Assessing the terror threat on opposite sides of the Atlantic

On the surface, the terrorism threat facing both the UK and the US looks very similar. Certainly, the threat of violence from religious extremism is very real, with the terror threat level remaining high in both nations, and both face dangers from numerous disaffected groups and cyber terrorists.

Yet the two countries’ history and experiences of terrorism are very different. As such, there are differing perceptions and approaches to this threat on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The threat of terrorism in the UK has existed for many decades, primarily with the armed paramilitary campaign by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) waged between 1969 until 1997. In fact, during the 20th century, more terror attacks were carried out on the British mainland by the IRA than any other group. The 1970s – 1990s also saw the Animal Liberation Front becoming particularly active in the UK, firebombing life sciences facilities and at one time sending letter bombs to all four major party leaders.

While certainly the U.S. had experienced atrocities such as the Oklahoma bomb in 1995 – the worst act of homegrown terrorism in the nation’s history – many regard 9/11 to be the point when terrorism first hit the mainland. This marked the first major, ‘non-domestic’ terror attack carried out on US soil and 9/11 has greatly informed and defined the US understanding of terrorism.

US authorities tend to view terrorism as either domestic or non-domestic, with acts of violence committed by US citizens classed as a Homeland Security issue, not terrorism. This is reflected in the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA), which will only react if an event is classified as non-domestic terrorism i.e., if it was carried out by a foreign national/s. The Boston bombing, therefore, was not deemed a terrorist event because it was committed by US citizens.

Considering the threats today, certainly religious extremism still exists and remains a very real threat in both countries. With most terrorist incidents in Britain during the 21st century linked to Islamic fundamentalism, it would be premature to consider religious extremism a spent force, with the attack outside a Liverpool Women's Hospital in November last year serving as a stark reminder of that.

Adapting to new challenges
The terror threat facing both nations has however broadened in recent years, with the danger of homegrown, lone actors rather than foreign-national groups posing a greater threat in the US now than at any other time. Social media and readily available internet access is facilitating this, making it far easier for groups such as ISIS and others to conscript the disenfranchised. Some of these groups are highly adept at grooming and recruiting disaffected individuals, creating affinities and allegiances with great speed as part of the radicalisation process. There is a sense that the opportunity to radicalise during the pandemic and various lockdowns has not been missed. ISIS, along with other groups and the rest of society, instructed its members to isolate and the result of radicalisation during that time is as likely to surface in the UK as it is in the US very soon.

Beyond religious extremism, recent years have seen a surge in the number of other groups motivated by nonreligious ideologies on a global scale. As insurers, we’re seeing the threat posed by these groups, with their increasing ability to commit acts of terror and civil unrest, grow more rapidly than religiously motivated extremism, both in the US and the UK. This encompasses an array of movements from militant environmental activists through to Antifa and, at the opposite end of the political spectrum, far right groups and white supremacists, which in the US are increasingly inciting deadly violence.

Far right extremism in the UK is almost exclusively based on the assumption of superiority of white people over other races. However, while ideologically similar to the US, during the last 30 – 40 years, far right groups in America have also been motivated by religion, possibly even more so than race, with Jewish populations a notable target.

Keeping track of the sheer number and activities of more recently formed ideologically motivated groups is a considerable challenge for law enforcement agencies, governments, insurers and private security firms. A key motivating factor in both nations is the disaffection felt toward governments. Many believe those in power do not represent them, their worldview or recognise important changes happening in society, culture or the environment, and have been inspired to form movements to bring about changes they feel are necessary.

Those once considered to be fringe groups are now able to create platforms that can mushroom into global networks. Some quickly gain media attention, propelling their agendas into the popular consciousness, which attracts additional support in terms of funding that can then be used to generate further awareness and pressure for change. However, not all groups manage to achieve change in this way and some, driven by frustration, have the potential and resources to resort to more extreme measures, especially if they feel they are not being heard or taken seriously.

Certainly 9/11 gave birth to the notion, among those minded to carry out extreme acts for their cause, that terrorism can be an effective way of getting their message across. Similarly, the inventiveness of ISIS in using everyday objects as deadly weapons, be that knives, motor vehicles or materials to create IEDs, has informed terrorist activity. Copycat terror attacks have tended to be carried out by similarly religiously motivated groups, but those motivated by non-religious ideologies are increasingly mimicking these tactics on both sides of the pond. While each group across the spectrum has its own power structure and modus operandi, these are increasingly becoming variations on a theme, with all accessing similar online resources to find the most effective methods to achieve maximum impact and ultimately their aims. As such, while difficult, monitoring for shifts in patterns of behaviour is an essential part of keeping track of groups likely to go to extremes.    

It is true for the US and the UK that with the tactics of religious and non-religiously driven groups becoming increasingly similar, whether an act is classified as terrorism or not often comes down to the motivation behind it, even though the tactics and the intention to terrorise are the same. Lone shooter incidents can be hugely problematic as, with many perpetrators ending up a victim themselves, it can be impossible to discover what motivated them.

This is one of the key reasons why the insurance industry developed ‘active shooter’ or ‘active assailant’ insurance to cover the grey area between a lone shooter and a lone terrorist. The lone gunman has long posed this conundrum, with some individuals in the past classified as serial killers, who, had they been part of an organisation, would have been labelled terrorists.

While these dynamics and challenges are similar in both the US and the UK, geography cannot be overlooked. As an Island with a considerably smaller landmass than the US, the UK is inherently more difficult to gain entrance to. Another key distinction is the relatively easy gun access, attitudes toward firearms and far more relaxed gun laws in the US compared with the UK.

Of course, now, much intelligence gathering effort is focusing on the escalating Russia /Ukraine situation as war can be a catalyst for acts of terrorism. Often wars leave behind displaced people, abandoned munitions and military hardware – a combination that can result in a wave a terror attacks in its wake. This conflict certainly has the potential to produce that cascade effect, as others have, which will be a security concern for both nations.  

The threat of related cyber terrorism is also now equally real for both nations, raising the issue of where cyber terrorism stops and cyber warfare begins when state funded actors are involved. At time of writing, no such incidents had been reported however, depending on a range of factors, particularly the perceived success of the campaign within Russia and abroad, this could change very quickly. For example, with Russia banned from international payment system SWIFT, this could become a target, with little for Russia to lose in hacking it.

Russia certainly has highly effective cyber capabilities, as does the US and the UK, and in the event, the nation willing to dedicate the most resources could be the deciding factor. Russia’s close links to China may also become significant. China possesses considerable cyber capabilities, where, evidence  suggests, there are warehouses of people hacking on an industrial scale. Cyber terrorism or cyber warfare is very low cost, anonymous and largely victimless from a bodily injury perspective. As physical conflict can give rise to acts of terrorism, successful state-sponsored cyber attacks are likely to inspire copycat action by ideologically motivated groups and others.

As for the rest of society, the terror threat the insurance industry faces is changing. When terrorist attacks are aimed directly at causing civilian casualties rather than property damage, an entirely different set of underwriting criteria must be applied and the insurance market needs to keep up to ensure policies are relevant and can protect clients from the perils they face.

While terrorism and the causes of it are rapidly evolving, a sophisticated ecosystem of intelligence gathering specialists, government agencies, law enforcement, risk carriers and others exist to mitigate this. Insurers that underwrite terrorism risks in both the US and the UK are able to participate in intelligence networks in both nations, which helps ensure the best possible customer protection. The combined efforts of these agencies have proven highly effective in thwarting planned attacks in both the UK and US in recent years. As surveillance techniques improve and as these agencies work in ever-closer collaboration, both nations continue to deepen their ability to adapt and respond in the fast-evolving fight against terrorism.

Written by Chris Kirby, Global Head of Political Violence & Terrorism at Optio Group.


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