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'An attack is a distinct possibility in Ireland in 2018 - our security is provocatively weak'

In terms of asymmetric threats and terrorism, the outlook is bleak, writes Tom Clonan.

THE APOCRYPHAL CHINESE curse, “May you live in interesting times”, operates on the ancient – and painful – wisdom that instability, uncertainty and flux bring chaos, risk and suffering to our daily lives. In security and defense terms, as we enter 2018 we are living in very interesting times.

The defence, intelligence and terrorism outlook for 2018 is complex. For Ireland and for Irish citizens at home and abroad, 2018 will bring an accelerated transformation of global, regional and domestic conventional and asymmetric threats.

The outlook is bleak

In terms of asymmetric threats and terrorism, the outlook is bleak. 2018 will see a continuation of terrorist attacks and other mass casualty incidents as European Union member states – including Britain and Ireland – are targeted by Islamic State as it regroups, re-organises and re-configures its leadership structure in north Africa, after the destruction of its Caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

In terms of such terror attacks, what can we expect to see? The pattern for future attacks has been firmly established and the template is simple.

According to Islamic State’s former spokesperson, Abu Mohamed al Adnani, the instructions are clear: “Smash his (the non-believer’s) head with a rock, slaughter him with a knife or run him over with your car.”

Islamic State’s call to action is distinctly low tech and straightforward compared to the elaborate terrorist ‘spectaculars’, like 9/11, organised by groups such as Al Qaeda in the past.

Lone wolf attacks

2017 saw a series of such simple, low tech – albeit horrific – Islamist terror attacks in London and Manchester. These were a mixture of so-called ‘lone wolf’ attacks and coordinated, supported hybrid ‘marauding’ attacks.

The Westminster Bridge attack in March was a classic ‘lone wolf’ style incident. The assailant, 52-year-old Khalid Masood, hired a Hyundai Tucson near Birmingham and drove to London. In a seemingly opportunistic and impulsive attack, Masood simply drove the car at pedestrians on Westminster Bridge at high speed.

Having struck several pedestrians, he lost control of the vehicle and crashed it. He then embarked on a marauding stabbing frenzy with a knife he had bought in a Tesco store in Birmingham. His short killing spree ended in New Palace Yard where he stabbed Constable Keith Palmer to death before being shot dead himself by armed responders.

The entire attack took just one minute and 21 seconds from start to finish and resulted in the deaths of five people with almost fifty others injured – some critically.

Since the attack, it has emerged that Masood converted to Islam in 2003 after a string of convictions for violent offenses. His conversion coincided with the US invasion of Iraq. Police investigators also subsequently uncovered a Whatsapp message he sent, just three minutes before his attack, claiming that his actions were designed to seek revenge for western military interventions in Muslim countries.

Recent and radicalised converts

Security experts in France, Britain and the USA have observed that up to 40% of so-called Islamist ‘Jihadis’ are recent and radicalised converts to Islam.

Many have only a superficial knowledge of the Koran, and are carefully chosen and groomed to commit violent acts by manipulative online engagements and by interactions in radical Islamic ‘schools’ or madrassas – often, though not always, unofficial – that specifically target vulnerable, disaffected and angry young men.

There is a cohort of Irish passport holders that is vulnerable to this type of radicalisation. The same English language websites, blogs and chat-rooms that target disaffected young men in Manchester, Birmingham and London, also target young Irish citizens who might be amenable to grooming, manipulation and radicalisation.

Ireland has seen at least forty of its citizens go to Syria and Iraq to perform ‘Jihad’- including some such as Khalid Kelly, who have died in suicide attacks on coalition-backed Iraqi forces. Thousands of such Jihadis with EU passports are expected to return to Europe – including Ireland – after the recent fall of Islamic State’s Caliphate.

It could happen in Ireland

It is therefore a distinct possibility that a lone wolf attack – such as that carried out by Khalid Masood – could happen in Ireland. Despite recent Garda and Defence Forces exercises designed to simulate such attacks, Ireland lacks the comprehensive multi agency response – including specially trained paramedics and advance trauma teams – to fully deal with such an attack.

The Manchester bombing in May carried out by Salman Ramadan Abedi targeted children and pre-teens at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena. The attacker detonated a primitive but effective TATP (Tri Acetone, Tri Peroxide) improvised explosive device as concert-goers left the Arena.

In other words, Abedi – and his handlers – did not attempt to enter the venue via traditional security measures and screening area. Rather, Abedi and the network that supported him, exploited the weakest point in the Manchester Arena’s layout and attacked defenseless children as they exited towards the train station.

Four key features

This attack consisted of four key features that are relevant to future attacks in 2018.

One, the attack was not a lone wolf operation – Abedi was radicalised, trained and supported by a network that has to date, avoided detection. Two, Abedi targeted children and this indicates that such terror cells have no boundaries or inhibitions in terms of target selection.

Three – This would be considered a highly successful operation with 22 killed (including an eight year old girl) and over 200 injured. Four – such networks or cells will be keen to repeat such an attack, but will seek to exploit weakness in security and surveillance capability.

In my opinion therefore, such an attack is a distinct possibility in Ireland, where security infrastructure is provocatively weak and where the intelligence and defence community are underfunded and experiencing low morale with leadership – operationally and politically – in disarray.

The London Bridge attack in June of this year was a hybrid attack carried out by a number of like-minded individuals with suicidal intent. Using a Renault van – the attackers followed the established pattern and simply drove at pedestrians.

They then left the vehicle and began a stabbing frenzy, killing eight and wounding up to 50 people before they were shot dead by armed responders. Significantly, one of the killers – Rachid Redouane – was previously an Irish resident and was carrying an Irish identity card at the time of the attack.

There are ready and capable individuals here

This is confirmation that there are individuals in this jurisdiction that are ready, willing and capable of carrying out such attacks in Britain or Ireland in 2018.

It is interesting and a matter of concern that the Irish government has not increased the threat level here in light of such developments in Britain and neutral Sweden, with the Stockholm truck attack of April 2017.

This is despite the fact that the threat level has de facto escalated. Concert goers here face bag checks and there has been an increased investment in armed response units. There have also been high level meetings of Ireland’s version of the ‘Cobra Committee’ – pictures of which were tweeted by the Taoiseach himself.

However, unlike our EU counterparts, there has been no corresponding public information campaign or any attempt to educate the Irish public as to the nature of the emerging, growing threat – or how to respond in the event of an attack.

Regional conflict

In terms of regional conflict, the stage is set in the Middle East for escalating confrontation between Iran – a fledgling nuclear power backed by Russia – and a fully nuclear Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States backed by the United States.

This Shia versus Sunni proxy war – fought between the US and Russia over the last decade – has been disastrous for the United States and her EU allies. Vladimir Putin has been the clear winner in this awful conflict so far.

Emboldened by this experience and his successful and mischievous adventures in Crimea and the Ukraine, Russia will continue to interfere in the Baltic states and exploit the instability in central Europe accelerated by a European Union weakened by Brexit.

Risk of ‘accidental’ war

In terms of global conflict, there will be a risk in 2018 of an ‘accidental’ war caused by North Korea. Kim Jong Un has fired almost 100 missiles during his reign thus far – each missile launch a provocative and highly risky gambit.

Launched on a simple bearing and elevation, with primitive guidance systems and crude propulsion methods – the margin for error on splashdown points for North Korea’s missiles is very high.

The risk of an accidental strike on civil aviation – Singapore Airlines have already diverted their flight paths away from the Korean Peninsula – is high. If such a missile – or a rash counter missile response from surface to air missile batteries bristling through the region – were to down a passenger jet, we might slip into open warfare with the possibility of the first nuclear exchange since World War II. Similarly, an accidental strike on a US asset in the region – or on Japanese soil – could trigger a similar chain reaction.

China, Russia and other emergent superpowers are watching all of these developments with interest. Individually and collectively, they are content to watch the United States expend itself politically, diplomatically and militarily under the stewardship of President Donald Trump. The US has been very dramatically diminished in terms of its global status and role during this presidency.

It is against this backdrop of instability and fundamental seismic shifts in the world order that we enter 2018. There is no doubt that we are living in very interesting times indeed.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.   

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