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In the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Paris, the immediate question posed in the UK was whether this could happen here.The prime minister made a clear statement about the potential risks, stating that British security services had disrupted seven attacks in the past six months, ‘albeit on a smaller scale to what was seen in Paris’.
The potential threat is certainly present, but, at the same time, certain specific local contexts create slightly higher hurdles for a terrorist group to launch such a terrorist attack in the UK.
There are three principal reasons for this.
Limited access to weaponry
First, it is harder to obtain high-powered rifles in the UK. Looking at the massacre in Paris, it is clear that the greatest number of casualties were caused by the use of assault rifles, which the cell was able to acquire in worrying numbers. Such rifles appear to be more easily available on the continent. Whilst the investigation has yet to publicly uncover the source of the weapons, their availability is clearly a persistent problem in France and neighbouring countries.
Since the beginning of the year, three different cells have attempted and succeeded in launching attacks with such weapons in France alone. In January, a cell in Verviers, Belgium, was found to be in possession of a number of high-powered weapons and explosives. When police tried to arrest the group, the fighters did not hesitate to fight back; they were killed during the shootout with police. Beyond terrorists, criminal networks in places like Marseille quite regularly get involved in public shoot-outs using such weapons.
So far, in the UK, terrorist cells have not been able to access modern or high-powered weaponry. Fusilier Lee Rigby’s murderers Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo were able to get an antique pistol for their plot in 2013, but the weapon failed to work and blew up in Adebowale’s hands. A cell disrupted earlier this year and going on trial soon were only able to get their hands on a Soviet-era weapon to advance their plot.
Networks have certainly sought to obtain higher-powered weapons, but restrictive laws and availability mean it is harder to do so in the UK than in Continental Europe. There are some worrying indicators regarding the proximity between terrorist and criminal networks, but so far this has not placed the same kind of equipment in the hands of terrorists.
Greater control over borders
Second, unlike France, the UK has a greater degree of control over its borders. Natural geography means that there are fewer access points into the UK, making it relatively easier for authorities to watch entry and exit points (though the system is by no means perfect – news emerged this week that two well-known repeat terrorism offenders were caught trying to cross Hungary even though they were on no-travel lists).
On the continent, the situation is very different. French authorities may attempt to get firm control over their own territory, but they border a number of countries with substantial domestic problems and with different levels of government effectiveness and cover. Yet they have open borders between them, complicating France’s ability to completely control their situation and meaning they share open borders with countries with varying levels of weapons availability as well as different criminal-justice systems.
Links to the Levant
Finally, the conflict in the Levant is one with a greater draw and connection to Arab communities on the continent. This is a reality that has come at a moment when the centre of gravity of international jihadism has shifted from South Asia to the Levant.
The UK has seen over 700 people go and join the fighting in Syria and Iraq – but these numbers are higher in countries like France (where officials refer to around 700 or more) and Belgium (where most recently officials refer to up to 800 having gone), which have seen large numbers of extremists go and fight, while others have instead stayed at home and stewed in anger, with some of those who were prevented from going to fight instead choosing to launch attacks at home.
A different kind of threat
None of this is to say that the UK is not facing a dangerous menace. It has been featured regularly in ISIS propaganda as a target, is fighting in the coalition against ISIS and has launched drone strikes against key individuals in the group. Authorities in the UK are working at full pelt to disrupt networks, and, as highlighted before by the prime minister, some seven plots have already been disrupted in the past year.
But the nature of the threat appears different. Networked plots exist, but have so far been effectively penetrated and disrupted before moving into action – though this track record is something that has been shown to be imperfect in the past. Greater levels of concern are often expressed around more dispersed plots that seem to demonstrate less clear command and control from abroad, but seek to undertake attacks like the murder of Lee Rigby.
Whilst we now face the horror of a large-scale terrorist attack in Paris, the reality is that the murder of a single man in the UK almost three years ago in Woolwich had a quite substantial media impact, even if not on the scale of the atrocity in Paris.
*Header image: A vigil for the victims of the Paris attacks in Trafalgar Square, 14 November 2015. Image courtesy of Hannah McKay / PA Wire/Press Association Images