14 April 2016

Terror Threat in UK at “Severe”

Alexis Flynn and Jenny Gross
April 12, 2016

Terror Threat Weighs on U.K.

LONDON—A trip to the U.K. last summer by a suspect arrested in the Brussels and Paris attacks, Mohamed Abrini, served as a reminder about the degree to which the U.K. is vulnerable to similar terrorist atrocities.

With Islamic State’s external operations unit explicitly targeting Britain for aiding the U.S.-led coalition against the extremists in Syria and Iraq, officials privately say it is a matter of when, not if, terrorists get through. Senior British security officials also note the continuing threat from al Qaeda against the West.

But the U.K.’s long experience in dealing with terrorist threats and relatively restrictive gun laws, among other factors, provide some protection, officials and other experts say.

Mr. Abrini, who was arrested in Brussels last week, visited Birmingham, Manchester and London during a roughly weeklong trip in June and July, according to people familiar with the matter, as previously reported. They said authorities believe Mr. Abrini, who they suspect had recently been to Syria, may have been scoping out possible attack targets.

The U.K.’s most senior counterterrorism police officer, Mark Rowley, said last month that officials had discerned a shift in Islamic State’s tactics.

He said the group wanted to inflict an “enormous and spectacular” terrorist atrocity in the U.K., potentially carried out by people trained to a paramilitary level, whereas previously the plots they had seen had focused on more lone-wolf style attacks.

Past Plots

Since July 7, 2005 London bombings
Jan. 2006: A London street vendor is sentenced to six years in prison for plotting to kill a decorated U.K. soldier.
Aug. 2006: Police foil an alleged plan to use liquid explosives to blow up flights between the U.S. and the U.K.
Jan. 2007: Authorities arrest eight suspects for allegedly plotting to behead a U.K. Muslim soldier live on the Internet.
July 2007: Police arrest four suspects after a flaming vehicle crashes into a Scottish airport, soon after a foiled carbomb plot in central London.
May 2010: Roshonara Choudhry tells police she stabbed a former Treasury minister in the stomach because he voted for Iraq war.
2011: Suspects are arrested in connection with an alleged plot to detonate knapsack bombs. In April 2013, the ringleader and two accomplices are sentenced to 10 to 18 years in jail.
May 2013: Two British Muslim converts kill off-duty soldier Lee Rigby outside his south London barracks.
Sept. 2014: Alleged plot by Islamic State sympathizers to carry out drive-by shootings in west London is foiled by police.
Nov. 2014: Two cousins stopped from traveling to Syria to allegedly join militants there are arrested on suspicion of planning to behead a security official.
July 2015: Police arrest a British man who is later convicted of plotting to attack U.S. airmen at an F-15 fighter base in the U.K.

The U.K.’s terror threat alert is now at “severe,” meaning an attack is highly likely. The only higher ranking is “critical,” which means an attack is expected imminently.

British intelligence agents are investigating thousands of people linked to Islamic extremism, officials say. There are “tens of operations” involving people who have at least an aspiration to conduct attacks, Mr. Rowley has said. Terrorism-related arrests now occur almost daily.

One advantage the U.K. has, experts say, is its long history of monitoring extremists and prioritizing threats, dating back to the bombing campaign in England by Irish republican extremists.

In the wake of the July 7, 2005, attacks in London, when explosions on the capital’s transport system killed 56 people and injured hundreds more, the U.K. made huge investments in upgrading its ability to detect and respond to terror threats. Police and intelligence services significantly increased their reach outside of London and work more closely together.

Since then, authorities say they have disrupted dozens of plots, including seven against the U.K. foiled over roughly the past 18 months, according to the government.

Another difference is procuring automatic and other firearms in the U.K. is much harder than in Belgium or France. The U.K. also has stricter border controls because it is outside Europe’s Schengen free-travel zone, and thus checks the passports of everyone who arrives.

“The nature of the threat in the United Kingdom is different than in France in certain respects—for example, there is easier access to heavy weaponry and ammunition on the European continent,” said Raffaello Pantucci, the director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

However, the U.K.’s defenses aren’t foolproof. Security services were unable to prevent the May 2013 murder of off-duty soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of London, despite his two killers having both been previously known to intelligence officials.

There have been at least five extremists who have left the U.K. over the past two years despite monitoring by security services, the chair of the parliamentary Home Affairs committee said in January.

Mohammed Emwazi, the notorious Islamic State executioner known as Jihadi John who authorities believe was involved in the murder of at least five Western hostages, was able to slip out of the U.K. unnoticed despite being on a terrorist watch-list.

There is also a threat to British citizens overseas, which is harder for U.K. authorities to prevent. Last year, a gunman linked to Islamic State opened fire on beachgoers at a Tunisian resort, killing 38 tourists, of whom 30 were from the U.K.

Britain has tried to bolster its defenses in recent weeks. It is sharply increasing the number of police officers trained to handle firearms to enable the country’s mostly unarmed force to better respond to gun-wielding terrorists.

The British government also said it was establishing a counterterrorism hub in continental Europe, with officials in Belgium and Turkey, in addition to hubs being in the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

That follows an announcement last year that the U.K. would increase counterterror funding, enabling the hire of 1,900 more intelligence staff, increasing manpower by a total of 15% across Britain’s three intelligence services.

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