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'The threat posed by Islamist terrorism is waning dramatically... but what do we worry about next?'

Tom Clonan looks at the latest risk assessments around Europe.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

DESPITE THE STRASBOURG Christmas Market shooting – in which five people have lost their lives so far – 2018 has been an extraordinarily good year in the fight against terrorism in Europe. 

In December, the Irish Institute for European Affairs (IIEA) hosted the launch of the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) for 2018. 

Published by the International Institute for Economics and Peace, the research on global terrorism covers the last two decades from 1998 to 2018. The principal findings make for very interesting reading.

As might be expected, there was a spike in deaths due to terrorism recorded in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. 

As the US and her allies went on to invade Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002 and 2003 respectively, the number of terrorist attacks world-wide – many of them perpetrated by so-called Islamist extremists such as Al Qaeda and subsequently Islamic State – steadily increased, peaking in 2014. 

The majority of deaths from terrorism in 2014 took place in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Almost 35,000 Nigerian citizens, 25,000 Afghans and over 20,000 Iraqis were slaughtered in bomb and gun attacks in 2014 alone. 

The majority of these victims were murdered by Islamist terror groups – the top four most deadly groups in the world being Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, the Taliban and Islamic State. 

Most of the victims of Islamist terrorism are innocent Muslim men, women and children.

Genesis of terror

In Europe, deaths from Islamist-inspired terrorism attacks peaked in 2016 with a total of 827 fatalities across Britain and continental Europe. 

The total number of European citizens killed in terror attacks dropped to 204 in 2017. 

So far, in Europe – including the victims of the Strasbourg attacks – the total for 2018 is approximately 12 people. 

This dramatic reduction in the number of terrorism-related deaths is attributed to the destruction of Islamic State’s so-called Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. 

According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, the total economic impact of terrorism dropped from almost $100 billion dollars in 2016 to $52 billion in 2017.

A further drop of approximately 50% of this figure is expected for 2018.

According to the research over two decades, the key causal factors for the genesis of terrorist groups and for increases in terror attacks can be attributed to two major stimuli. 

The primary driver for international terrorism is involvement in conventional conflict – wars and invasions conducted by international states. 

In the top 10 countries worldwide where 84% of deaths from terrorism occur – including Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan – the state is directly involved in conventional combat operations. 

A similar correlation can be observed for European countries where terror attacks occur.  When a state becomes involved in foreign wars, there is a rise in internal terror attacks. 

The same is true for the United States.  

The second primary driver for terror identified in the Global Index on Terrorism is human rights abuses perpetrated by oppressive regimes worldwide. 

Many of these regimes – such as Saudi Arabia – are backed financially and militarily by western powers. 

The report suggests we should choose our allies and partners carefully if we are serious about the so-called ‘Global War on Terror’. 

The report identifies other factors – particularly in developed societies – that assist in the radicalisation of young people. These include social alienation, lack of economic opportunity, and the involvement of the state in external conflict. 

These factors would seem to underpin rising populism in Europe and the US and the growth in phenomena such as the ‘Gilet Jaune’ movement in France and the rise in right-wing extremism across Europe and the United States.

Indeed, the report states that right-wing extremism is the fastest growing area of terror attacks in the wake of a decade of Islamist-inspired terror campaigns.

What about Ireland?

For Ireland, the terrorism outlook is also changing dramatically. 

From 1945 until 2003, the primary threat to the security of the state in Ireland was identified as that posed by dissident republican and loyalist elements within Ireland. 

This changed after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the primary threat to Ireland’s security was revised and identified as that posed by international Islamist groups who might attack Ireland or use Ireland as a logistics base or platform from which to launch attacks throughout Britain and the European Union.

As 2018 draws to a close, the threat posed by Islamist terrorism appears to be waning dramatically. 

Worryingly, as Brexit approaches, the threat assessment for Ireland in 2019 will once again be dominated by the threat posed by organised crime and dissident republicans and loyalist elements on the island.

Specifically, the threat assessment for Ireland is significantly accelerated by the prospect of a border on the island. 

Not just a ‘hard border’ – but any border, technological or otherwise, that divides the country into two separate, distinct, economic and migration/travel zones. 

The existence of an economic divide on the island, post-Brexit would risk a surge in smuggling and other forms of criminality here. 

Ireland would become the back door from Britain to the EU and vice versa – for people and goods, legal and illegal.

The organised criminal gangs that would exploit such a border – in whatever form it takes – would do everything in their power to thwart and frustrate the extension of normal policing to both sides of the existing land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The PSNI has already warned, that in such a scenario, their constables would become ‘Sitting Ducks’ for terror attacks in border counties.

If Britain crashes out of the EU, or if it exits with a deal that does not guarantee – indefinitely – special status for Northern Ireland within the EU Customs Union, a hard border is inevitable on this island. 

If that happens, the EU will insist that the Republic police this newly reinstated, de facto land border between Britain – a third-party state – and Europe’s Single Market area.

The EU would not be in a position to ask Britain to operate border controls. This would be a game-changer for the Republic. The border has more than 300 crossing points and the Irish Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána are in no position to monitor the border effectively, let alone patrol it or control movement of people and goods across it. 

The government has announced it is planning to recruit extra customs officers to manage such a scenario. Any customs posts or facilities erected along the border – or south of it – would be immediately targeted for attack by criminal elements and resurgent dissident republican groups. A similar threat would exist for mobile customs patrols along the border. 

Any such infrastructure would have to be supported by armed Gardaí and army personnel – placing the Republic in the invidious position of being physically responsible for the border. 

This is something we avoided during the Troubles – leaving the concept of permanent border installations to the British military. 

Their attempts to control the border area are a case study in military and political failure. The British flooded the border counties with observation towers for armed and electronic surveillance – 13 in South Armagh alone, along with 3,000 military personnel. They established the world’s busiest helicopter port in Bessbrook Mill – ferrying police and customs personnel by air into the border area. At the height of the Troubles, there was one armed soldier for every seven civilians in the border counties.

Customs Post - Swanlinbar, Ireland Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Despite this, the British never managed to control the border counties and 53 police officers and over 120 British soldiers were murdered there in what became known as the murder triangle.

Internationally, the biggest threat accelerator for terrorism is climate change and the forced migrations it will trigger.

Domestically, the biggest threat to security and peace on this island is the prospect of a hard border. 

Both are almost entirely outside of our control. 

Strong leadership is required for both scenarios. 

The Irish government has shown some leadership and tenacity with regard to the border issue. Sadly however, there seems to be an absence of such leadership at this critical moment for Britain – and Ireland – in Westminster.    

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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