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The terrorist threat 20 years on: should we be worried?


It is fair to say that the attacks 20 years ago on the Twin Towers in New York are one of the defining moments of modern history and exist as a key touchstone in the cultural zeitgeist. The actions of the terrorist group al-Qaeda illustrates the pinnacle of what an organised terror group could accomplish; one of the most devastating foreign attacks on American soil in memory, causing untold human loss as well as the demolition of an icon of the New York skyline. The absence of the Twin Towers can be felt when viewing media produced before 2001, where they are displayed proudly against the backdrop of arguably the most culturally significant city in America. The effects of this permeate even the current understanding of, and societal attitudes towards terrorism. Now, two decades later, the UK’s domestic intelligence and security agency MI5 is still dealing predominantly with terror threats, and recent activity in Afghanistan promises that this objective is unlikely to change. 

The director of MI5, Ken McCallum has stated that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan had the potential to “embolden” terrorists and extremists in the UK. 

While he stipulates that the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban will not cause any immediate change to the attitudes and methods of the UK’s own domestic terrorists, the Director General has said that it may act as a kind of “morale boost” for them. According to him, this may lead to these terrorists banding together to create “well-developed, sophisticated plots”.

“There is no doubt that events in Afghanistan will have heartened and emboldened some of those extremists and so being vigilant to precisely those kinds of risks is what my organisation is focused on along with a range of other threats,” he said.

During the pandemic there were a total of six “late-stage” attack plots, all foiled, in the UK. These plots originated from both Islamic Extremist groups, as well as Extreme Right Wing Terror groups, the number attributed to the latter apparently “growing”.

McCallum has emphasised that acts of terror on a “smaller scale” by terror groups based in the UK, make up the largest threat needing to be dealt with by MI5. 

However, the threat of larger Terrorist organisations, such as al-Qaeda, directing and organising terror attacks on a larger scale is a threat which cannot be dismissed, or underestimated. 

“The big concern flowing from Afghanistan alongside the immediate inspirational effect is the risk that terrorists reconstitute and once again pose us more in the way of well-developed, sophisticated plots of the sort that we faced in 9/11 and the years thereafter,” Mr McCallum said.

There is debate over whether the Taliban can truly be classed as terrorist organisation, as opposed to a Deobandi Islamist religious-political movement and military organisation, and indeed the UK government has stated that they will judge the Taliban by their actions now that they are in power in Afghanistan. However, it is impossible to deny that their victory in Afghanistan has emboldened people who associate themselves with their views, even in extreme circumstances. 

Even the Former Chief of the UK defence staff, General Lord Richards, believes we are closer to “another 9/11” following the US and UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

McCallum is seemingly in concurrence, with the idea that seeing a victory as overwhelming as the Taliban’s one in Afghanistan will only encourage an increased level of organisation and advanced plotting within the terrorist world. 

“Terrorist threats tend not to change overnight in the sense of directed plotting or training camps or infrastructure – the sorts of things that al-Qaeda enjoyed in Afghanistan at the time of 9/11,” McCallum said. 

“These things do inherently take time to build, and the 20-year effort to reduce the terrorist threat from Afghanistan has been largely successful.

“But what does happen overnight, even though those directed plots and centrally organised bits of terrorism take a bit longer to rebuild… overnight, you can have a psychological boost, a morale boost to extremists already here, or in other countries.” He seems to highlight that while the Taliban may not be directly responsible for any potential future terror attacks, their victory certainly gives a framework to their more extremist supporters. The fear is that those already on the brink of commuting an attack will see the Taliban victory as proof that their cause can and has been fought for successfully. 

McCallum has even stated that in terms of safety, the difference between the present and the devastating attacks on September 11th 2001, there may not be much difference. 

He added: “We need to be vigilant both for the increase in inspired terrorism which has become a real trend for us to deal with over the last five to 10 years, alongside the potential regrowth of al Qaeda-style directed plots.”

The rise of the Islamic State emerging from Syria and Iraq only a few years ago is an example of the necessity of vigilance in the face of terror, as well as a reminder that the various influences and powers of different terror groups ebb and flow as time goes on. While MI5 has been primarily dealing with terror threats for the past decade, there is the hope that they will shift their focus to espionage, as well as extreme right-wing activity in the UK. However with this, comes the risk of failing to protect the country against any terror attacks. McCallum had this to say on the matter.

“Of course there are likely to be terrorist attacks on UK soil on my watch,” he said, saying MI5 works as hard as it can to stop them happening but “to our horror, we know that won’t be possible on every single occasion”.

He said M15 had “saved thousands of lives across the last 20 years” but it “cannot always succeed”.

With that chilling thought, the anniversary of 9/11 creeps ever closer, forcing the Western powers to confront the worst possible scenario in terms of the “war on terror”, and the real human cost of terrorism. To this day, it remains one of the most defining moments in modern history, and serves as a grim reminder of the proximity of terror to the public, as well as proof that when terrorist groups achieve a high level of coordination and cooperation, that they are a true threat to society. 

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