- Britain’s domestic intelligence service MI5 says the terror threat in the UK is higher than ever before.
- It is unclear whether the fall of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria, will lead to an increase in attacks in the near term, but retaliatory attacks may occur when authorities least expect them.
- The lack of Arab Sunni political power in the Middle East continues to motivate the rise of radical Islamist groups in the West.
The Islamic State’s declared capital of Raqqa, Syria fell to US-backed forces this week, yet intelligence officials in the UK are warning that the Islamist terrorist group is nevertheless “operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen before,” according to the head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5.
Global security research organisation The Soufan Center notes that while the threat from terrorist operations directly linked to ISIS remains high, attacks inspired by ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups (but that are not directly linked to any single organisation) are in fact more frequent. They also pose a greater threat to investigators because they are often harder to detect before they happen.
Such attacks include those that happened this year on the London Bridge and on the Westminster Bridge, both in London. Eight people were killed in the bridge attack, and five in the Westminster attack.
While these events have led to relatively small numbers of casualties compared to larger attacks like those in Paris, Brussels, and Nice, The Soufan Center notes that they still contribute to anxiety among residents of large Western cities where such attacks could happen anywhere and at anytime.
It is unclear whether the fall of Raqqa will lead to an increase in such attacks, but Professor Robert Pape, who heads the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism at the University of Chicago, says it is wise for the MI5 to be taking a precautionary stance rather than a reactive one, because terror groups and individuals inspired by them intentionally make predicting attacks difficult.
“It is simply the case that the treat that we face is not a threat that is going to be timed in a convenient way for our expectations of the threat, within like a week or two,” Pape said. “It’s possible there could be an event in the next day or two, but far more likely would be a month or two or six months when we’re busy worrying about the World Cup or something.”
Pape also adds that the relative strength or weakness of ISIS has in fact little to do with the group’s continued appeal and influence. That’s because the root causes of its meteoric rise remain unresolved.
“Mostly what’s happening is that when we invaded and conquered Iraq in 2003 we created ungoverned space for Sunni Arabs in Iraq which then spilled over in nearby Syria,” Pape says. “The worry here is that as that area of Iraq and Syria now could remain ungoverned space from the perspective of the Sunni Arabs, this problem may just simply fester and continue.”
Despite the various operational differences between ISIS and Al Qaeda, Pape identified a major similarity between the two groups, claiming they both seek to gain from political vacuums in Iraq and Syria.
“This is a similar problem to the one we faced with Al Qaeda in the ’90s, when there was a real concern that Arab Sunnis were not really in charge of their own political fates,” he said. “That’s the issue that the propaganda plays on, that’s the issue why a virtual caliphate could actually have some power.”
Pape finished by saying that Middle Eastern political issues, rather than religious ones, remain incredibly salient for Muslim immigrants to the UK.
“[They] are alienated from a society that is not doing anything to help Arab Sunnis in that part of the world govern themselves,” he said.
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