This year has been the worst for terrorist attacks on British soil since the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland more than forty years ago. Stefan Wermuth / Reuters
Ever since the September 11 attacks against the US in 2001 forever changed the face of modern conflict, Britain has played a frontline role in the long-running campaign to defeat Islamist extremism. From the initial US-led military intervention to destroy Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001, to the more recent victories declared against ISIL in Mosul and Raqqa, Britain and its military have been at the forefront of the action.
Britain’s commitment to the war against Islamist-inspired extremism, moreover, stands in stark contrast to the efforts of other leading European nations like France, whose involvement has been patchy, to say the least. Having initially committed to the Nato-led effort to defeat the Taliban, France withdrew its troops from Afghanistan when the going got tough, and only became properly involved in the war against ISIL in Syria after it suffered a series of ISIL-inspired terror attacks on its own soil in cities like Paris.
But while Britain can take pride in the leading role it has played in a campaign many counter-terrorism experts predict with last for a generation or more, its policy of taking a prominent role in the anti-extremist campaign has not been without drawbacks.
This year has been the worst for terrorist attacks on British soil since the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland more than forty years ago, when the IRA regularly carried out major terrorist attacks on the UK mainland that caused mass casualties, such as the Birmingham pub bombing in 1974 that killed 21 people. So far in 2017, Britain has suffered three major terror attacks, with major incidents on Westminster Bridge and London Bridge, as well as the appalling attack on the Manchester Arena in May that killed 22 people.
These attacks resulted in Britain being put on the highest terror alert since the September 11 attacks, with British security officials intensifying their efforts to disrupt Islamist terror cells. But despite their efforts, ISIL-inspired terror cells are continuing with their efforts to stage massive attacks against prominent British targets.
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Earlier this week Andrew Parker, the director-general of MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, briefed Downing Street on the dramatic upsurge in the number of plots that have so far been foiled in the UK this year. The most high-profile of these concerns allegations that two British-born Muslims, who are said to have links to ISIL, were plotting to kill British prime minister Theresa May in Downing Street.
According to the report given to British ministers, the alleged terrorists planned to plant an improvised explosive device at the gates of Downing Street and then, after it had detonated, to kill Mrs May with a knife and a suicide vest inside Number 10.
It is a tactic that has been used many times before in places like Kabul and Baghdad by ISIL and al-Qaeda terror cells. But it has never before been used on the streets of Britain, and the fact that MI5 says the plotters, who have now been charged with terrorist offences, were planning to carry out such an audacious attack in the heart of London demonstrates the commitment of ISIL-related groups to seeking revenge against the British government. In another plot, an extremist has been accused of helping to plot an attack on Prince George, the eldest son of the Duke of Cambridge and heir to the throne.
There can be little doubt that the upsurge in attacks and plots outlined by Mr Parker to ministers is a direct result of Britain’s role in the war against Islamist militants and outfits such as ISIL. Mr Parker, who admitted the current threat level is the highest in the UK he has experienced in a career spanning 34 years, said Islamist militants were seeking to inflict mass attacks through “spontaneous” plots that can take just a few days to bring to execution.
Many of those involved in the plots have been radicalised online through access to ISIL propaganda on social media websites. Others, such as the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi, travelled abroad to countries like Libya to link up with ISIL-related groups, where they are believed to have received training and instructions on how to carry out their diabolical attacks.
The level of Islamist-inspired terrorist activity in the UK certainly raises questions about the British government’s continuing lenient attitude to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which British security experts readily concede is an entry point for more extremist groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda. Moreover, Mrs May’s reluctance to tackle the issue resulted an unseemly diplomatic spat with US president Donald Trump last week after he tweeted that Britain was not doing enough to combat Islamist-inspired extremism.
But there are now encouraging signs that at least some senior ministers are prepared to take a more robust approach to the mounting Islamist threat in Britain’s midst. Gavin Williamson, Britain’s newly appointed defence secretary, indicated the government was prepared to take a more hard-line approach to the threat when he said in an interview this week that Britons fighting for ISIL in countries like Syria should be killed by drones, rather than being allowed to return to the UK and kill innocent British civilians.
Such sentiments are certainly a welcome change from the usual hand-wringing one has come to expect from British politicians on the subject. For they need to understand that the war against Islamist extremism is not a conflict confined to the Middle East, but one that is now being fought on the streets of Britain too.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor