30 Jun 2015

How has the UK terror threat changed since 7/7?

A major counter-terrorism exercise is taking place in the UK capital today, as we approach the 10th anniversary of the London bombings in which 52 people died. What has changed since 2005?

London counter-terrorism exercise, 30 June 2015 (Getty)

(Picture: counter-terrorism exercise, London, 30 June)

On 7 July 2005, suicide bombers Mohammed Sidique Khan, 30, Shehzad Tanweer, 22, Hasib Hussain, 18, and Jermaine Lindsay, 19, detonated explosives on London’s transport network, with Tube trains and a bus targeted during the morning rush hour – leading to the worst loss of life the UK has suffered in a terrorist attack since Lockerbie in 1988.

Three of the men were born in Britain to Pakistani families, while Lindsay was a Muslim convert born in Jamaica. The bombs used were home made and stored in backpacks.

The extent to which al-Qaeda was involved in the attacks has been hotly debated. In September 2005, the terrorist network claimed responsibility, with al-Qaeda documents that emerged in 2012 suggesting that one of its operatives, Rashid Rauf, planned the bombings.

The idea of a single gunman shooting at random in the centre of London has frightened the British security authorities over the past 10 years. Anthony Glees, Buckingham University

Since then, there have been numerous attacks in other countries, the latest in Tunisia, where 38 people, most of them British holidaymakers, were killed by an Islamist armed with a Kalashnikov rifle.

Guns, rather than bombs, were also used in Mumbai in 2008, when At least 166 people were killed by 10 Pakistanis, who held the city under virtual siege for two-and-a-half days.

Westgate attack, Nairobi, 2013

In 2013, terrorists from al-Shabaab, which is linked to al-Qaeda, laid siege to Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, for four days (picture above). Armed with guns, their attack claimed 67 lives.

Terror also returned to Britain’s streets in 2013, when soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death with a meat cleaver and knife outside an army barracks in south London. Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale were sentenced to life in prison for his murder.

The following year, gunman Man Haron Monis, an Iranian refugee, took hostages in a cafe in the Australian city of Sydney. He and two hostages were killed.

Charlie Hebdo

In Paris in January, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi shot dead 11 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, also killing a policeman outside.

Shortly afterwards, Amedy Coulibaly, who had met Cherif Kouachi in prison, stormed a kosher supermarket in the French capital, with another five people dying during a hostage siege. All three had al-Qaeda connections.

These attacks since 7/7 have been carried out with guns, rather than bombs, and it is thought that today’s exercise in London is influenced by what happened in Paris in January and Sydney in 2014.

London bombings, 7 July 2005

Professor Anthony Glees, director of Buckingham University’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, believes that while the nature of the terror threat has not changed since the London bombings (picture above), there are important differences.

“From my perspective, what we saw 10 years ago were well-defined terror networks and indeed terror cells carrying out commissions apparently delivered from on high from the al-Qaeda leadership. Today the inspiration seems chiefly to come from Islamic State and it looks as if the terror cells are much smaller and the networks have more or less disappeared.”

Prof Glees said although that seemed to be the case in 2005, “secret activity” meant it was possible these assumptions were wrong.

Choice of weapons had changed, he said, “because a bomb attack requires explosives training and making bombs is very hazardous and complicated work, whereas wielding a knife or a Kalashnikov is much more basic”.

‘Core ideology of jihadism’

He added: “At the end of the day, I would say the nature of the threat has not changed. Its delivery may have changed, how we can know about it may have changed, but the fundamental problem remains that there is a core message of terror, a core ideology of jihadism that has nothing to do with the religion of Islam, which attracts people who are willing to turn to terror with as much viciousness today as 10 years ago.

“But there is one big difference betwteen now and 10 years ago. Our government and our intelligence community understand the threat much better and they have the determination to disrupt it.

“On the one hand, the technological means of gaining intelligence about terrorism is vastly superior, but we have had Edward Snowden, who has made the terrorists aware of this fact. They are communicating differently and that is a further great danger to us today 10 years down the line.”

Prof Glees said it was right to base today’s exercise on the Paris and Sydney attacks. “Both incidents illustrate the point about two kinds of peril – peril from a network, which is what the Charlie Hebdo people were, and the Australian attack, which seemed much more the work of a single individual.

‘Frightened security services’

“The idea of a single gunman, or a number of people with guns, shooting at random in the centre of London or any other big city has frightened the British security authorities over the past 10 years, there’s no doubt about that. However, until recently, it has not only been hard to get assault rifles, but the ammunition with which to fire them.

“Very recently, however, there have been reports that weapons from eastern Europe, and the ammunition to go with them, have been circulating in London and this is worrying. Again, intercept intelliegnce is the best means of countering this threat.”