Intermittent attempts to down airplanes have been defeated, if only just. Hundreds of potential troublemakers have been stopped long before they even begin to contemplate actually perpetrating a violent attack. MI5 officials say that, in part due to closer collaboration with a range of other agencies and particularly the police, they are able to head off possible threats much earlier. One compared their operations to the famously tedious stonewall tactics of the Arsenal team 20 years ago.
“It’s boring but it works,” he said.
There is, of course, the fear of a “lone wolf,” a solo, self-radicalizing extremist. The example most often cited is Mohamed Merah, the French-Algerian who killed three soldiers as well as three Jewish schoolchildren and a teacher in March last year.
A spokesman for Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the man who orchestrated the recent refinery attack in Algeria, told French media on Monday that France could expect “dozens like ... Merah and Khaled Kelkal” who would spontaneously rise up to kill and maim.
However, real lone wolves are extremely rare. Kelkal, who carried out a series of attacks in France in 1995, plugged into a broader network of militants run and recruited by Algerian groups active at the time. Merah did the shooting on his own but came from a family steeped in extremist versions of Islam and anti-Semitism, had been to Afghanistan and Pakistan to train and was, French and Pakistani officials say, connected to Moez Garsalloui, a high-profile known Belgian militant, now dead, who had been recruiting widely and was well-known to intelligence services.
Merah was thus not only part of an old style of terrorism — recruits making their way to the badlands of Pakistan to get trained and then returning to carry out attacks — but was also much less effective than predecessors such as those responsible for the July 7, 2005 attacks in London. The number of people making that journey is now a fraction of the levels of six or seven years ago. Back then, scores, if not hundreds, made their way to the Afghan-Pakistan frontier to fight alongside the Taliban or other groups. Now the number is in the low dozens, according to intelligence officials in Pakistan, the UK and elsewhere.
The other fear is of a new generation of veteran militants returning from the battlefields of the Sahel to wreak havoc in the US or, more realistically, Europe. There are some reports that Canadian or even French passport-holders were among those who attacked the refinery. However, there are two reasons to be relatively sanguine.
First, the facilities available for training in the region are minimal and there would seem to be no reason why extremists graduating in terrorist studies from there would be better able to carry out effective mass casualty attacks than men such as Merah.
Second, we are yet to see a wave of violence involving veterans of much more long-lasting and extensive violence elsewhere in the Maghreb or the core of the Middle East. British intelligence officials pointed to the experience of the horrific conflict in Iraq when asked about the possibility of veterans of the current fighting in Syria, where extremist religious groups are playing an increasingly significant role, posing a threat to the UK. Only one attack — the abortive 2006 London and Glasgow strikes — has been definitively linked to someone involved in that previous conflict, and he was not a former fighter. Iraqi veterans have proved dangerous in Saudi Arabia, even in Afghanistan and in the Maghreb, but that is not the same as posing a direct existential threat to the West. There seems, the officials say, to be no reason why the Syrian theater should produce a greater threat today than the Iraqi theater has done. Nor, indeed, Mali.