbers:

    No other conflict in the Muslim world in recent history has attracted the same number that we are now seeing in Syria. The best estimates we have speak of 2,000 Europeans in Syria, which I believe is more than the total number of European foreign fighters in all previous conflict zones combined.[15]

17. The potential threat was confirmed by Mr Farr, when he suggested the UK faces the threat of a terrorist attack from Syria-based groups which may make use of foreign fighters (including British citizens).[16] Further on in this report, we discuss the position over UK citizens travelling to Syria to assist in the fighting.


18. While Syria is the focus of much attention, there remains a significant terrorism threat emanating from the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Government recognises the threat from terrorist groups operating in the tribal areas along the Afghan border. This has long been a priority for our national security.

19. Although Al Qa'ida is much reduced in number, it continues to operate from this region and still has the capability to conduct terrorist attacks in the UK and other countries. The leadership of Al Qa'ida (based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan) has been severely weakened by operations conducted by the Pakistan Government. However British citizens still travel to the region and return to the UK to conduct attacks. We cannot afford to allow the considerable coverage of the Syrian conflict to distract us from the threat posed by extremists within this region. As the Government notes:

    Operational capability of Al Qa'ida's leadership is now less than at any time since 11 September 2001. Many have been killed, captured, or dispersed. Communications, training and planning have been significantly disrupted. Al Qa'ida's senior leadership has been forced to rely more on other terrorist groups for operational support and has increasingly called for extremists to conduct independent attacks without further guidance or instruction.[17]


20. The appalling September 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya demonstrated the intent and capability of Al Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group. The attack in Nairobi is the most serious act of terrorism in Kenya since Islamist extremists attacked the US Embassy in 1998, but it is by no means an isolated event in the region. We visited the Westgate Mall during, accompanied by a British police officer based in Nairobi, and were horrified at the devastation which had been wrought by a very small group of people, using simple, inexpensive technology.

21. The recent shooting of Sheikh Abubakar Shariff is likely to undermine community relations in some areas of Kenya. His death follows similar shootings in Mombasa and the storming of Musa Mosque in the city, during which at least eight people were killed (including a policeman) and Kenyan Police arrested 129 people, including children. Many of the suspects have been released following public condemnation.

22. In Somalia, some progress has been made by the Somali Government in containing the threat posed by Al Shabaab however these are fragile gains. Al Shabaab remains capable of mounting attacks throughout the country, collaborating with other terrorist organisations (such as AQAP in Yemen) and aspires to attack targets in the region, including UK interests. Al-Shabaab conducted over 30 attacks-including 10 suicide bombings-in 2010 alone.[18]

23. In 2012 the terrorist group launched fewer attacks but remained in control of a substantial area of South Central Somalia. However, 2013 saw an increase in the number of attacks and in April, approximately thirty people were killed when Al-Shabaab stormed Mogadishu's main court complex, while in early September explosions at 'The Village', a restaurant near the Parliament building in Mogadishu, killed fifteen people. We understand that while the African Union-led military offensive in Somalia has been successful in targeting Al-Shabaab, the terrorist group continues to try and establish networks outside the country-both in Kenya and Tanzania.

24. Al-Shabaab uses a combination of conventional and asymmetric tactics-these include 'religious police' who employ violent punishments, the use of automatic weapons, suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The group employs radio and online communication to publicise its message and further funding and recruitment drives. In addition to recruitment of foreign-born suicide bombers, there has also been growth of home-grown religious extremists through local recruitment and radicalisation efforts. Terrorism and violent extremism in the region is growing increasingly complex. Reports of a steady stream of recruits travelling to Somalia from Western Kenya and Tanzania are concerning.

25. There are also concerns regarding the travel of British extremists to the region attempting to link up with Al Shabaab or other, related, extremist groups. The May 2013 murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby was carried out by an individual who had travelled to the region several times and was suspected of trying to join Al Shabaab. We visited Kenya as part of this inquiry to examine the links between the UK and Kenyan counter-terrorism personnel and to examine the capacity building work which was being carried out there.


26. Al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)'s main area of activity is within Yemen where it continues with a campaign of attacks against the Yemeni Government and supportive countries. It also continues to conduct operations against both internal and western diplomatic targets in Yemen. Kidnappings for ransom are commonplace, and tribal groups may attempt to sell hostages to AQAP.

27. In the past few years, AQAP are estimated to have made $15-20 million through kidnap and ransom. A number of UK diplomats have been attacked. Despite a partially successful counter-terrorism campaign by the Government, AQAP continues to pose a significant threat both to the UK and to UK interests in the region.

28. AQAP propaganda, in the shape of Inspire-an online magazine - has continued to encourage acts of lone terrorism against the West. In April 2012, AQAP attempted a third attack on a civilian aircraft. AQAP are not coordinated by the AQ leadership and are seen by analysts as more technically astute than other AQ affiliated groups. They remain a key concern for UK national security.

29. At the start of the Arab Spring, AQAP improved infrastructure in some areas by connecting towns to electricity grid, putting teachers in school and playing a governmental role. However, their popularity waned following a level of brutality imposed their leaders. Despite this, intercepted communications between AQAP and AQM in Mali during the incursion there emphasised the importance of winning the hearts and mind of the people and gave advice to AQM leaders on organising rubbish collections and ensuring access to electricity.[19]

30. AQAP is responsible for the production of Inspire, the English language magazine which is frequently found in the possession of self-organised groups planning attacks in the UK. Its key messages include an emphasis on promoting attacks in the West, specifically lone actor style attacks. One of the alleged Boston bombers, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, stated that he and his brother Tamerlan had access to a copy of Inspire.

31. AQAP also has a track record of attempting to carry out sophisticated terrorist attacks in the West. AQAP has demonstrated the capability to produce IEDs aimed at defeating aviation security, and there is a continuing risk that a successful attack against an aeroplane could happen with little or no warning. These include the 'underpants bomber' and the 'printer cartridge plot'.


32. There has been a sharp increase in terrorist activity in the region conducted by Al Qa'ida in the Maghreb (AQM). AQM has its origins in Algeria, where the majority of its attacks to date have been directed. However, following the Arab Spring, AQM benefited from the deterioration in the security situation in the area-particularly in Libya - to increase its geographical reach, add to its arsenal of weapons and attract recruits to its cause. We remain very concerned that some analysts have described Libya as a large warehouse full of weapons with the doors wide open.

33. Smaller, affiliated organisations are also active. AQ-related groups are now stronger in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia than ever before and have greater freedom of movement. The attack on the gas installation at In Amenas in Algeria in January 2013 demonstrates the current capability and intent of terrorist groups in the region.

34. AQM has kidnapped and ransomed western hostages, securing significant funds for further operational activity; AQM has moved south into Mali and provides practical support to the Nigerian militant Islamist group-Boko Haram. The group has constantly exploited the freedom of movement afforded to it in the largely unpoliced desert areas of the Sahel.

35. The French-led intervention in Mali has removed this control and pushed AQM into more remote areas. The threat of attacks from AQM elements is however likely to endure in the region for the foreseeable future.


36. In Nigeria the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has carried out a violent campaign, largely in the north of the country, often aimed at Christian communities and places of worship, as well as against Nigerian governmental and official targets. A second Nigerian jihadist organisation, Ansaru, is an offshoot of this group although it is worth noting the groups have separate ethnic identities-Boko Haram is mainly Kanuri whereas Ansaru is Hausa.

37. Boko Haram is conducting a large scale insurgency in Nigeria. There are almost daily attacks in Nigeria, causing large numbers of fatalities. Its splinter group. Ansaru, has a more international agenda and has kidnapped and murdered western (including British) hostages. Boko Haram and extended its reach into the volatile region of northern Nigeria.

38. Ansaru is widely associated with carrying out kidnap for ransom. There are many links between terrorist groups and drug trafficking in North-West Africa. In many cases, drugs will arrive on the West Coast and will be transported northwards by terrorist groups who take advantage of the porous borders in the region. There are also reports that smugglers have been adopting a religious or jihadist rhetoric in order to justify their fight against the security services. A number of criminal organisations in Mali have adopted a separatist stance to 'legitimise' themselves.

2  Back

3   Ruth Sherlock, Gaziantep, and Tom Whitehead, Al-Qaeda training British and European 'jihadists' in Syria to set up terror cells at home, Daily Telegraph, 19 Jan 2014 Back

4   CONTEST Annual Report, Home Office, March 2013, Cm 8583 Back

5   CONTEST Annual Report, Home Office, April 2014, Cm 8848  Back

6   INQ0007 Back

7   CTE0017 Back

8   CTE0017 Back

9   CONTEST: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Terrorism, July 2011, Cm 8123 Back

10   INQ0007 Back

11   Mosque bomber Pavlo Lapshyn given life for murder, 25 October 2013, Back

12   CONTEST: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Terrorism, July 2011, Cm 8123 Back

13   INQ0010 Back

14   Q566 Back

15   Q554 Back

16   Q187 Back

17   CONTEST: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Terrorism, July 2011, Cm 8123 Back

18   CONTEST Annual Report, March 2013, HM Government, Cm 8583 Back

19   CONTEST: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Terrorism, July 2011, Cm 8123 Back

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Prepared 9 May 2014